Friday, February 22, 2008

OLPC A Good Idea, Badly Misunderstood

ITWire has a rant disguised as an opinion piece titled OLPC: one bad idea per child by Sam Varghese.

I should let it be known I have written on the OLPC XO before.
All of my articles have showered it with praise. My kid wants one, I wouldn't mind tinkering a bit with it myself. So it should come as no surprise how I feel about Sam's article. Although no real point was made, I will do my best to address his comments.

For instance, we have personal computers and poorer denizens of this earth do not. Development agencies are very good at exploiting this sense of guilt - which is fairly common in the West. These agencies have do-good agendas, well-meaning no doubt, but more focused on their own survival than anything else. One thing common to practically all these agencies is that they actually believe that Western technology can alleviate any and all problems in the Third World.
As proven time and again, technology from whatever part of the world can and does alleviate SOME problems in the Third World. Desalination, Purification, Solar Ovens, Solar panels, Cellular Phones, are all great examples.

Similarly, with these agencies, ads of poor children drinking water from a filthy stream are a good way to bring in a stream of donations, which in turn help to keep said agency running. It pays wages for a number of people who can then salve their consciences by convincing themselves that they are doing "good". Helps them to sleep at night, I guess.
Any actual good done, I suppose is irrelevant to your rant, I mean narrative.

And so we come to the One Laptop Per Child project. Not exactly built on the same lines as a project aimed at development in a poorer country, but exploiting many of the same feelings. The initial stated goal was to supply laptops that would cost $US100 to children in underdeveloped countries - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, and Pakistan were those which initially signed up to participate.
An actual fact, Bravo.

Associating the project with the idea of "open source" was a wonderful way to get people involved - Red Hat supplies a customised GNU/Linux distribution for the XO - but that idea has now been diluted to some extent by the intrusion of Microsoft which is developing a version of Windows XP to run on the little laptop.
These are the stated principles of the OLPC project.

XO is built from free and open-source software. Our commitment to software freedom gives children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms.
http://laptop.org/en/laptop/software/
That part of "on their own terms" requires the XO to be able to run whatever software the child prefers and is capable of running. Microsoft is working as hard as it can to get the XO to run a stripped and gutted version of XP on it. The XO will ship with its own software and the purchasing country can choose to install whatever it likes. For OLPC's official stance on free software please refer to http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_on_open_source_software

Microsoft knows that catching them young is key to creating a whole new generation of Windows users - people who have no choice but to accept whatever the company dishes out.
That's 2 facts, Kudos.

As the OLPC's Ivan Krstic wrote,"To claim we should prohibit XO customers from running XP in the interest of freedom is to claim everyone should be free to make a choice - as long as it's a choice we agree with."
Yeah, what he said.

I don't know about the robustness - when I asked whether my son could drop the laptop from a height of five feet (it is supposed to be able to withstand such a shock), the man who had the laptop on display said "no" very fast.
It wasn't yours? You expected to be able to throw down the display model (possibly the only one) at a conference? I'm shocked they didn't let you hit it with a hammer. For demonstration of its robustness, see David Pogue with his demo unit. Note what happens at 1:25.



The OLPC appears to be on the defensive when approached by the media. I asked Jim Gettys, the vice-president of software, whether he was willing to spend some time talking about it recently while he was in Melbourne. His answer was "maybe." I gave him a time and place but though he showed up, he told me that he had to speak to a number of other people first. I waited for what I considered a reasonable amount of time and then went about my own business.
What you considered to be a reasonable amount of time. You mean as a blogger who wasn't giving a talk at the conference involved in a worldwide organization who had appointments with actual press and possibly people who would help the cause. In other words he had a job to do, and if he could fit you in he would.

Gettys's talk at the Linux conference in Melbourne in January is one of the few for which video is not available on the web. I wonder why. There are slides - with the standard heart-rending pictures of poor children from various countries who apparently will be the beneficiaries of this munificence.
Actually it is 60 pages with a few pictures of children who did receive the XO laptop and a few pictures showing the environment in which they are used. All but one of the pictures of children show well dress schoolchildren working happily on their laptop. In between those pictures is a wealth of information that you dismiss without a word. You can and should download the presentation , actually read it instead of just looking at the pictures and decide for yourself.

(His talk clashed with one delivered by Dirk Hohndel of Intel and I attended the latter).
I can hardly wait to read the incredible story you will write based on a talk you actually attended.

Not every country which has been approached to join the project has looked favourably on Negroponte's advances. Way back in 2006, India categorically rejected the project. The Times of India quoted the ministry of human resources development as saying it was intrigued that no developed country had been chosen to be part of the project "given the fact that most of the developed world is far from universalising the possession and use of laptops among children of 6-12 age group".
Guess you have not seen this then. http://olpc.tv/2008/02/20/khairat-village-kids-show-off-their-xo-laptops/ The Indian government was under the same false impressions you are. Mainly
Technology can only do so much to eradicate deep-rooted cultural and social problems in developing and under-developed countries. You need political action to solve these problems, a laptop will do nothing to help. It may actually do more damage than good by creating wants which people then seek to satisfy by stealing.
If the village has ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD, who is going to steal them?


Try looking at this in a different way. We are not talking about whether we should be supplying these people with food, clean water, electricity, etc OR a laptop. We are talking about spending money on supplying books which are expensive, heavy and easily damaged or an XO for a child. Which does more good? Which is more utilitarian? Which is a better investment? Better yet which is the child more likely to learn from?

Not for nothing is this called a ground-breaking project. They'll have to break a lot of ground in a great many countries to bury all the waste that is left behind as the project's legacy.
Oh, sorry, I thought you were a reasonable person, I see now I was mistaken. You really think this is all being done for a nefarious profit based motivation don't you? It is easy to believe that OLPC is a selfish organization if you are unfamiliar with empathy and selfless acts of human decency. Shame on you sir.


MrCopilot

8 comments:

commons_guy said...

Thanks for writing this post!

Anonymous said...

you forget one HUGE issue:

A tool is always used in a non-tool context by people other than the creator.

So the olpc like everything else is a tool.

So the olpc introduced sanely within a larger view by people would want possible to make some money sustainable and want the users of the olpc and their environs to also profit from it in the long term: this is a good thing.

A nice oldfashioned example of missing the big picture while trying to do good in the 3rd world: I think we agree that installation of springs in dry areas can be quite helpful. Done correctly that is. Now Western help to the 3rd world however quite often damaged instead of helping. Even the best of intentions [and that's not certain in general, consider the field of medicamentation for the 3rd world] have led to enough examples of medium term desertification. overgrazing, and finally famine.

Our bug here is missing the big picture in enthusiasm for the potential of a specific new tool, gadget or technique is quite typical for engineers. Often a great idea will be used diffently than intended. And more often than not, there's no dearth of 3rd parties around intending abuse and harm.

An oldtimer techie's example for this would be mobile phones. Great gadgets.
Huge profit and interest in abusing them to permanently track user location for fun and profile selling... - a phantastic gadget, but it looks like somebody forgot to consider privacy while creating this gadget and coining e.g. the term location-based services.

So design for failure and abuse.

And welcome people trying to debug the context a gadgets going to be used in. Maybe a successful debugging session by critical reviews and articles can allow e.g. the OLPC to avoid being abused and falling into certain political and other traps.

But in your reply you're attacking someone who tries to point out problems in the context around the OLPC. Maybe too strongly. But your reply isn't that helpful and ignores the bigger picture of the tool _in_ usage / social / business / development context.

cu
Peter

Anonymous said...

IF the ITWire blog had been written by any one other than Sam Varghese, I might have sat up and taken notice.

All in all you've done a great job of pointing out that Sam Varghese is just abother snarky blogger, who can't even get his facts straight.

tracyanne

Anonymous said...

First, have the guts to write under your own name. It may be cute to adopt monikers but if you are out there on the web, put your name to what you write. Anonymous posts are the work of cowards. You also haven't mentioned if you have any connection with OLPC.

Although no real point was made, I will do my best to address his comments.

Ah, if no real point was made why are you getting all hot and bothered?

As proven time and again, technology from whatever part of the world can and does alleviate SOME problems in the Third World. Desalination, Purification, Solar Ovens, Solar panels, Cellular Phones, are all great examples.

My reference was to "any and all problems". There is a mountain of difference between that and the word "some". It's easy to construct a straw man and then deflect his argumente.

Any actual good done, I suppose is irrelevant to your rant, I mean narrative.

Do you have any instances of this? If so, put up.

It wasn't yours? You expected to be able to throw down the display model (possibly the only one) at a conference? I'm shocked they didn't let you hit it with a hammer. For demonstration of its robustness, see David Pogue with his demo unit. Note what happens at 1:25.

I am really not interested in what David Pogue does. I am interested in the chap I met who made a claim - and then refused to provide verifiable evidence of it. Period.

What you considered to be a reasonable amount of time. You mean as a blogger who wasn't giving a talk at the conference involved in a worldwide organization who had appointments with actual press and possibly people who would help the cause. In other words he had a job to do, and if he could fit you in he would.

No, as a journalist (a simple Google search would have given you sufficient detail but then facts would get in the way of your blog post, wouldn't they?) who has done the hard yards for close on 30 years in three countries. I was there for a job: see http://www.itwire.com/component/option,com_tag/tag,linux.conf.au/Itemid,1148/

Guess you have not seen this then. http://olpc.tv/2008/02/20/khairat-village-kids-show-off-their-xo-laptops/ The Indian government was under the same false impressions you are. Mainly.

Individual villages may take up laptops from OLPC. What I referred to was an approach from OLPC to the Indian government to buy a massive number of the XOs. Once again you are not dealing with the point at hand.

If the village has ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD, who is going to steal them?

Is it only kids who live in villages? Have you ever been to a village?

Try looking at this in a different way. We are not talking about whether we should be supplying these people with food, clean water, electricity, etc OR a laptop. We are talking about spending money on supplying books which are expensive, heavy and easily damaged or an XO for a child. Which does more good? Which is more utilitarian? Which is a better investment? Better yet which is the child more likely to learn from?

You obviously have never interacted with children in a rural setting. I have. There are some things which people in the West will never understand.

Oh, sorry, I thought you were a reasonable person, I see now I was mistaken. You really think this is all being done for a nefarious profit based motivation don't you? It is easy to believe that OLPC is a selfish organization if you are unfamiliar with empathy and selfless acts of human decency. Shame on you sir.

No human act is unselfish - don't kid yourself. OLPC is a commercial project - they will balance their books and make enough to keep the organisation running. They are not giving away the laptops free. People in the West love to think of themselves as humanitarians - after their governments have raped countries in the East. While that happens, they keep quiet.

Sam Varghese

Thomas said...

Well Sam, it seems that a nerve was touched. Maybe instead of doing all the backseat driving in your easy chair, you could participate in a project you agreed with instead of passing off silly little rants as professional journalism.

I have no qualms with using my name, but others prefer to go by a pseudonym instead. More power to them. Perhaps instead of attacking the person because they don't put their real life name, you can attack their ideas instead.

By the way, I am still having issues responding to Stan Beer's article concerning the "true cost of OLPC." It keeps giving me an invalid e-mail address error, despite the fact that I have had no issues using said address as a legitimate address as provided by my hosting provider for over a year.

One final thing. The good ole' US of A isn't the only guilty country out there. Yes, I am not all that pleased with the way things our going and with the devastation occuring. With that said, it amazes me that you would be able to say such a thing despite how your own government has essentially accepted DMCA, thus stripping away the rights of fair use on the part of the consumer. So next time you want to criticize another country's government, you might want to take a look at your own government before doing so.

Thomas Holbrook II
thenixedreport.com

Anonymous said...

Still putting forward arguments without any substance I see, Thomas. A bit of fact checking would be a good idea. I presume that you have heard of something called Google?

I've criticised the Australian government more than I care to remember - you might want to check before putting finger to keyboard, Thomas. But then I forget - this is not part of your routine. You just type and hit post.

I will pass on your problem about the email address while posting.

Sam Varghese

Thomas said...

"Still putting forward arguments without any substance I see, Thomas."

That would be you I'm afraid.

"I've criticised the Australian government more than I care to remember"

That's good to know. Allow me to explain now...

When I hear of the West, my country inevitably gets listed amongst them. I'm tired of it being insulted all the time by other people.

My point was that you went through the trouble of responding in this blog, which was quite interesting. If what I said had no substance, then why respond at all? If what the author said had no substance, why respond at all?

"I presume that you have heard of something called Google?"

I presume you understand that I could care less about your past experiences in media? (Except for critically examining your own Government, which is a breath of fresh air btw)

"But then I forget - this is not part of your routine. You just type and hit post."

Not each and every time man. There are times in which I read other links and understand the other side of the argument, like with the case of your piece concerning Slashdot and Apple. What happened on Slashdot concerning the post on Apple? Some who commented referred to the post as trollish. It was the individual's peers who criticized them. On a site such as LXer, the founder of the site and the editors, would never take responsibility for articles that get posted there. Why? It's ultimately the users on there who will tear the post to pieces. The editors were blamed once, and Scott, the editor in chief, chewed that person out... his stance: LXer's editors were not about to put the blinders on the reader and tell them what to think and how to think. It was up to the users to discern fact from fiction, and trust me when I saw this: they are more than capable of doing so!

Now on to the reason why I have stated that I would rather remain an amateur: so I can speak my mind when need be without being slammed by those advocating the Associated Press style of doing things. To me, that just prevents others from performing higher levels of critical thinking. I'm not saying that you should never have said what you have said. I'm asking: Why not celebrate speaking your mind instead of being constrained by the shackles of so called "professionalism?" This is where a real conversation can occur rather than a simple "letter to the editor" that gets everyone nowhere and nowhere fast.

Now, I noticed you accusing me of just hitting submit. I could care less about past credentials. Another individual here in the States that I criticized for attacking a project attempting to promote FOSS at a prestigious event had past credentials. When they entered libel territory (as far as I can tell, you haven't... you're simply giving an opinion), I called them on it. It didn't matter that they were more than capable of writing. It didn't matter that they could program in numerous languages. It didn't matter that they were excellent with graphics software such as The GIMP. They destroyed their credibility in the eyes of quite a few because of their tirade that ultimately had no substance. I fear the same is happening with your recent pieces.


"Anonymous posts are the work of cowards. You also haven't mentioned if you have any connection with OLPC."

Why? Because you can't place a face by the name given? Because you can't attack the individual? Because you can only attack their ideas instead? It's the Internet. It's the World Wide Web if you will. Get over it. As for your comment concerning whether or not the author is connected to OLPC itself, did you not read the beginning of this post? Allow me to refresh your memory.

"I should let it be known I have written on the OLPC XO before. All of my articles have showered it with praise. My kid wants one, I wouldn't mind tinkering a bit with it myself. So it should come as no surprise how I feel about Sam's article."

That doesn't sound like a connection to me. Rather, it sounds like someone who agrees with the project and the goals of that project. When they say their kid wants one and they wouldn't mind tinkering with one, that tells me that not only do they not have one, there is no real connection between the author of this blog, and OLPC itself.

With that being said, let's not pollute another person's blog any further. Do you have my e-mail address? I'm sure you can get it from Stan, or I can drop you a line, so we can possibly continue this discussion. Like you, I too am stubborn. I don't give up an argument that easily. ;)

Thomas Holbrook II
thenixedreport.com

MrCopilot said...

The Irony.

Anonymous said...
"First, have the guts to write under your own name."


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