OLPC: Teach a man to fish

There exists, now, finally, shipping a little computer called the OLPC. It stands for One Laptop Per Child. And it’s cheap. Very very cheap. A small sum of money will get you two of them. One for you (or a nearby kid) and one for a kid in the third world. They say “one laptop per child,” they mean that they want to see that happen.

The idea being, of course, that tech will set you free. I’m all for the utopian ideals of sharing information (Mi parolas Esperanton) and this idea seems entirely noble. But OLPC is currently being sued by a Nigerian keyboard maker. They’ve got an injunction against distributing the OLPC in Nigeria.
I’m thinking aloud here and I haven’t done research, so if I’m wrong correct me.
There’s a saying that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he eats everyday until he gets mercury poisoning and his fishery dies from being overfished. There’s no doubt in my mind that the OLPC folks think they’re teaching fishing. But fishers need bait, they need rods, they need boats. If you teach somebody to fish, but make them dependent on importing all of their tools, have you really set them free or have you just you just recruited a client?
Where is the OLPC being manufactured? I know one of the goals is to keep costs down, but if you can do green(ish – or not-more-brown) manufacturing in a country that needs infrastructure investment, aren’t you doing even more good? Why aren’t the keyboards being manufactured in Nigeria? Wouldn’t it help third world kids more to have slightly higher prices, but help create and grow infrastructure and industry in their countries? Does giving stuff away undercut and harm what tech businesses already exist?
Kids with laptops is great and I’m all for it. And I might buy an OLPC to check it out and to get that smug glow of having done something to help. But giving kids laptops doesn’t give them clean drinking water. It doesn’t give their parents jobs. It doesn’t solve any of the immediate problems of neo and post colonialization in the third world. But, man it makes us feel good. Plus, it’s cheap!
Widespread corruption in Nigeria aside, are we teaching fishing or giving out fishes?

News, Plans, etc


I hope all of my American readers had a happy 4th of July. It was my cat’s 10th birthday, but she’s in California, so I didn’t bake her a cake or anything. Actually, I’m alarmed by what sort of cake a cat would like. yuck.

Here in The Hague, I went to an expat BBQ. We grilled a bunch of expats . . .. ahem. It was fun. there was a guy there with a dog also from California, but from LA. She and Xena had the north-south rivalry thing going on. Anyway, the other dog was clearly a California mutt as it was half pitbull. It’s the law that 90% of mixbreed dogs in CA are half pitbull. He said to keep it quiet because they’re outlawed in the Netherlands, but further research on wikipedia seems to indicate that this is not the case. Anyway, anti-breed laws are stupid. I started talking about how pitbulls are nice to people, and are only risky around other dogs. Nicole says that was rude. She drug me out to the grill to make tofu kabobs.
It would have been Xena’s happiest July 4th ever, as there were no fireowrks, except for two things. There was some sort of incident between the two dogs and the LA one bit through Xena’s ear. It’s just a little hole, but Xena was way freaked out. The other owner and the host pulled the dogs apart, something I tried to prevent. Folks, never stick your hands between fighting dogs! The host, Kendra, is from Alaska and says she has experience breaking up fighting dogs and knows how to do it without getting hurt. Anyway, it was probably for the best because Xena had already submit, but the other dog wasn’t backing off. Which is why pitbulls are dangerous for other dogs – once they get started in a fight, they don’t stop at the point most other dogs would stop. Most dogs just fight to establish dominance. Anyway, after being separated, the other dog reverted to being cute and friendly, but Xena was freaked. I felt kind of bad for the owner. He was really embarassed. It sucks when you beloved pet, who is almost human in your eyes, reveals their animal nature. Like barfing in a restaurant – which Xena did recently.
Then we got home and there was an incredible thunder storm. Way cooler than any fireworks. Xena tried to hide under the bed. Bad day for her. Yesterday, she barely wanted to leave the house, which was fair enough as she’s been awake and scared most of the night. Poor dog.


I go soon to Linz for my gig. Tickets are quite a bit more than I expected. Why are trains more expensive in the summer? They don’t cost more to run. I’ll get back around the second half of July. Then I want to bike along the coast of the Netherlands and then inland towards a small town in Friesland. Nick will probably participate. Then I will come back and meet up with Kendra and we will bike to Copenhagen, leaving around August 1st. That should take about 2 weeks. Then I get to worry a lot about moving.
Biking with clips is awesome. I feel like I have way more control over the bike and could go way faster. Also, popping in and out gets easy very quickly. when I first started on a still bike in front of my house, I thought it would be really hard, but suddenly, like a clip, it just clicked.
I tried to buy a bluetooth PDA keyboard from a shop in Rotterdam, but they’d sold out earlier in the day. However, I was able to use my GPS setup to navigate. Maemo Mapper tip: after you load the route into the program, quit it and restart. This will save the route in non-volitaile memory and if you (software) crash on the way, you won’t have to sorta head in the right direction while hoping to run into an open wifi network.
Also, I really love it when folks name their network linksys and leave it wide open. Seriously, it’s great. I kind of want to rename my network to linksys. This si the closest thing to an open citizen’s anarchist wifi net that we can reasonably hope for. So let’s all do it! Unlock your networks! Rename them to linksys! Encrypt all your data going over the wifi! If you leave your own network open, then you don’t need to feel guilty about borrowing anybody else’s connectivity. I leave mine open for that reason. But I’m not renaming it right now, because I’m not sure how to configure my remote-controlled-only media server to connect to a new network, nor even if it’s a good idea to let it potentially connect to the wrong one. So everybody except for me should rename their network, and we should leave them open. That is all.

Gear Review: Nokia N800

I just got the tablet PC recommended by the Linux Journal. Although Nokia makes it, it’s not a phone. Also, it runs a different OS than Nokia phones. It’s been a while since I had such a phone, but I recall an excellent interface design and great reliability. They must have hired a different team to do the N800. Or maybe it’s the same team, but morale is low since management sent the tablet team to do a “fun” exercize in aligator wrestling and the team lead was tragically eaten. (It was a sad day for Nokia’s Elbonian devision. Most of the team stayed on, but they burn with silent resentment.)

I want to make a large, blanket statement right now. Computers are crap right now. All of them. The Mac is pretty good, but it keeps getting more and more closed. Want to hook up a bluetooth GPS to your shiny, new iphone? Too bad, Jobs says you can’t. The 21st century Henry Ford knows what you want to do and offers you only that, even if it’s not what you want to do. Also, you can get any color iphone you want as long as it’s black. All their devices get more and more closed. Their (consumer) tools are more and more closed. Want to make a web page? Hope you like the “made with a mac” look.
Windows? Don’t get me started. My jaw drops with fresh horror every time I hear what windows users are forced to put up with. I don’t understand why they use computers at all, given such provocation.
Fortunately, Linux is here to save the day! Well, maybe just Ubuntu linux, but anyway. Yay for saving the day. Too bad it won’t really run on my existing hardware.
The N800 runs a flavor of Debian linux. Did that sentence have any meaning for you? Then you’re a geek. Sorry. If it didn’t, don’t surf away yet! It shouldn’t have to make sense. This is a freaking consumer device. I just want a GPS thingee (via a seperate wireless little black platic thing) to help keep me from getting lost on bike trips and something that I can use to do some mobile blogging while on the road. I don’t want to risk my laptop being in another crash, so I got a little web device. It’s reasonable to expect a consumer to know they need software (and possibly extra hardware) for their device to do GPS stuff. It’s reasonable to expect a consumer buying a web device to have some familiarity with cruising around on the internet. I think that’s nearing the end of what’s reasonable.
It’s not reasonable that it ships with a broken operating system. Asking folks to flash a brand new device is not reasonable. (Sorry for the jargon. Notive how it’s confusing? Not reasonable! It means to use a different computer or a special program to change the device’s software to do an upgrade.) Not providing a CD with said flash program (for all common consumer OSes) is not reasonable. Requiring the use of another computer to flash it, is on the borderline of reasonability. And not having any kind of flasher for Mac users is not at all reasonable. They’re all linux-y, but they don’t release the source for the flasher. So they don’t have it, I can’t get it, I can’t build it myself.
The N800’s “killer app” for GPS map stuff looks really nice when it isn’t crashed, not working, or not talking to the GPS. Let’s be fair, it might be because I’m running a broken OS. The web browser is doing something wrong with cookies, so I cannot figure out how to update my blog. Err, since basically, I got it for blogging and map stuff, it’s 0 for 2 right now.
But it’s got mini usb, so at least I can plug in my camera, right? Hahahaha, no. The miniusb is useful for when you want to flash the device (don’t do that on the subway or you risk fines) and for when you want to use it as a memory card reader for your regular computer and for nothing else. It can’t charge the device. It can’t take a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, my phone, my camera, nada. Ok, but the N800 takes memory cards. This strongly implies that I can take a picture, pop the card out of my camera, pop it into the N800 and post it to the internets. If my camera uses MiniSD cards. It doesn’t. It takes a sony memory stick.
Ok, so possible work arounds involve: 1. Buying a new camera (not a terrible idea since mine has not been so healthy since I dropped it a week or so ago). 2. Finding some sort of USB-> bluetooth converter. (Would be hot! want one anyway! Any usb keyboard becomes wireless! sexy! (Does this device even exist?)) 3. Inventing a sony memory stick -> miniSD converter. Notice that I used the word “invent.”
Yeah, so the N800 is pretty much useless to me unless I sink even more money into this or spend a bunch of time trying to find work-arounds. The whole point of it was to be cheaper than replacing a dead laptop after a crash. But it has to really be cheaper. I mean, I don’t want my laptop to die (ever, yikes. Live forever!) but a new laptop would be faster and better and I’ll probably buy one eventually anyway. So the maximum cost of the PDA thing needs to be based on a complicated equation involving the likelyhood of a fatal (to laptop, not me) crash, the cost or laptop replacement and the length of pre-upgrade life remaining in said laptop.
People really love these things. Fair enough. But it’s not a consumer device! I wanted a consumer device! I wanted something that I could turn on, double click something and see a pretty map of my neighborhood! I wanted something that would deal with my google logins the right way, so I could just post to my blog. I wanted something that could transfer data from my camera to flickr, that could copy data to and from my bluetooth phone and to and from my bluetooth computer without having to use wires. I wanted to plug in a home-brew keyboard. I wanted something that could just use the same USB-based charger as my phone and ipod and other devices. These are all things that consumer web device should be able to do. Right out of the box. Without requring google searches of forums dedicated to hacking the damn thing.
Sadly, my free software ideology and stubbornness is going to cause me to keep pounding on the damn thing until it WORKS damn it. I’m a hacker after all. These problems have solutions. Non-consumer-level solutions. If you’re not a hacker, don’t buy this tablet.

Geeking out

I tried to find a map of the national fietsroutsen. First I went to the fnac. A thought occurred to me. They have GPSes! I made a mental list of the features I want:

  • small
  • light
  • tough – crash resistant and weather proof
  • mounts on handlebars
  • has color graphic of a map
  • has map of national bike routes

But wait, why am I carrying around this giant computer if I could have a tiny one? A cheaper one that’s not also my musical instrument?

  • USB in for a real keyboard
  • drivers to get data from my digital camera
  • a text editor (feature set for this to follow)
  • wifi – so I can upload my text and pictures to my blog
  • bluetooth to talk to my cell phone (or USB is also ok)

When I was a kid, my dad worked as a hardware engineer in silicon valley. He told stories about many interesting folks he met through his work. One of the guys he met was one of the first mobile computing people. He rode his bicycle around the US, towing a computer. This was in the 1980’s, before things were overly mobile. He had a wireless connection via satellite. And instead of blogging, he wrote tech columns. While biking. He had an awesome keyboard: seven switches on his handlebars. He memorized the ascii code sequence for the alphabet and for punctuation marks and typed in the code directly via the switches. I want this keyboard. I acknowledge that I will have to build it myself.

But if you can type and bike at the same time, why not make a text editor especially suited to this? First of all, if you’re typing like this, you don’t want to have to hit save, so you shouldn’t have to. It should just save diffs automatically. And those diffs should have a time stamp and also a location stamp. Because it’s a GPS. If you write something about how lovely the wildflowers look, it would know where you wrote that. I acknowledge that I may have to write it myself, so the computer better take third party applications.

In fact, why not correlate the GPS coordinates with all your data? If you synch the time between the bike computer and your camera, you can put an exact location on every photo.

So I flagged down a fnac clerk and explained that I wanted a small computer for my bike that had maps, knew where I was, would talk to my phone, and could have a keyboard attached. He told me no such thing exists. I don’t believe him because I went later into a travel store to find a compass (the McGyver method of finding north with an anlog watch doesn’t work so well on cloudy days) and I saw they had a CD ROM of all the bike routes in Belgium.

While I’m thinking of the bike computer of d00m, it should have other features, like remembering my route, knowing witch way is north, calculating my speed and distance for the day and other, probably standard GPS features. But why stop there? It should communicate with Google Earth / Google maps and be able to download and deal with third party content from these services. If I want to make out a fietsroute myself, I should be able to mark every sign on the route with the device and then upload it to google maps or online bicycle communities.

So, any of you geeks out there, what should I get? A Palm with a GPS attachment? I don’t want to break the bank, but I don’t want to break my mac either. I’m really lucky it still works after I crashed the other day. I will make certain to always cushion it with bread and oranges, but it’s too useful to me to risk in this way. I mean, why do I need a super-powerful computer to catalog photos, create text and surf the internet? A tiny, smaller thing should be fine. I’m taking suggestions.