Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Use Teh Spelchekcer!

Today has been a pretty rotten day and had elements in this that I will blog about some other time. As a result of the way the day turned out, I don’t have a lot of energy to write about some deep compelling philosophically technological issue (or is that technologically philosophical?) I can’t work up the inspiration to point people to some cool application of internet technologies. So this week I’ll keep it short, simple and talk about something that is simple: words. More specifically, how we prepare them for presentation.

Words are the primary means of human communication. Never mind all the talk about body language. It is words spoken, words written down, that are the vehicle of human communication. In today’s information age the principal medium of communicating words or rather of preparing words and recording them for communication is typing. We do a lot of typing. I mean a LOT of typing. The future of computing is voice and eventually thought (i.e. brain impulse) controlled systems. We already have voice activated control of our phones. Software like Dragon Naturally Speaking and Windows Vista are now empowering us to control our computers by speaking to them. However for now we do a huge amount of typing. Emails. Web pages. Blogs. Newspapers. Posters. Handbills. Twittering. The world is driven by the words we type into our computers. Our world is text.

If anything I have said is even half-true, then why oh why do so few people use the spellchecker in their software before unleashing their words upon us? Maybe it doesn’t bother most people, but it does bother me. I pick up a Nigerian newspaper and I am distracted by the spelling and grammatical errors. I visit a Nigerian web site and it’s just as bad. The grammar problems I can live with (sort of). The grammar checkers in most software (OK in Microsoft Office) are often as much a hindrance as they are a help. The fine nuances between what is “fragment” and whether to use a comma or a semi-colon can be lost on the best of us. Nevertheless, there is no excuse not to press “F7” (or whatever the spellchecker shortcut is) on your computer before you show the world the product of your typing.

Some might suggest I can talk like this because I have a fairly good grasp of the language, but that isn’t the point. In my typing I make as many mistakes as everyone else. My errors can actually be worse. I think much faster than I type so I often leave out whole words in my typed sentences that are only caught when I go back and re-read the text, sometimes not until the third or fourth reading. What I am talking about is using the most basic of tools (F7, F7, F7) available in modern software, even in web browsers like Google Chrome to make our handiwork a little better, a little neater and a whole lot more literate looking.

In the great scheme of things does it really matter? We live in a much more complex world than we used to. The Queen’s English doesn’t have the cachet it used to anymore. All of a sudden, the street slang of 50 Cent is as legitimate as the superior lexicon of Wole Soyinka. Yet it does matter. Pick your language. English. Yoruba. Urhobo. Chinese. Every language (perhaps even patois like our very own pidgin) has standards and structures that have been agreed on over time as the way the language should be written for communicating information and ideas. For some of those languages at least, those standards and structures are captured in the software we use and that software goes some way to helping us frame our ideas better. Whether in “Waffi” or Washington, there is a way the society you relate with declares you to be articulate and more and more of the software we use enable us be articulate.

Your correct use of whatever language you have to work with in your culture will elevate you. By culture I mean everything from the gathering of elders in the village square, the green domed temple of the Nigerian Legislature, the street corner of the hard-eyed area boys, the professional offices of my company’s IT department, the Russian Politburo or a US “wrap party”. Correct use, properly spelled words, I say will make it easier to understand you, will make you think better, elucidate your ideas more clearly. They will make you appear better at whatever you claim to be doing, will give you access to places others may not have access to. Making the effort can improve your attention to detail and help make you think through your ideas better.

While we do not yet have Yoruba, Urhobo or pidgin dictionaries to plug into our word processors (not that I know of, and I am too tired to google or Wikipedia it) at least the English language dictionary is available in Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org and accessible by the press of a single button (F7, F7, F7, F7 – get it yet?). Many of these tools will highlight the misspelled words. Microsoft Outlook and Yahoo Mail can be set to auto spell-check emails before you send then. Blogger will let you run a spell-check before you post.

In short, use the spellchecker. Often. Before you click “send” in the next email, read it through a couple of times. Look for those missing words. Re-arrange those sentences. Then press (all together now) F7. And bless us with your words.


As long as we are talking about words, the roar of silence in the comments section of each of my blog posts is quite deafening. It would be really, really cool if you quieted things down a bit by tossing a few words my way occasionally. It would be even cooler if you shared my blog by hitting your favourite one of the buttons below.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Let Me Take You To School

Are you in search of a quality post-graduate education? Are you unwilling to quit your job? Do you cringe at the thought of spending even more time in traffic rushing to school in the evenings or giving up your weekends and vacations for two years for a part time masters programme? Do you want to avoid putting yourself through the same issues you faced as an undergraduate – unavailable lecturers, strikes, outdated material? Then you should considering getting your degree on the Internet.

The Internet is a magnificent tool for learning and most of us use it that way everyday. Whether it is getting information to help us on the job, reading the news or researching in Wikipedia, we use the Internet to broaden our minds and enrich our knowledge of the world around us. More and more of us are now using the Internet to get a formal education. Many educational institutions are offering full degree awarding programs on the Internet and they are as good as the more traditional classroom based programs.

These are foreign schools of course. I know of no Nigerian institutions offering online programmes. However, the National Open University of Nigeria, is worth keeping an eye on because the institution has embraced the web as a medium providing freely downloadable course material. For now, I am focusing on institutions where you can begin a programme and at the end of it you get an education and a certificate.

One of the best known is the University of Phoenix Online. It is one of the earlier institutions to aggressively offer online university education and over the years have developed a wide range of courses which can be taken in the online format. Phoenix is an American university and consequently, and unfortunately, you will come up against American University qualification requirements. This means, for a post-graduate program, you will probably be required to take the TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language (never mind the fact that English is our official language in Nigeria). In addition, depending on the programme, you would probably have to take GMAT or GRE to qualify. Most inconvenient of all, you may have to go back to your Alma Mater (UNILAG, UNIBEN, OAU, UI or whatever other school you went to) and get the school itself to mail your transcript to a third party in the US who will evaluate your transcript and then ship it to the school you applied to. For those who have had to navigate through the warrens of their school's Senate houses to get his done, it is no fun.

Another school becoming quite popular for Nigerian post-graduate degree seekers is the University of Liverpool Online. I should know. I am nearly an alumnus of the school and have three colleagues, and several former classmates who have independently taken programmes at Liverpool. Liverpool offers a much more limited list of programmes than Phoenix does, but it has the main ones Nigerians go for: various MBAs, Information Technology, Human Resources and Supply Chain Management programmes. I would recommend it for several reasons. The entry requirements are very simple, you get a full education, you have several flexible payment mechanisms, you work at your own pace, and it has been in the top 100 universities in the world.

These two and a host of other schools offer different degree awarding programmes. Some, like Liverpool and Phoenix offer full online programmes. You never need to go a physical classroom anywhere. Liverpool, as a matter of fact, doesn’t even have any real time classes. You can log on to the classroom at your own preferred time within the confines of the defined school week. Other schools have mixed programmes which include an online programme with some physical classroom components. It doesn't even have exams. Everything is based on continuous assesment. Now if you get the idea that this makes it less rigorous a programme, you are very very mistaken. You might actually get to do more assignments and more projects than all your previous education combined.

Of course, some people may want the education without shelling out the money to get the certificate or may already have the certificates and just want to keep themselves on the cutting edge of their professions. Well you can be lectured by the professors of such institutions as Harvard, MIT and Yale and have access to their course material for free.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a system called OpenCourseWare where you have access to full course material from MIT. Apple’s ITunes software has what it calls ITunes U where you can get a rich variety of material from America's top univerities that you can download to your computer, iPod or Iphone. Lastly, and I just discovered this today, there is a brand new site called Academic Earth which aggregates free educational material from a large variety of sources. Don’t for a moment imagine that this material is dry academic material. A lot of it is valuable information from internationally renown leaders in the fields you may be interested in including business and technology.

Today’s Internet is a rich source of academically sound educational programmes. Don’t just use it for YouTube and music downloads. It might just help you get the education you always wished you had and all from the comfort of your home PC.


What do you think it will take for Nigerian schools to deliver rich educational content online? How do we ensure that, like so many things in this country, it is not spoilt by cheats and the corrupt? Drop me a line.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Cinematic Experience

He sits in front of his computer, his fingers poised over his keyboard. He pauses for a moment to remember the address. Then he types the name into the browser. His expectations are mixed. A new website always gives him a sense of anticipation. A Nigerian website gives him both a sense of hope and a sense of dread. Hope that he will see something good, something professional, something useful. Dread, on the other hand, that like so many times his hopes will be dashed. Dread that the colours won’t quite work, the images will be rough, the text will be full of typos, the information will be outdated and the site won’t really give you anything.

He types www.genesisdeluxecinemas.com.

He remembers the first time he typed the name of a Nigerian movie theatre into his browser. Silverbird Cinemas had recently opened and he just absolutely assumed that they would have a website. They did. NuMetro Cinemas, on the other hand did not. He tried to find one on the internet and couldn’t. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that they didn’t have one. He assumed he just didn’t have the address right. He figured, that like most Nigerian sites, it just wasn’t optimised to show up too easily in Google. On a visit to NuMetro he asked one of their attendants for the right address and was completely shocked to find that they didn’t have one. Soon, they said. In this day and age? For a modern movie theatre? A South African franchise? Come on!

www.silverbirdcinemas.com. He hated it on sight. It had the information he needed. Movie lists. Show times. Short descriptions of the movies. But! So ugly. So badly designed. So amateurish. Garish. What’s with the snow flake crystals background? The fact that the background didn’t move when the page is scrolled is such a design no no. What’s with the horrid scrolling marquee? The badly cropped logo?

Genesis Deluxe Cinemas’ (GDC) website was a breath of fresh air. Its design was simple and elegant and made him want to rush over to Ahmadu Bello Way and find someone at Silverbird to grab, shake and scream at, with white flecks of spittle flying from his mouth while security dragged him away, “this is how it’s meant to be done!” The colours are well selected. Each movie is laid out in blocks that are easy on the eye. He suddenly realises that he could see all their information without clicking on anything, scrolling yes clicking no. On Silverbird’s site, to see a short description of the film. Click. To see the other movies showing. Hit back button. Click.

GDC’s site feels modern. Silverbird’s seems like it was done with FrontPage circa 1999. GDC’s site seems like a website that is part of a strategy, an integrated part of a product, an extension of a brand. Silverbird’s seems an afterthought, a grudging acknowledgment of the need for a website, but executed unwillingly with a minimum of consideration for the basics of good design.

He leans back, rubbing the stiffness out of his neck. He knows GDC’s site isn’t perfect. It has its rough edges, some things not quite perfectly executed. Other than the fact that they update the site with movie information, it is a completely static site. No interactivity. No links to reviews. Silverbird, at least had the opinion poll. Ok a silly little opinion poll that hadn’t changed in about a year. And they had reviews even if the reviews are for movies that  half a year old and had faded from the collective consciousness within days of airing, but at least they acknowledged that people want to do something on a website nowadays.

And yet every single design flaw, every failing of colour and pixel could be forgiven if the cardinal rule of an event-based website is not broken – never never EVER let your website get out of sync with your events.

Grimacing, he flashed back to Christmas 2008. It was a Friday. He had promised the boys a movie and after scanning and reviewing all the movies he finally, reluctantly decided on Madagascar 2. He checked Silverbird’s website for the show times and realised that if he left exactly then, at exactly that moment, they would just make it. Dumping Mum (cooking, what else), Dad and the Bafana leapt into the car and took off in a squeal of tires heading for Victoria Island.

With 15 minutes to spare, they pull up to a screeching halt in front of 133 Ahmadu Bello Way and can’t find a place to park. All of a sudden realising how useful Mum could have been right at that moment, they took the next TWENTY MINUTES looking for a place to park and finally put the car in a spot that would make the insurance company absolutely refuse to pay for any damage. They make a desperate sprint into the building and up to escalator and arrive, panting, at the ticket counter with Dad barely able to stand after hauling both boys up the last 10 steps – to find that the movie was no longer airing. “But, but, but your website…”, he spluttered disbelievingly. They were sorry, he was told, they don’t update their website till Friday afternoon even though by Friday morning the new week’s programming schedule had taken effect!

With a herculean effort, conscious that his 4 and 6 six year-old boys would wonder why he had had leapt over the counter to and started choking the attendant, he took his children by their hands and walked away trying to figure out where he can get nitro-glycerine and whether Christian Bale would do the honours.

The 900 words or so of literary excess above are not really about doing a review of GDC or Silverbird or their website practices, but to make a few important points:

  1. This is 2009, even the smallest business gets some cache from a website. A simple website may only be the equivalent of a business card for a business, but it is so simple to set one up and keep up to date, that NuMetro’s inability to put one up was bizarre to say the least.
  2. Again, I say this is 2009, a website for a business should be well-designed and look professional. It should be an extension of the brand you have or are trying to create. Doing so doesn’t require a lot of work or even a lot of expense. Conceptualisation aside, actual labour to create GDC’s site would require about 20% of the time it took to create Silverbird’s monstrosity.
  3. A modern website should have some interactivity depending on what your business is – a feedback form, quick polls, reviews, a forum, onsite chat, a notification system. None of that is hard to setup nowadays and is pretty much self-sustaining.
  4. Your static content should never appear dated. Other than the actual movie content, Silverbird’s content is extremely dated. Even their banner graphics show movies that have almost been forgotten. GDC avoid that, deliberately or incidentally, by not having anything on their site that could actually become dated.
  5. A website that provides a time dependent service should never let real events and the site get out of sync. Imagine if Aero Contractors cancelled a flight and left it showing on their site when you go looking for a booking. GDC are not entirely guiltless in that regard. A movie they had scheduled to premiere one Friday couldn’t premiere till at least the next day because the shipper didn’t get the movie in on time, but they did not update their site to reflect this. Now it was just one movie among their line-up, for (possibly) just one day, but people would have made decisions based on that information. You do not do that to your customers.

In summary, websites are not playthings anymore, something you just have to say you have one. Treat it as an important business asset, a serious communication tool, a mechanism to make an impact on whatever world you want to affect. There are millions of us Nigerians out there. More and more of us are getting online. A well-executed site could have those millions beating a path to your door.

On the other hand, maybe this post is an exercise in futility. How much of an impact is the quality or even the existence of a website having on businesses that don’t get direct income from their sites in Nigeria (such as the airlines and banks do)? What do you think? Drop me a line.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Killing Businesses

The Suspects

Let’s descend into a murky underworld where the crime is heinous, but the criminals are, perhaps, unwitting. These are not crimes of fraud or murder. No gun-toting robbers these, the crimes are almost certainly not spelt out in any criminal code. Yet they can have as devastating an effect on their victims as any of the aforementioned. The truly frightening thing is you and I could well be one of them. As we browse and print we might well be including ourselves in a special category of destroyers and killers.

The kind that kill businesses.

The Case

For most of us, our first long term experience with computing technology is in the office. Indeed many of us learnt to use computers at work. I mean really use – not the rip-offs called “training” many paid for at fly-by night computer schools. The majority of Nigerians in their 30s did not have the benefit of growing up with computers. That in part is because most of us (or our families) couldn’t afford computers. Aside from this, the computers then didn’t have that much home utility for us. Sure you could play games, type out stuff in WordStar and do the occasional GWBasic program, but for the average Nigerian, those weren’t the most paramount of interests, not at those prices anyway.

How times have changed. Now, computers have become as meaningful to us outside the office as they are at work. Our children will be as comfortable with laptops are we were with pencil and paper. With the explosion of the Internet, and the astounding variety of software available for all sorts of purposes, computers have become an indispensible part of our non-work lives. I have a friend who has a netbook, a laptop and two Blackberries. Try and keep me away from my iPhone.

Despite this the average person isn’t willing to spend the money on computing technology that is equal to their personal need to use computers. About the only thing we personally invest is the actual computer itself and maybe a UPS to protect it. We don’t buy software (Microsoft office for a few hundred naira at Otigba does not a purchase make, people). We are only just beginning to invest in internet services. And we do not invest in backup solutions. If you have a printer at home put your hands up. Instead we use vast amounts of computing resources as provided by our employers for our personal pursuits.

The Crime Scene

I am a server support administrator (that means I keep the servers that provide capabilities like email, shared printers, internet access and many other services running) and I see tremendous amounts of abuse of the company’s computing resources on a daily basis. I see people who do large amounts of printing of bible study outlines for their church (and I say this because I am a Christian). I see hundreds of gigabytes of music files on our servers while we run out of space for company files. I have deleted whole movie video CDs from my servers. I see how people consume huge amounts of bandwidth accessing streaming entertainment on the Internet.

What most do not realise is that these resources cost a large amount of money to make available and maintain for company business. Now my company has a fair use policy which acknowledges that people have a right to “reasonable” use of computers, phones and the internet for personal purposes. I think every business should allow this. Having draconian rules that employees cannot use the phones or the internet at all for personal things is counterproductive. People are going to do it anyway so why not make it legal and set reasonable limits? The average company fully expects their workers to put in extra hours with no overtime pay while reading the same employee the riot act when he or she spends five minutes reading the Guardian Online or fourteen minutes listening to Arsene Wenger explaining why the Gunners are where they are today. Nevertheless, when we misuse these resources or make excessive use of them the resources are not available to the business to make money with. No money for the business, no money for salaries, eventually no business. This misuse can kill and is killing enterprises.

The Evidence

According to Fair et al. reports have shown that many employees admit to spending nearly half of the work day using the internet for personal purposes. Samsung did a study that showed the majority of Canadian employees misuse their office printers for personal stuff. At my company for example, the top website visited every month is Yahoo! Mail. Facebook features consistently in the top ten and there is a guy we are trying to track down who watches TV shows online. My wife suggests that the first company I worked at went out of business in part because we the employees, and the boss man himself I might add (Yo! Walexy, what’s up?), used so much of the company’s computing resources for non-business purposes. Of course, the biggest thing lost in all this is time. All the time spent doing all this stuff that we could have spent actually doing our jobs.

On top of all this, we also expose our company computers to security risks from viruses and Trojan horses. A significant number of the virus incidents we deal with come from people bringing in files to work on flash disks and what not. In addition to this we put our employees at risk of litigation from illegal material such as music or illegal software that we copied to our computers. Some years ago Microsoft went to war on illegal usage of their software on some companies in Lagos and it was ugly. In those cases the companies were complicit in the use of the software, but some of them might have been in the position they were in because their employees put them in that position.

The Verdict

So what are my suggestions? Treat the computing resources at work with the same respect you would want your family members to treat the computer, internet service, phone and printer (when you eventually buy one). Lastly, get your own software. With the growth of the Open Source Movement, there is a free alternative to the “for pay” software we are more familiar with. In plain English, if you don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office, then download OpenOffice.org for free.

Put yourself in the shoes of the businesses that pay so much to make computers available to you so that they can make money and pay your salaries. Stop being a business killer.


Are there any business owners out there who want to recount how their businesses have suffered from the “crime” I described above? Are there any employees who have a different perspective from what I have expressed? Drop me a line in the comments.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Curious Case of the Crashed Computer

The Disaster

On the afternoon of Saturday the 28th of February 2009, my laptop dropped dead. In the middle of the afternoon, the screen went blank, one of the indicator lights blinked about 5 times, then it shut down. And before you ask, yes I did have backups. Mostly.

Now this had happened before, and I had always assumed that it was because the processor had overheated from having the air flow to it blocked by the surface I had put it on (a bed). This time however there was a difference - when I put it back on, it wouldn't come on. All the indicator lights came on, but the screen didn't and it clearly wasn't booting.
I decided to leave it for a few hours and see if it would come on. Nothing doing. Concluding that the processor had gone caput a lot of thoughts started running through my mind. Can it be fixed? Would it be easier to simply buy a new one rather than messing with repairs and all the pain that could cause? How do I transfer my licenses? Could I afford a new one? Could I survive without my laptop for a time? Had I goofed in celebrating the reliability of HP’s product? Could I use my iPhone as my only (personal) computing device for an extended period? How do I go about suspending my Internet service till my laptop was fixed or replaced? Is this the end of civilisation as we know it?

The Dependency

We have reached a stage, at least I have,  where I need to have access to a computing device all the time. My laptop and my phone have become my primary means of information, communication, education and are rapidly becoming a significant part of my financial affairs. On both devices I have access to email and news. I have multiple translations of the bible and don’t carry paper to church. Using feed readers I have news updates from around the world. I receive audio and video podcasts from Joel Osteen on the PC and can transfer them to my phone. I pay several bills using Interswitch. Many of my transactions are done using my bank’s internet banking site. I NEED my laptop.

Separating Business from Pleasure

Of course, the argument arises - why not do all this at work? Well because it is "at work". Our company policy provides room for "reasonable use" of resources for personal purposes. So while it is perfectly acceptable to use the company computer to check a few news sites, see what’s on your wall on FaceBook, keep a few family photos on your PC, and so on, there should be a limit defined by good sense. However, one should not misuse and abuse the privilege. In addition, one should never be so dependent on one's employers that one cannot function without them.I’ll blog about this in detail next week. Most of the time I don’t even check my yahoo or Gmail accounts at work anymore.

I Can See Clearly Now, The Rain Is Gone...

Anyhow I took in the laptop to friend at the office who is a hardware specialist for him to look at. Lots of people think IT professionals all know all there is to know about computers. However we don’t everything anymore than doctors know all there is to know about medicine (try asking a brain surgeon about geriatrics). I told my friend about the symptoms and he asked me to remove the battery, power up the laptop and see if it would boot, then and put the battery back in. Sceptically, yet hopefully, I tried it. Hurray, it worked! I had my laptop back!

This situation helped bring home to me how dependent I had become on having a laptop. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is it any different from my reluctance to take public transport when I had become so used to driving myself? Had I become less than I am because of my reliance on computing and the internet for so many things? Or am I merely waxing lyrical because I am giddy with relief?


My friend provided knowledge and experience that fixed my problem. Suppose I had taken the laptop to a repair centre for it to be fixed and they had charged me for repairs claiming something else was wrong. If I had somehow found out what the real problem was, I would have been justified in getting upset about the falsehood, but would I have been willing to pay for the valuable information that got my system working? What do you think