OLPC donation

After reading the AP story about the OLPC pilot, and the more detailed field report, I decided that despite some initial flaws, the OLPC program is moving in the right direction.

So I donated 2 more laptops. Now there’ll be three kids out there getting their first taste of computers and the internet.

When I was growing up, one thing I dreamed of more than anything else was to own a computer of my own. I remember looking dreamily at catalogs, even drooling over the Radio Shack calculators that had a couple K of RAM which allowed small BASIC programs to run. But until my teenage years, computers were always out of my family’s price range.

So $200 a pop seems a pretty reasonable price to give impovrished kids the opportunity I always wished for.

You can donate from the OLPC site.

If you donate before New Years, you can choose to purchase an X01 OLPC laptop for yourself (like I did the first time), or you can just make a straight donation (like I did the second time).

It also makes me think of a sci-fi short story I read once that stuck with me, called “For I have touched the sky” where a tribal medicine man, who secretly knows about technology, has a little girl clean his hut. The girl learns how to read his books and use his computer, and becomes aware that there is so much to learn outside of her village. It’s a moving story that is worth a read.

Anyway, it’s a good cause, and a reasonable price to change a life.


I haven’t slept well in the past few days (only had one full night’s sleep in the past week) because of stress, and the side effects of stress (being sick).

But there were a couple dreams I remembered.

In one, I am in a hallway. I think it’s a school of some sort, a college or a high school, though not one I attended. We are playing a game, in two teams. I don’t really know the people on either team, except for Snooj, who is on the other team.

The game is a mix of Scrabble and football. I don’t know how to play, so Snooj is explaining the rules to me. But because he is on the other team, he is telling them to me all wrong, so his team will win.

I fumble around, trying to figure out how to score points, but I don’t understand the game at all. The whistle blows, and I slink back to my team. “What they hell was that?!?” they shout, “he played several words, and you only put down part of one, and it doesn’t even spell anything!”

I am ashamed and embarrassed as I look back and see that I have apprently tried to play “XVGRN”.

In another dream, I am in a building, which I think is based on my fuzzy rememberings of Twitchell Hill. It has multiple floors with one side open to a large room, and ladders and stairways connecting the floors.

It is set up like a newsroom, each desk has a typewriter and stacks of papers. I am part of the team there, and we are working on the One Laptop Per Child project. People are running updates and testing networking protocols. I have to search around for adaptors to connect them to a wired LAN.

At the time I didn’t notice, but now that I think about it, the OLPC laptops we were working on were actually Apple iPhones.

We are working frantically, and I come in waving a newspaper. I point to an article about the success of the OLPC in Peru, and we all get very emotional, seeing how our hard work has paid off, knowing that we have changed the lives of some children.

OLPC – a closer look

Yesterday I posted about my initial thoughts on the OLPC.

Here’s a more complete look at the software included.

OLPC main screen
The main menu screen

An Overview

All the apps are launched from the app bar along the bottom of the main screen.
There are 20 apps in the standard install.

(oh, in case you’re curious, I just timed the startup of my OLPC, from off to main screen is about 60 seconds)

Let’s take a look at all of the apps, going from left to right on the main icon list.
Sorry for the poor quality photos, there is a screenshot keyboard command on the OLPC, I could have taken a bunch of screenshots and transferred them to my computer with an SD card, but I was lazy and just snapped pics with my camera. You can see higher-res versions on my flickr.


Ok this one’s not very exciting, for me anyway. It’s for chatting with other OLPC machines, and since I’m the only one around, all I can do is chat with myself. So not much to see here.



This is a Mozilla-based browser. Seems fairly robust, though the open-source Flash player doesn’t always render Flash correctly. You can enter and exit fullscreen mode by hitting alt-enter on the keyboard.

Staples.com on OLPC

Here is Staples on the browser. The big graphic near the top is actually Flash. You can’t tell here, but it’s not rendering quite right. Staples makes heavy use of CSS (I should know, I worked on it) and this browser handles it fine.

Wikipedia on OLPC

Here’s Wikipedia in fullscreen mode.


A fairly bare-bones word processor, but not too bad, supports images and tables. Using it made the keyboard’s shortcomings that much more obvious, though. The rubber keys feel like they don’t want to pop back up after you release them (they do, it just *feels* that way) and the closeness of them makes touch-typing near impossible. I found myself typing with two fingers for the first time in… um… a very long time, let’s say. The spellcheck seemed a bit odd. It underlined words it didn’t like, as expected, but I didn’t see any way to get suggestions for correct spellings. Also, contractions were flagged as misspelled, apparently the apostrophe ends the word like a period or comma would.

OLPC Write


This one looks like it would be a lot of fun for kids.
You can use the webcam and mic to record still images, audio, or video with audio. The video is heavily compressed, and looks a bit like Realvideo when it first came out.

OLPC Record Image

OLPC Record Video


I thought this one would be fun, but the buggy trackpad and poor mouse support made it basically unusable. Drawing with the trackpad (as shown here) was annoying, since often it jumps around unpredictably.


For some reason, the mouse is not supported correctly, it buffered the input or something, so when you try to draw, nothing happens, then it slowly carries out your movements seconds later, but all your movements are exaggerated.

Hopefully these are issues they can fix soon in a software update.


There are 4 TamTam apps, I think you can use them together. In most of them, you use the keyboard as a piano, with the “z” row and “q” row acting as white keys, and some of the “a” and number row acting as the black keys.

TamTam Jam seems to be for arranging sequences, though I didn’t have much luck figuring it out on my own. I’m sure if I read up on it online, it wouldn’t be too hard.

OLPC TamTamJam


This is the Squeak platform, allowing kids to write their own apps, or use apps other people have written in Squeak. Squeak is designed to be a kid-friendly programming environment, built on SmallTalk. I’ve tinkered with Squeak in the past, it wasn’t too hard to pick up, but I was turned off by the really ugly interface, where it seemed each palette was literally designed by a different person.

OLPC Etoys



OLPC TurtleArt

This seems to be a prettier LOGO, with Lego-like building blocks to create scripts.
Good for introducing kids to fractals, and programming concepts like loops.


This is a little script parser, I think it’s using (or based on) Python. I haven’t used Python before, but looks pretty easy to pick up. This takes me back to the days of learning BASIC. Ah, childhood. I’d have killed for an OLPC as a kid.

OLPC Pippy


Your basic calculator. Lack of a numeric keypad on the XO1 makes this a little slower to enter numbers, but the same could be said of most laptops. Has some scientific functions. No graphing.

OLPC Calculate


This appears to be an audio oscilloscope. Neat to look at the waveforms of your voice, not sure how useful it is, though.

OLPC Measure

TamTam Edit

This is sequencing software, with a randomize feature so you can create random (and usually horrible) songs. I didn’t play much with this one, but seems pretty powerful for composing your own tunes.


TamTam SynthLab

This lets you play with waveforms using a Lego-like interface, and make all sorts of neat spacey sounds. I didn’t play with it for long, but seems like you can make a lot of sounds with it.

OLPC SynthLab


This is your standard match game, with two twists – one, the items might match symbolically rather than literally, that is “7+7” might match with “14”. The second twist is that you can make your own deck of cards, to try this out I made a deck with “animal sounds” where you match words like “cat” to “meow”. I think there is even a way to use images on the cards, I didn’t try that though.

OLPC Memorize

News Reader

This is an RSS reader. It comes with several feeds already subscribed, you can add new ones. Clicking on a link for more info in a story will launch it in the web browser.

OLPC News Reader

TamTam Mini

This is a “light” version of TamTam designed for younger kids. You can pick a sample by the picture and then poke at keys to bang out a tune. You can set up a beat to go with it. I didn’t see any record options, though.

OLPC TamTam Mini


It’s every kid’s favorite, the Bash Shell! Ok, maybe not, but it is a standard shell.
Here it is running top.

OLPC Terminal

Log Viewer

This lets you view error logs and other logs from various apps. Whee! There were lots of errors in the logs, hopefully that’s normal and not an indication of more software bugs…

OLPC Log Viewer

There’s an option to send the logs to the central classroom computer. This is probably hooked to a central bug reporting database so the people running OLPC can track down crashes and things.


This is a network traffic analyzer. It lets you see networky stuff.

OLPC Analyze

Acoustic Tape Measure

I couldn’t try this one out, since you need two OLPC machines to use it. Looks like it does just what it sounds like though.

OLPC Analyze


One last app, which is always running, is Journal, which keeps track of which apps you have run. If you’ve looked at your mailbox after using the Wii and looked at the stats, it’s similar. Journal also lets you search files to find things that you’ve saved.

OLPC Journal

So that’s it, the whole OLPC suite.

In my initial thoughts post, I was critical of the UI design. I do still think it lacks some polish, but after using it for a while it’s more tolerable, and for the most part is consistent. So maybe I’d bump it from a C- to a C+.

Some of the apps seem out of place, particularly the more sysadmin ones. You would think they would put Terminal, Analyze, and Logs in a hidden menu, or at least a separate area.

Conspicuously absent is a media player. There may be some Etoys apps that can play MP3s, but it would have been nice to see an MP3 and video player with the same UI as the rest of the apps, located in the main menu.

Also, for a kids’ machine, it’s strangely sparse when it comes to games.

I like the Memorize game, particularly the way you could make your own sets.

It would have been nice if there were a multiple-choice quiz game where you could also make your own questions.

A slideshow app would have been nice, too, so that kids could combine music, pictures and text to make presentations. I’m sure you can make an app that does this in Etoys, but it would be nice if there were a standalone app preinstalled.

Also there is no spreadsheet app, which would be handy for entering data for science labs.

I’m sure more apps will come out over time, and it’s not bad for an initial offering.

I do like the emphasis on programming, encouraging kids to write their own software, and making it fun. Computer programming is sadly absent from the American educational system these days.

OLPC first look

My OLPC arrived in the mail!

I’d been looking forward to checking it out, and I have to say, it’s a mixed bag. A few positives, a few negatives.

First off, the hardware;

The case is nice. Adam declared it “fugly” when he saw it, but I think it’s fine for a kid’s computer, even pretty in a sort of Fisher-Price way. It looks like it evolved from a Speak-and-Spell. It has a rugged look, though I don’t know how it would stand up to a drop.

OLPC hardware

There are two little antenna “ears” that serve as a latch when the laptop is closed, as wifi antenna when they are up, and port covers when they are closed.

There are 3 USB ports, a headphone jack, a mic jack, and an SD card slot. The SD card slot is a little oddly placed since it’s below the hinge, but I guess the idea is it would be to expand storage, and wouldn’t be accessed often.

OLPC keyboard

The keyboard is rubber, a membrane to make it spill-resistant. This means the keys are smooshy when you type on it. The keys are also close together and small – not an issue for little child hands, I suspect, but not easy for an adult to use.

There is a three-panel trackpad below the keyboard. All three panels can be used with some future enhancement that would support a stylus, currently only the center trackpad is active, and works with touch. The drivers for it are buggy though, the calibration is poor. Despite re-calibrating it several times, I still found it pretty much unusable. It would move fine, then jump around, then move in the wrong direction sometimes… I’m hoping this is a software issue they can fix with an update, not a flaw in the hardware design. I ended up having to use a mouse.

OLPC ebook mode

The screen is decent, they made a new type of pixel arrangement that allowed them to produce the screens more cheaply. It looks fine to me, the viewing angle isn’t that good, but that’s not a big deal. If you turn the backlight off, it switches to black and white mode, which is not readable in dim light, but would be ideal for reading ebooks out in the sunshine (which is the idea).

There is a pivot on the hinge, so the screen can flip around and fold down, allowing it to be used as an ebook reader or game (it has a D-pad and 4 buttons on either side of the screen).

Early prototypes had a crank on the side, perhaps the most distinctive feature. Unfortunately, that had to be dropped from the final design. Instead it has a standard power supply and rechargeable battery. The changer could be swapped out for a foot-driven charger or solar panels as a future innovation for places without power, although for internet they need a central server with power and phone, so most likely any classrooms using them will have power (though at home the child might not).

There are two speakers, a mic, and a webcam. The speakers seem fine, I listened to a clip I downloaded and it was easy to hear. In a noisy classroom, though, you’d probably want to use headphones.

The Software:

This is where things aren’t as great.

The software suffers from the same thing a lot of open-source software does – it’s largely written by software engineers who know little about graphic design and usability. Which means it’s functional, but not necessarily pretty.

OLPC interface

The interface as a whole is kind of clunky and cryptic. This may turn out to be fine in the field, where teachers and probably the students will get training on how to use it all. But in my opinion, the UI should be easy-to-use with little or no training.

The whole thing is similar to Squeak – a great concept, marred by terrible UI. Ok, maybe “terrible” is a bit of an overstatement, but it’s not pretty or easy-to-use. Thing is, many of the *concepts* for the UI aren’t bad, but the execution isn’t so hot. At first I thought this was because they were trying to create a language-neutral UI, but to use the UI, you hover over icons to see (in a text popup) what they are and what actions you can do to them.

Squeak Interface

Many software engineers actually scoff at “pretty” UI, almost like they think that to have good design is at the expense of functionality. The truth is, good software is a combination of both good functionality AND good design.

There are several bundled apps, which I’ll go over in another post. About a third of them are audio-related, part of a package called TamTam.

All in all, it’s not bad. It’s not the brilliant “oh my god how clever and amazing” that it *could* have been, but it’s at least a starting point. I would say at launch, the software is the weak part. Hopefully they can release some patches to address some of it (buggy touchpad, poor WPA support), but the biggest problem is the overall UI design. You can overcome that with training, but it’s a little disappointing that you would have to, one would hope it would be designed to be incredibly intuitive to use. Instead, it’s passible, but clunky.

Here’s one example of what I mean by clunky – in the news reader, i click on a BBC “learning english” exercise, which launches the web page in the web browser. The web page has an MP3 audio clip, i click on it, and a popup gives me the option to open it with a program. I select it, and it launches eToys, which launches a media player, which gives me a plain square box with the clip name, sliders for volume and shuttle. The player looked like it had been written in BASIC, a plain colored rectangle with plain rectangles for buttons. The whole experience lacks a consistant UI.

So right now, if I had to give it a grade, it would be:
Hardware: B
Software: C-

Overall grade: C

If they work some more on the software, the whole thing would be worlds better.

I am a great believer in the possibilities of programs like this, in Alan Kay’s vision for education. So as a first step, I applaud Negroponte for putting his money and influence where his mouth is. I just wish the XO1 could have been a home run instead of a base hit.

Great Satirists

Some great satirists I’ve been reading lately, who seem to share some mental kinship – perhaps only the kinship of shared genre, but it feels like something more:

Mark Twain
Kurt Vonnegut
Hunter S. Thompson
Tom Robbins

They all possess a great love of language, a dualistic dark but somehow optimistic view of humanity, disgust at bureaucracy and organized religion…

Seems like they are the kind of people that it would be great to go out for a drink with, to sit at a table in a dingy bar, toasting doomsday and discussing humanity.

The long and winding road

It started snowing today around noon or 12:30.

I left work early, at 1pm.

So did everyone else in the state.

What is normally a half-hour drive home took me… (wait for it)… six hours.
Six. Hours.

I could have driven to Maine in that time. And arrived in Maine. And cooked and eaten dinner.

Instead, the roads are clogged. People are ignoring traffic lights, intersections are snarled tangles of vehicles, where the only law is the strength of your will.

I creep along, at times sitting motionless for spans of 20 minutes or more.

I use my phone more than I have probably in the past year, calling people to break the monotony.

The longest wait is an hour or two, waiting for a hill to be plowed. No way forward, and back would just take me further from home. I didn’t even remember the hill was there, next to the Worcester Country Club, but with slippery snow, suddenly topology becomes much more important.

When the hill is finally cleared, I make my way up it. Along the side are a half-dozen cars, abandoned at various points trying to get up the hill. They are empty husks now, cold and dark and behind a wall of snow thrown by the plow. I crunch past the silent car graveyard.

Finally I get home. Mostly. Adam has barely gotten his car into the driveway. Our streets haven’t been plowed, so I gun it and almost make it onto the driveway, but have to stop short to avoid sideswiping Adam’s car.

A half-hour of shoveling and 50 pounds of sand later, at 7:30pm, I finally pull my car into the driveway and can go inside at last.


The snowplow finally just came by and plowed our road. at 10pm.