Connecting to the Internet from Blantyre

Just got back from visiting family in beautiful Blantyre. It’s rainy season now and there are regular rain showers every other day. Everything is green and lush. The sun is hot. The air is moist. And the shopping centres and outdoor markets of Blantyre are busy with holiday shopping. And except for a couple of power cuts and short water supply intermissions, I had good access to Blantyre’s “Big Three” from my part of town.

In search of the best Internet connection in Blantyre
To connect with my MBA study group, I needed an internet connection. Here are some of my findings and observations regarding Internet for private use.

Internet service providers in Blantyre include:

  • Skyband – the pricing is on the high end; suitable for corporate customers.
  • MTL
  • Globe
  • SDNP

bt 022

Mobile phone networks offer data services as well:

  • Zain – a friend connects to the mobile Internet on his iPhone using Zain.
  • TNM

First, I tried TNM, but unfortunately they did not have any USB dongles in stock at the Chichiri sales office.

globe max 4g

Next I tried Globe’s MAX 4G service. This promised the best connection speeds, but unfortunately the reception in my part of Blantyre was less than optimal. Instead of 4 LEDs lighting up, I only got between 2 and 3. And even then, the router showed a high fluctuation in signals. I kept losing my Skype audio connection when the signal dropped. When I got a strong signal it was speedy. But – due to my geographic position – the signal strength was unpredictable. I contacted Globe support and they wanted to update the firmware of the router and stated that they were some problems with Skype, which they had resolved.
If you don’t need audio or video streaming and if coverage in your area is good, then Globe MAX 4G is a good and viable option. But check the signal strength beforehand. Following the signal fluctuations, I started speculating about the quality of the provided Globe router, the influence of the weather, etc. When I returned the router, Globe suggested installing an external antenna to boost the wifi signal. At the end of the day, I think your geographic position and proximity to the signal decides whether this solution will work for you or not.

bt 003

MTL (Malawi Telecommunications Limited) offers a wireless broadband product called MTL Liberty. A friend in Namiwawa strongly recommended it. The company is also advertising a new fibre optic cable connection in all major newspapers. I walked into an MTL shop near FMB in Blantyre to find out more about the fibre optic cable connection. The MTL sales person said that this will indeed connect Malawi to the Seacom cable and improve the Internet backbone, but it was not yet connected. He advised me to go to the MTL headquarters for more information. I didn’t have time to follow up on this.

bt 021

I went back to TNM; this time to the head office in Livingstone Towers. The sales consultant was very savvy and explained the various data bundling options very well. I found out that if I have a postpaid TNM sim card, I can easily add mobile data services. The consultant advised me to wait another week and buy a 3G USB dongle. He said the 3G USB modem will go on sale on 30th December 2009. TNM is currently testing 3G in parts of Blantyre.

bt 009

Automatic software downloads
Coming from Switzerland and a flat rate setup where I don’t care how many MBs are downloaded in the background, to a price plan where every MB counts, I realized how dependent software has become on a high speed internet connection. I was unable to download the latest Symantec Norton anti-virus update on my mom’s laptop via Globe Wifi at Chichiri because Norton timed out after 6 MB. I tried 3 times before I gave up. Unfortunately iGetter didn’t help cos Norton connects directly from the app. All kinds of software from Adobe Reader to Mozilla Firefox want to connect and download updates at regular intervals. It’s OK if you’re using a flat rate but if every kB costs extra time and money…

Software companies should consider alternative options for developing countries. Cloud computing is not yet available everywhere.

My mom had to go to SDNP to get her legally purchased version of MS Office registered *online*. What a hassle.

Flat rates connections are not yet very widespread in Malawi and usually only corporate customers can afford them. Most of my friends have Internet at their workplace or on their mobile handset only.

Opera 10
I strongly recommend getting Opera. Opera Turbo loads web pages much faster and compresses images. Thank you to Appfrica for their excellent article pointing to resources and tools.

Web design
Pages optimized for mobile internet and simple HTML load much faster than CMS-based web pages.

I was able to access the mobile version of chiperoni.ch at an acceptable speed. While other sites failed to display.

If you are targeting developing countries, please consider this in your web design.

Resize photos for lower bandwidth
Same for emails. My mom still connects using dial-up. Downloading 1.2 MB takes 20 to 30 minutes and many times the connection breaks. And she pays for the length of the dial-up connection. But, so many people from Europe forget to resize their photos for lower bandwidth. Please resize your photos before sending!

In Picasa 3 it’s really easy. Go to Tools > Options > Email and select a new size such as 640 pixel:

email options picasa

You can then email a photo from the Picasa interface.

Auto-upgrading WordPress and the .htaccess file

A pattern I have observed in the past months:
A couple of days after auto-upgrading WordPress, access to the WordPress blog is blocked.

My non-programmer’s workaround is:

  • Rename the .htaccess file on the WP level. The WordPress blog displays.
  • Login and go to Settings > Permalinks and re-save settings, or copy old .htaccess file content and upload by FTP to the server.

I would like to understand why this happens. Immediately after upgrading the WP install, there are no visible problems… but 2 -3 days later I come home to see that my site is down.

WordPress Woes

I am having some problems with the .htaccess file on the WordPress level. I tried regenerating the permalinks. Hope that will help for a while.

A couple of days ago there was a lonely s at the end of the file. Amakhala scared.

And:
I am seeing a lot of “MySQL server has gone away” error messages in different context,
e.g. when I updated the WP install, when I try to access the website, in the right-hand area displaying categories.

I asked the hosting company and they pointed me to this link (which I haven’t tried yet).

If you have any hints please let me know.

How to Backup your Twitter World

As many of you probably learnt by experience, Twitter Search only shows results for the last couple of days.

I guess, one of the preliminary assumptions is that you consider your collection of 140-character-long phrases valuable. And would like to search thru them from time to time.

Friendfeed
One easy workaround is to add your Twitter stream into Friendfeed. Friendfeed – currently in a difficult interim situation since the Facebook announcement – still has the best real-time search. It is a great way to archive your tweets and make them searchable.

Import OPML file into Google Reader
These days, bloggers don’t talk much about OPML anymore. OPML files (and the legitimate re-use thereof) were widely discussed in the early days of the Swiss blogosphere.

It seems many apps try to shield us from the underlying technical issues regarding import/export and backups.

Dave Winer shows how to extract the feeds of your Twitter world using an OPML tool.

My Twitter world is accessible at http://tw.opml.org/get?user=nchenga&folder=1.

Next, I can download this file to my desktop.

And upload it into Google Reader:

  • Go to Manage Subscriptions
  • Select Import/Export
  • Select your OPML file and click Upload

It puts all of the newly imported feeds into a separate folder. ReadWriteWeb has a detailed how to.
The only downside is that you don’t want to re-read all of the tweets in your Google Reader. Especially if you’re reading other RSS streams within the same account.

Offline RSS Reader
You can use the OPML file to create an offline backup within your favorite desktop RSS reader. I use the feed reader in Opera 10 to pull a copy of my RSS feeds together. Advantage: doesn’t interfere with my online reading.

Twistory
Another fun tool is Twistory, which adds your Twitter prose to your Google Calendar. It offers an iCal feed. And you can time events by adding t and /t to your posts.

Timetracking tagging: start your tweets with both t or /t and Twistory will keep track of what you’re doing.

Twistory

Chiperoni goes Mobile (kind of)

As part of my ongoing research regarding internet access via low bandwidth connections, I saw App+frica displaying a mobile version at http://appfrica.net/blog/.

I installed the same MobilePress plugin and activated it a few minutes ago. Based on the plugin description, it should detect if you’re accessing the website with a mobile device and display a version optimized for iPhone and Barackberrys and others.

A couple of Mobilepress URL hooks to remember:

  • ?mobile – display mobile version
  • ?nomobile – render the standard WordPress theme / normal blog.
  • ?killsession – kill any session data stored and render the correct version of a blog, based on browser / device type

In addition I just downloaded the latest WordPress app for my low and humble iPod Touch. According to @whiteafrican it is much improved compared to the last version.

Today’s link

Stumbled across this – very high-level but might be a useful reminder. Esp. the remark “life is short” in bullet no. 5.

1. Don’t worry about being perfect. There are never right or wrong answers to complex business decisions. The best that you can do as a leader is to gather all of the information that you can (in a timely manner), do a cost-benefit analysis of potential options, use your best judgment ”” and then go for it.

2. Learn to live with failure. Great salespeople are the ones who get rejected the most often. They just ask for the order more than the other salespeople. You are going to make mistakes. You are human. Learn from these mistakes and move on.

3. After you make the final decision ”” commit! Don’t continually second-guess yourself. Great leaders communicate with a sense of belief in what they are doing and with positive expectations toward the achievement of their vision.

4. Show courage on the outside ”” even if you don’t always feel it on the inside. Everyone is afraid sometimes. If you are a leader, your direct reports will read your every expression. If you show a lack of courage, you will begin to damage your direct reports’ self-confidence.

5. Find happiness and contentment in your work. Life is short. My extensive research indicates that we are all going to die anyway. Do your best. Follow your heart. When you win, celebrate. When you lose, just start over the next day.

Intro to SEO and SEM

I am faced with the challenge to explain SEO and SEM in a 1 hour presentation. The audience consists of business folks.

Where to start explaining is the hard part.

Also there are so many myths in this area – garnered by SEO vendors selling their services as a “Wunderwaffe” for instant web traffic success.

As is typical at Chiperoni headquarters, here are a couple of ideas and a rough outline for my presentation.

Ideas and links

I liked this section of Derek Powazek’s recent criticism of all things SEO:

The One True Way

Which brings us, finally, to the One True Way to get a lot of traffic on the web. It’s pretty simple, and I’m going to give it to you here, for free:

Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.

That’s it. Make something you believe in. Make it beautiful, confident, and real. Sweat every detail. If it’s not getting traffic, maybe it wasn’t good enough. Try again.

Then tell people about it. Start with your friends. Send them a personal note ”“ not an automated blast from a spam cannon. Post it to your Twitter feed, email list, personal blog. (Don’t have those things? Start them.) Tell people who give a shit ”“ not strangers. Tell them why it matters to you. Find the places where your community congregates online and participate. Connect with them like a person, not a corporation. Engage. Be real.

Then do it again. And again. You’ll build a reputation for doing good work, meaning what you say, and building trust.

It’ll take time. A lot of time. But it works. And it’s the only thing that does.

‘Cos it explains why you can have all the SEO you want but without personal drive, it will take you nowhere. It’s the content that matters.

Within a larger organization, this personalized focused drive isn’t always possible and needs to be planned and managed carefully.

Derek’s approach misses some aspects. As pointed out by Danny Sullivan at “An Open Letter To Derek Powazek On The Value Of SEO”. Many aspects that long-term bloggers learnt between the lines while trying to google-bomb their way into the top 10 are unknown to website owners and need explaining. (May I take this opportunity to remind my blogging friends that I am still the top hit for “boring flower snapshot”? Yes, I may).

Rough outline
Here’s a first outline, which I’ll convert into PPT slides on Monday:

1. SEO – from directory lists to a secret search algorithm

2. White hat SEO vs. black hat SEO
Goodbye to link farms, Keyword stuffing, Cloaking, Redirects

3. Myths and legends

4. Technical Aspects of SEO

5. The Google Webmaster Guideline
Web developer must clearly have SEO thoughts in mind when building the site:

  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • Keywords
  • Clear navigation structure
  • Readable URLS

But this is only the basis…

6. Writing for the Web and SEO

How to get into the top 10 search items for a search phrase:

  • Technical aspects – is your website conform with Google Webmaster Guidelines?
  • Keyword research – identify 5 to 12 keywords that users will enter to find a service or product
  • Content – write copy that supports the buying process and incorporates your main keywords, see “Content drives action”. Write for people not search engines. Incorporate keywords intelligently. At the end of the day, it is people that will read and share your link.
  • Coherence – the whole site with its meta tags and content must fit together – in German we say the site “muss stimmig sein“.
  • Frequency – the Internet has become more dynamic than ever. The real-time web is here to stay. The companies and the technologies may/will change. But the concept will remain. It is like an ocean of data, seeping around us. Create a flow of articles, news items and events at regular intervals. To continue the analogy – offer a stream of data that grows into a river and forms a wide tributary when it reaches the ocean.
  • Outposts – Google decides how important a website is based on the number of back-links. Strive to get listed within your industry sectors leading websites and online directories. Publish articles at external news sites. Use online PR distribution services such as PRWeb. Build your online reputation. Links from non-relevant, off-topic sites will have no impact on your search engine ranking.
  • Patience – it takes time to build web reputation. No instant fix.
  • Old “traditional” media vs. new “online” media – don’t neglect one or the other. Use all distribution channels to make your marketing message known. But – an important but – read the TOS at Facebook, Twitter beforehand. Maybe your company cannot afford having its data locked in by some of the TOS we see these days. Just like with print, be aware that some new media may not be beneficial for your product or service.

What do you think?

Other aspects to consider?

UTF-8, Charsets and WordPress

It seems charset and UTF-8 issues are following me around.

At the day job and here.

I moved my blog from one install to the other. After importing the MySQL db, several characters were no longer displaying correctly.

There are a number of plug-ins and descriptions:

I tried a combination of UTF-8 Sanitize and Search and Replace for broken Umlauts and accents.

UTF8 Sanitize ”¹ chiperoni.ch ”” WordPress

Any suggestions or further recommendations? Any other strange characters to fix?

Return of the Blog

Gigaom recently published an article that highlights an important point. A point that has been resonating through my head since Lift 07:

In this incredible sea of data that surround us, what happens to my data when a service like Twitter or Flickr or FriendFeed is sold to another company.

Gigaom writes:

The cynical me believes that it’s foolish for any of us to expect that Web 2.0 companies be in the business of providing services for charity. They are, after all, for-profit entities and when opportunity arises, everyone looks out for themselves. That’s just the way of the world.

I really like Flickr, Twitter and I recently started using Friendfeed more actively. Mainly ‘cos I can search thru my Twitter content more easily.

But… what happens when these services are discontinued?

It is my data. I am the owner. As the owner I want:

  1. To be able to download a backup copy when I want to
  2. Close, shut down and delete all of my data whenever I want to
  3. Control who sees which data, where and when

These are my minimum requirements for online, interactive web applications. Sound easy and straightforward.

End of topic. Well, not quite.

Many web applications – and I’m kind of shying away from the omnipresent social media / social network term here – don’t offer an easy Export/Backup all of my data/Batch Download function.

Flickr Batch Download
Consider Flickr, by all measures one of the more established and mature tools. If you click Get Help this dropdown menu displays:

Flickr Help Topics

It doesn’t list an item how to download photos. titles, descriptions and comments or create a backup of photos and comments using a batch downloader or similar.

The tools page only lists applications to upload files.

Flickr Tools to upload and share

Apparently, the export feature is being discussed in the Help forums. I know that there are lots of threads, discussing download tools for Flickr, ‘cos I was worried about my data at Flickr. Yes, every dedicated photographer has a backup system in place for their photos.

There are some third party tools like Downloadr (I haven’t tested this yet).

Here’s an example how to create a backup of your Twiitter content using Dave Winer’s OPML tool:

How To: Backup And Search All Your Friends’ Tweets In Google Reader

But, my point is: the effort is on the users’ side. And I know many users forget or ignore this. Luckily, the RSS format offers a number of options.

One way street
Signing up and uploading is made as easy as possible. I have years of data at Flickr and I really like the application. So far the benefits outweigh the downsides by far. I like sharing my photos at Flickr. But since I signed up, Flickr was purchased by Yahoo and now Yahoo is partnering with Microsoft. Who knows what will happen in the next 1-3 years? A good web application should offer a batch export/download function.

My advice if you’re signing up for a web application:

  • Be aware of the fact that most web apps are one way streets. They are in the data business. They want your data to display on their website for business reasons.
  • Read the terms and conditions carefully.
  • Find out how you can export or download your data beforehand.
  • Find out how you can close and delete your account.
  • Be prepared to spend time and resources to learn the web application that you are using. Learn the advantages as well the disadvantages of the web application. It is important that you acquire web skills.
  • A good web application should offer a batch export/download function. If it isn’t available, ask for it. Remember: It’s your data.
  • Build your own blog. Get involved in building your own website. Your blog is your mothership. Consider services such as Twitter and Friendfeed as fast and zippy spaceship shuttles that bring visitors to your mothership. Rather than feeding Facebook and co., you will experience a learning curve that will benefit you in many other areas.
  • Develop your research skills. We need independent, ad-free blogs more than ever.

Remember the continuous bootstrap curve.

Gigaom writes:

But somewhere between my cynicism and people’s Utopian desires lies a happy place. It’s called the blog.

Your Opinion…
What are your thoughts on this? How are you backing up your Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and Friendfeed and Google data? Do you care what happens to your data? What precautions are you taking?

Study weekend + Long walk

I spent most of my weekend working and discussing my MBA homework.

Learning about:

  • the exchange equation
  • money supply
  • the monetarists’ first and second proposition
  • the cause of inflation
  • incremental cash costs
  • motivating employees – “interesting work” seems to be a universal motivator

This afternoon I went for a long walk up to St. Chrischona (522 m. above sea level). Lots of bikers and hikers and joggers and nordic walkers were out there as well. There are some beautiful wheat fields. Need to go back with a camera

Watching youtube videos on Milton Friedman that @lotm sent me.

Blogging is Dead. Long Live Blogging.

This morning I read a phrase which captures why I blog:

“…now my attitude is that if I’m not blogging for myself it’s not worth it” (seen at ma.tt)

Between you and me, I don’t care if blogging is dying. Let the social media experts decide. What I do care about is writing. I like the way I can capture and organize thoughts through writing.

Maybe one day I will become a writer. Maybe not.

In the meantime this is my niche at Chiperoni.ch.