Author Archives: sv3rma

About sv3rma

http://olpcsf.org https://bhagmalpur.wordpress.com http://olpcjamaica.org.jm http://olpctuva.wordpress.com

Bossa Nova in Banaras

In my previous post, I had written about unencumbered codecs that ship on the OLPC XO, versus the popular demand for video in MP4 container (usually H.264 video). This post has a strange twist with another container: WebM.

WebM is a container put forth by Google. They also proceeded to embed the codec support within Chromium/Chrome. Firefox supports it natively as well. So, videos in WebM will play in Chromium/Chrome and Firefox without a plug-in.

When I travel, I download my favorite tunes from YouTube by using the “FlashGot” plugin. I prefer to download these in WebM (the irony!). Perhaps I am violating some “Terms of Service” somewhere, but that’s a rant for another day.

After my Bhagmalpur visit in Jan 2015, I headed back to Hyderabad. I took a train from Shahganj to Varanasi (aka Banaras) and then after a short stop, I was scheduled to take a flight out of the Varanasi airport in Babatpur (rural Banaras). As fate would have it, or rather as Indigo airlines would have it, their pilot wasn’t experienced enough to land the aircraft in the fog, and so, we had no return aircraft. I was stranded at Varanasi airport with no way to take another flight. Long story short, I ended up spending the night at the airport (usually a No No, but we had special permission!) along with two other travelers. They turned out to be visitors from Brazil and Italy. We had a great conversation that evening and the next day, hanging out at a small airport, eating stale cheese sandwiches. I got reminded of the Langoliers!

Waiting for the Langoliers at Varanasi airport!

Waiting for the Langoliers at Varanasi airport!

Towards the afternoon, I recalled that I had a copy of some “Bossa Nova” tunes downloaded in WebM format. What luck! Here were two people who spoke [Brazilian] Portuguese, stranded in the thick of rural India, and I had “Desafinado” and “Girl from Ipanema” on my laptop! We sat down and listened to a somewhat strange rendition of “Desafinado” by

1) Nova Music LA and

2)  an interesting version of Girl (actually Boy) from Ipanema by Dionne Warwick and Sacha Distel

(with appropriate apologies to Vinícius de Moraes, Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto).

Such great coincidence, or perhaps I’m just cool like that 🙂 Shortly after that, we thankfully got onto our respective flights and headed our different ways. After keeping in touch with my new friends, it turns out they are biodiversity researchers. I hope they’ll come visit us in California to see the Redwoods for themselves! I hope the Langoliers will enjoy the Bossa Nova when they get to the Varanasi airport 😉

 

 

Desafinado on the OLPC XO-4 in HTML5

Desafinado on the OLPC XO-4 playing natively on YouTube in HTML5

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To Ogg or not to Ogg, that is the question

In this recent trip to Bhagmalpur, Anish Mangal and I discovered something interesting. We’ve strived hard to keep the content available through unencumbered formats such as Ogg Vorbis for audio and Ogg Theora for video. Unsurprisingly, the OLPC XO laptop supports these out of the box, but will not run MPEG 4 videos.

Some kids were upset. How would they watch Shah Rukh Khan on their XOs? These kids go to a repair shop nearby and get videos copied over to a USB stick for a small sum of money. However, the videos are in MP4, and they don’t play on the XO.

Yet, we found a Shah Rukh Khan song number on a XO. How did that happen? Did they install the MP4 codec on the laptop? Some conversations later, we found out. They first figured out that the TED videos that do play on the XO are in OGV format. Next, they asked the guy at the shop to convert the Shah Rukh Khan MP4 to OGV. That’s it. Simple as a samosa. Now Shah Rukh Khan lives in OGV! Richard M. Stallman and Shah Rukh Khan are happy together in some universe 🙂

SRK in OGV

SRK in OGV

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Mission accomplished?

When I teach IT strategy, one of the first things I emphasize on, is that the mission is a more abstract, long term concept, and anything that changes the mission with changes to the market, competitors, collaborators, and other forces is probably not the mission to begin with. The mission is supposed to be like a lighthouse, guiding the ship through troubled waters and fog. Imagine your lighthouse changing coordinates every time the seas got rough! Your mission needs to be stable, so that you can hope to achieve it! If your “mission” changes that often, it ain’t mission; it’s just operational fidgeting. You’d be surprised how often organizations have trouble getting the operational mixed up with the strategic. Don’t believe me? Check out what Prof. Michael Porter has to say!

I use a simple tool in my class to describe driving towards a strategic goal, and how one can get derailed. The Mission and Core Competencies (MCC) matrix was published in the mid-nineties. It’s a comparison between the mission and core competencies of an organization. For simplicity’s sake, the author has divided the “mission” and “core competencies” scales into poor and good. This results in a 2×2 matrix, giving us four possible places we can be. We should be in a drive position, where the fit with both mission and core competencies is good. However, that’s not always the case. The organization can be in a drain, dilution, or distraction quadrant. While MCC was created as a tool for strategic management in organizations, it’s also a good approach for making decisions about everyday situations.

Mission and Core Competencies Matrix

Mission and Core Competencies Matrix

For instance, if the project at hand is a good fit with the mission, but we lack the competencies to get the job done, it becomes a dilution. In such a case, we usually hire new talent to improve competencies (long-term), or we outsource to an external agency. Working with open source software gives outsourcing a whole new meaning. Think about how much of the work at OLPC is “outsourced” (in a sense) to Sugarlabs, where volunteers build, test, debug and produce software for all the XO laptops worldwide. It’s a fascinating mechanism, but more on that some other time.

Of course, nobody wants to be in the drain quadrant. It’s a whole lot of fiddling and fidgeting, usually fuelled by hubris and/or groupthink. Once again, open source plays interesting angles here. Because open source encourages tinkering, (scratch an itch), getting focus can be hard, and hobbyist tinkering can do more harm than good, especially for getting the project out of the drain box. The early stages of XSCE comes to mind, when I think of this quadrant. Things have gotten much better, but we aren’t drive‘ing yet.

If the competencies are there, but it does not fulfil the mission, many organizations will take on the project to earn revenue (with a promise/commitment of doing so short term, until things get better), and then they slide down to modifying their mission to make it all fit. The dreaded distraction quadrant! This works short-term, but the trouble with this approach is that you end up solving the wrong problem. Lowering the bar (or raising it, if you are into limbo) makes it easier to “succeed”, but you may end up cheering the wrong kind of success.

Perhaps it’s simpler to think of it as a tale my grandmother used to tell us (aka streetlight effect). In short:

Once upon a time, a man got home late at night, and lost his keys while trying to open the door. It was quite dark there. So, he went searching for the keys by the lamp post. When asked why, he said “I know I lost my keys by the door, but the light is better here.”

For us, in the Bhagmalpur project, the mission is for the children to learn. The ways are via critical thinking and problem-solving, hence the focus on Sugar.  The computers double up as information delivery channels, hence our focus on offline servers and Internet access. That’s a plus, but it’s more of a consequence. If the critical thinking and problem solving parts go well, the community will be better at using the newly-acquired information to make better, informed decisions. Thus far, Sugar and XO laptops have been the most viable for us. Therefore, that’s the way forward. We are not really grounded/concerned directly about cheap tablets or Android, or next newfangled thingamajig, or even about “what Santa may bring for Christmas”. What we are concerned with, is that the upcoming generation learn to solve their problems locally and thrive.

Searching for these keys in the dark is going to be very difficult, but unless we get the correct set of keys, we can’t really open the door!

Onward and upward into 2014.

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Jugaad. The Indian way.

Jugaad (जुगाड़) is the Hindi word for figuring things out. It’s been the Indian way for a long time now. Lack of resources push people to figure things out. I remember, when I was in high school, I used to ride three different buses for over two hours, so I could go to an electronics repair shop and get my hands on a broken motor.  All for the love of science experiments, of course, unsanctioned by my parents! Now, I live a short walk from Radio Shack, but it’s not the same. Hack, make, fix. It’s all jugaad.

I just got off the phone with folks in Bhagmalpur, and they were all beaming. The kids had figured out something. While visiting Bhagmalpur in January, I had copied a whole bunch of music for them. Some of these were in MP3 format. I know the XO is not geared to play MP3 out of the box, but I had little time, and I figured they’d skip it and move on to the Ogg ones. Guess what? They sure did play the Ogg files, but for the MP3 ones, they got a microSD card reader, copied the files onto the microSD card, moved the microSD card to someone’s mobile phone, and got to play it there! Did I teach them about copying files? No. Did I show them how to copy files from the Journal to an external card? No. They figured it out on their own!

Next, they’ve gotten onto Facebook, but the XO-1 is slow to load, and Facebook can make the network connection slow. They spotted on some visitor’s mobile phone that if you tack on a “m.” in front of facebook.com it loads faster. Now, everyone is browsing Facebook using the m.facebook.com address!

Give the kids an inch, and they’ll take a mile. I hope they go far! Welcome to the new jugaad. Same as the old jugaad, only better 🙂

m dot

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A chat with the Delhi team

The OLPC Delhi team ran a hackathon a few weeks ago. As part of this hackathon, they ran a series of Google Hangouts. Here’s one I did with Anish Mangal and Kartik Perisetla. Martin Abente joined us from Paraguay.

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Trains, planes, automobiles

I had quite the whirlwind trip to India for a four week period across Dec 2012-Jan 2013. After coming back, I presented about it at the OLPC San Francisco monthly meeting in January ’13. Then, in the hubbub of my spring semester at SF State, I promptly forgot to write it up. So, here it is, a few months late:

I landed in Mumbai (I still like to call it Bombay) right after Christmas eve, and promptly took off for Ahmedabad, Gujarat. After a few meetings with some friends and acquaintances, I ended up presenting to the governing board of CHARUSAT University, and subsequently to their student body over a two-day period. Across several meetings, I had the opportunity to talk about children, education, OLPC and Sugar to their faculty, staff and over 1200 students. It was a tiring visit, but a good one. CHARUSAT has a social responsibility component, and may look to support such a program in some of their neighboring villages.

Next, I went to Bhagmalpur. This was a trip on a series of trains and taxis. Bhagmalpur isn’t easy to get to. The nearest train station is Shahganj. Other options are to fly to Varanasi or Allahabad, and take a bus or rent a taxi. I ended up taking the trains to Lucknow, and then renting a taxi through the back country to Bhagmalpur. Such trips afford a window into the lives of common people.

I have been running a small project in Bhagmalpur. This is my family’s village. We have several XO-1 laptops there, mostly donated by people who got these during the G1G1 phase. My stop in Bhagmalpur was for less than a week, which I documented here. It was largely a collection of setting up the Wi-Fi AP and a repeater, conducting wireless site surveys, some street mapping, installing 1300+ TED talks, 100+ books and 10GB of world music. We couldn’t set up Internet access because even though the equipment was there, the parents were wary of the things that lurked on the Internet, and wanted us to run a child-friendly filter.

After Bhagmalpur, I flew across the country from Varanasi to Mumbai, where I met up with Harriet Vidyasagar and a few other people who have worked with India’s first OLPC pilot in Khairat. With Harriet’s help, I plotted out a trip to Goa. There, we met up with Salil and Gayatri, who have been helping run the Goa projects. We met several people who are interested in increasing the footprint of OLPC in Goa. We also met with the people who run the current pilot locations. In Goa, I had the opportunity to present to the students at Goa University and at the Goa State Central Library , thanks to Frederick Noronha for organizing the meetup.

Then, we took an afternoon aside and Salil and I went through the details of the XS School Server version 0.7. This version relies the rock-solid foundation of CentOS 6. We set up a XS on his laptop using VirtualBox. My intentions were to use the VirtualBox version as a learning tool, but given that we were short on usable machines, we ended up using the virtual XS for backing up XOs at various schools.

One afternoon, I managed to get some time and visited my dear friend, Chebi Sabbah. It was easier to visit with him in Goa than it is in San Francisco!

With Chebi Sabbah in Goa

From Goa, we took a “sleeper bus” back to Mumbai, and met up with the team at Homi Bhabha Center for Science and Education. There, with the help of Nagarjuna G and his student Rafikh, we went to Khairat. This was my second trip to Khairat. The first was back in 2008. It was great to see Sandip Surve, the champion of a teacher, who has been running the village school and now working with a second cohort of children with the original XO-1 laptops! Some of the keyboards have ripped. Some of the plastic has cracked, but amazingly, they still work. The children have found ways to use pencil erasers to push at the keyboards where the keyboard rubber has gone missing. They love their TuxMath, their Maze, and some have taken to Etoys quite nicely! Sandip Surve is still plugging away. We spend the afternoon talking to him about the overall progress, his needs with repairs, and of course newer software. I had a XO-4 touch with me, that the children used to finger paint and draw objects in Physics. That afternoon, we used one of Salil’s virtual XS machines to register and backup all XOs at the Khairat school.

We headed back to Mumbai that afternoon, and after spending a couple of hours at the guest house at HBCSE, discussing future plans, I headed back to my cousin’s place in Mumbai, and flew back the next night to San Francisco.

Did I mention, it was a whirlwind of a trip?

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The little kid that could

This is Sumit, a little kid who lives next door from us in Bhagmalpur. I took this picture casually, as I walked the streets of the village back in 2003. I was amused by the tripod of a walker. It’s locally made, probably bought at the local faire, and it works well for what it’s supposed to do. It’s not something you’d find at your local Toys R Us, but then again, if you did, it would be in the retro throwback section, and would cost you a fortune!

Sumit and his tripod

Sumit and his tripod, circa 2003

Coming back to Sumit, I saw him again in January 2013. I didn’t know his name was Sumit, or he was the same kid in the picture! He showed a lot of interest in the XOs, the repair sessions, the reflashing, and installing new software. I asked him to help me with some minor tasks, like running a command, but he wanted to know the “why and how” of it. So, I explained to him how the datastore backup happens, and why it takes a random window of 30 minutes to backup (those who know ds-backup would know!). He was curious. He wanted to learn. This was surely not in his curriculum! Nor in a lesson plan! He had gotten the bug of curiosity, and that’s something I can relate to.

Eventually, Sumit helped me with installation, backup, running Python scripts, bash commands, rsync and such. He did a site survey of the village and helped us with installing the Wi-Fi access points. He took apart his XO laptop, repaired a WiFi antenna cable that had popped out, and put things back together. He learned how to access the server, install new Sugar activities, install the Hindi Wikipedia bundle, browse for a ton of offline TED talks, books and music, all  locally hosted on the server. In fact, given that I had a very short window to get a lot done, he became my point of distribution of information to the rest of the kids – a student assistant of sorts, and a fine one at that 🙂 Then, one day, he told me that the photo of the kid with a tripod was really him! How cool is that?!

Sumit helping with a Wi-Fi site survey

Sumit helping with a Wi-Fi site survey

Sumit repairing by flashlight

Sumit repairing by flashlight – we had no electricity.

Could any of this be possible, if we didn’t have OLPC laptops there? Probably not. The local private and parochial schools have “computer classes” where the computer is always broken, and the teacher never shows up, and the parents still pay for all that’s not delivered. A little green laptop is making a difference where it matters…and Sumit is the little kid that could.

sumit-2013

Sumit repairing a broken screen, circa 2013

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