Category Archives: books


Hello world! from Bhagmalpur… part-2

Following on from the first visit to Bhagmalpur, a second round of software development, bugfixes and finally deployment took place in the ensuing three weeks or so. There were some lessons we had learned watching the server in action:

  • Power is a huge issue. A server needs to come across as a reliable ‘always-on’ kind of appliance, and the situation in the village was not helping on this. While there are efforts to install solar panels to provide uninterrupted power, I took a UPS containing two 7.2 AH batteries, enough to supply continuous power for 12-14 hrs on average.
  • Since the server (xo-1.75 laptop) was not installed in a readily accessible place, as would normally be the case, it was important it would turn itself on as soon as AC power was supplied. Thanks to Richard Smith for helping get around this.
  • The server shouldn’t go into suspend when the laptop’s lid is closed. A simple setting change sufficed.
  • If for any reason, some of the services being hosted by the server go down, they should be brought back up automatically. For this we experimented with a tool called monit, which proved itself to be quite useful. Monit can be smartly configured to restart many types of services.
  • The service that converts the collected statistical data into usable information needs to run on the server itself, so we don’t have to transfer large amounts of data to do a proper analysis.
  • A reliable method of updating and installing new server software. Since doing a vanilla install while present in the village was a cumbersome task, we had to come up with a mechanism to install all these updates/fixes in a robust, fast and repeatable manner. We used a tool called ansible to carry this out. (Hint: you will hear a lot more about ansible in future XSCE releases).

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We also installed power backup to a second ubiquity picostation working in repeater mode to increase the available server uptime. The picostation consumes about 5W, so a single 7.2AH battery provides decent backup. In the evening while we were testing the range of both the AP’s, unknown to us, a bunch of kids gathered on the rooftop of Dr. Verma’s house, and started collaborating through various sugar activities and the internet.

Earlier during the day, some kids brought in a broken screen, and asked me to replace it. However, being the constructionist project that OLPC is (and the lazy person that I am), I told them to figure it out on their own. One of the kids already knew how to fix the screen, so he taught the other kid all by himself to remove the battery, unscrew the relevant parts, gently remove the display and it’s cables, plug in the new one, screw everything back in and voila! Instant joy. Just for the fun of it, a few more kids got into this hardware debugging exercise.

One byproduct of constructivism, which is often ignored is the inculcation of qualities like grit, determination and confidence, which Paul Tough has explored at some length. Having been to the village 3 weeks ago, and a year ago, I could see the change in the way the kids went about themselves and around the laptops. We will only be able to see the true effect of such changes in learning methods a few years down the line, however, we hope to carry out research analyzing the data we collect. (and discussed at length in a soon-to-be-published blog post :-)).

At night, I took a few moments to pause and reflect on a job well done, and the part everyone played to perfection. Sameer, with an accurate assessment of what was needed, and his expert insights; Santi, Nitika for handling the technology side of things, the XSCE community for providing us with a stable base, Upendra and Tripti-ji without whose everyday effort, the deployment wouldn’t even exist, the parents, who encourage their little ones to learn “the computer” even if they don’t themselves understand it’s implications and finally; the never-ending passion and curiosity of the children of Bhagmalpur. To me, the true power of democratized, community driven efforts made itself as conspicuous as the brilliant shimmering stars in the sky that night!

The Milky Way galaxy (or akash-ganga/आकाशगंगा) visible from the crystal clear night skies of Bhagmalpur

The Milky Way galaxy (or akash-ganga/आकाशगंगा) visible from the crystal clear night skies of Bhagmalpur

The following morning, I had to get up early and leave for the airport, since I was unable to find a train reservation on the way back. The newly spruced up airport named after Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri  at Varanasi was a 2.5 hour bus ride away from the nearby town of Shahganj (which is also the nearest railhead to Bhagmalpur). It was interesting to note that there was no functional WiFi internet at a national airport, while we had quietly empowered the kids in a remote village unknown to the rest of the world. Saludos, Anish


Filed under books, children, education, hardware, network, school, software, tech

The constraints of time and temperature

I had a short visit to Bhagmalpur a few weeks ago. I got to the village on January 7, 2013 in the evening, and left on the morning of Jan 13, 2013. Much had to be done in this duration.

I had to unlock the XOs so I could use a Dextrose image from Activity Central. The main reason for choosing this image was the Hindi language support. After getting the keys through the collection stick process, and many thanks to guys at OLPC, I got the machine unlocked. Next, I had to flash all the 26 XO-1 laptops there. NANDBlaster gave me all sorts of errors, so I had to do it by hand.

I had to reconfigure the XS school server to use an Access Point instead of a Mesh antenna (Bhagmalpur might have been the only OLPC deployment that still used a mesh antenna…but no more!). The network interfaces had to be fudged with. Thankfully xs-swapnics worked nicely. I had to show them how to use the Wireless Graph activity to do a site survey and determine the bounds of their Wi-Fi bubble. I had to do the wiring for the XS so it could run off a 12V battery. I had to install the APs in a high location and load balance with a repeater in WDS mode, at someone else’s house, so we could extend the Wi-Fi bubble.

I had to add oodles of content – 1,368 TED videos, music, books, activities, and build a simple HTML page for navigation. I had to show the kids a few neat tricks with the Tuk lens kit. I had to show the kids how to repair XOs.  I had to repair damaged screens, keyboards, chargers (a mouse chewed through one), backup all the journals to the XS and then make a copy.

Oh, and this being my family’s house, I had to also be social, chat with visitors, eat the good stuff, walk the cane fields and take loads of photos.

To add to all this, I had to contend with two constraints. The state of Uttar Pradesh is terrible at several things. One of those is electricity. The AC grid comes alive at 11AM, and goes away at 1PM. Then maybe another hour or so in the evening, and then it’s back at 1AM for a couple more hours. Bulk of the work had to be done when the electrical juice went live. The timings are approximate, with no guarantees. So, I found myself sitting up at midnight, reflashing a stack of laptops.

The other constraint (and the UP government has no control over this one) was that the temperatures dropped to -1 C. With no electrical heat, and uninsulated walls, I had to sit by the fire, warm my bones, and then run off to work the laptops for 10 minutes or so, until I started to shake, and then it was back to bone-warming 🙂

Of course, my family was not quite sure why I’d give up the warmth of the fire and run off to the cold to work on laptops. To them, it didn’t seem like such a big deal if the work didn’t get done. To me, the show had to go on, no matter what.

Thankfully, I got it all done 🙂 I’ll post some details soon, but in the mean time, here are the pics.

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Filed under books, children, education, hardware, music, network, outreach, software, tech, video

Networking, books and more

It’s been a while since I updated the blog with the activities in Bhagmalpur (no pun intended). The children continue to find good use for the XO, in spite of the difficulty of using the XO in English. The parents continue to ask for school-related materials such as textbooks. We are now at 18 XO-1s in the village. The network connection has been a major letdown. The advertised “3G” network run by the local telcos is not really 3G. Its still GPRS. Some say it’s EDGE, but I think its all marketing lies, and heavily oversubscribed. The XOs still register and sync with the XS School Server, but getting direct access to the XS from the outside has been difficult at best. Ping times sit at 1200+ milliseconds from San Francisco. Not much can be done via the network.

I may have some local help soon. Anish and Arjun may travel soon and help out with some basic maintenance and teach the kids some new things to do. In the mean time, there is a small stack of XO-1 laptops in my living room, waiting to be muled carried over into the country one at a time. I am looking forward to hitting the 50% saturation point in Bhagmalpur!

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Filed under books, children, education, general, network, parents