Category Archives: 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

The importance of UI

One of the most interesting things we found in Bhagmalpur was that a couple of children had accidentally switched over their XOs to Spanish. They didn’t bother to switch back! So, in a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India, there are these two kids who have been using their XOs in Spanish. Go figure 🙂

They simply look at other kids’ XOs in English and follow along the icons. This observation raises the question about the importance of localization in a UI, especially if it is icon-driven like Sugar. Are the icons enough by themselves?

Other interesting observations:

The voltage of grid electricity is so low, that the soldering iron wouldn’t heat up! Anish had to twist wires by hand for sensor exercises using Turtle Art.

We connected to the XS school server via a crossover cable to a Fedora laptop to a cellphone to a GPRS connection, which then established a OpenVPN connection to San Francisco. At 2.4kBps it was painfully slow, but it worked! Sameer managed to edit Apache config files to serve static content. It is evident that the offline School Server plays a major role, but its current software stack is still complicated. At 2.4kBps one cannot hope for a live Internet experience, but there is a good possibility to perhaps do SMTP and POP/IMAP once or twice a day.

We plan on sending updates and content via USB sticks. That seems to be more reliable than the Internet connection.

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More photos from Bhagmalpur are up at

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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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Internet in a box

One of the pieces to the “access to information” puzzle is the availability of content – what makes the Internet so useful. Surely we can run computers off a solar panel, but no connectivity means no content. The XO can be crammed with stuff, but storage is limited. A stop-gap approach is to install a server locally to serve offline content.

This offline concept is quite exciting. Its as if someone has captured a piece of the Internet and put it in a box.  One can also think of it as a mirroring service with extremely high latencies. Its very much like the sneakernet concept from the early (pre-web) days of the Internet. We grab high-bandwidth, high-demand, highly-appropriate content, store it on the server and serve it locally. Connectivity to the outside world may or may not exist. If we have intermittent connectivity, we can use it to monitor, update and maintain the server. If not, then content can be shipped once every so often on a USB stick, plugged into the server and rsync‘d to keep it fresh.

I’ve been mulling over this for a while now, fiddling with hardware, software, networking, content, etc. Then, out of the blue, I had to make a *very* short trip to India on a few hours’ notice. I woke up early, dropped off my kid at summer camp, and sat down to install the OLPC XS School Server on a Fit PC. Given that we have 15 XOs or so in Bhagmalpur, a Fit PC should do. It runs at 12 volts DC and draws about 8 watts at the AC adapter end. Accounting for a 20% loss in AC-to-DC, I’d suspect the machine runs at 5 to 6 watts internally. I have a 64 GB solid state drive on this one, so no moving parts at all. After fiddling for an hour or so, I had the school server installed and ready to go. As a sidenote, I am using a mesh antenna on this install.

Installing the OLPC XS School Server on a Fit PC

Installing the OLPC XS School Server on a Fit PC

Next, jump on a plane or two, and I’m in Hyderabad, India! It just happened to be that my aunt was in Hyderabad, and was heading to Lucknow in a couple of days. So, the server went with her to Lucknow, and will get hand-delivered to Bhagmalpur in a few days. Once this box gets plugged in, we’ll use a cross-over Ethernet cable to talk to a Windows XP laptop via Internet connection sharing. This XP laptop has successfully connected to the Internet via a 3G USB modem. Once the Fit PC sees the Internet, it will tunnel back to my server in San Francisco and we will have “ET phone home” all ready to go 🙂 Sounds complicated? Dreaming big is important!

Here’s an inventory of the stuff I shipped with the XS School Server:

  • One Fit PC
  • One OLPC mesh antenna
  • One roll of Velcro
  • One USB to Ethernet connector
  • One Ethernet CAT 5 cable (yellow)
  • One Ethernet CAT 5 crossover cable (red)
  • Colored cable ties
  • US power strip.
  • Four OLPC XO power cables.
  • Three earphones from the flight, to strip and use with Measure activity.
Bhagmalpur server inventory

Bhagmalpur server inventory

And now, we wait for the box to get to Bhagmalpur. Oh, and after the installation, I had some time left to put a load of music, videos, books and dictionaries on the server, so it wasn’t shipped empty 🙂 The videos are about a bunch of OLPC projects from around the world (Peru, Uruguay, Rwanda, India, Ethiopia, Australia, San Francisco…) so the kids in Bhagmalpur will get to see their lean, green, children’s machine “peers” from around the world.  That will be a Beautiful Day!

By the way, did you know each and every XO boots up to the tune of “Beautiful Day” by U2? Thank you, Bono!

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The Internet has arrived!

The Internet has arrived in Bhagmalpur as of a few minutes ago! Yes, it has arrived. Finally!

Although back in 2008, I did set up the very first connection via a GPRS phone modem and chatted with my good friend Jason Stone, it was for a short while only. This recent connectivity is via a USB modem from Idea. I am loving the prospects of being able send info and get data back very soon!

Getting online in Bhagmalpur

Getting online in Bhagmalpur

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Sources of power

In an environment where the electrical grid comes alive two hours a day, deploying any electronics is a bit of a challenge. A typical mobile phone charger draws about 5 watts, while a OLPC XO-1 laptop charger pulls in 21 watts when charging an empty battery. For communal mobile phone charging, our house has a line of power sockets right outside the front door, where people can just come by and plug in their phone. For laptops, we’ll have to find a different solution.

Front verandah

Front verandah, where the power outlets are located. The room to the left will be used as a XO "reading room".

As for the sources of power, we have solar panels, a diesel generator (the Lister beast is awakened only when needed) and we used to have these really cool biogas digestors, but now that we don’t have any cows or buffaloes, the digestors are sitting idle. There are simple mods that can be applied to gasoline generators and then be fed biogas, but without cows, its only an idea right now.

Diesel generator powered by a Lister engine

Diesel generator powered by a Lister engine

Biodigestor aka Gobar gas plant

Biodigestor aka Gobar gas plant in our backyard

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Electrons and elections seem to be connected…somehow!

If its elections season, Bhagmalpur will see ample electricity. Several hours a day. Sometimes even the full glorious 24! Then the election season ends, the votes are cast, and its back to 2 hours a day of electricity. Not even the full 220V AC. In nearby cities, at least the electrical grid is predictable. Load shedding, as it is called, is planned. We know when it comes, and when it goes.

Not so much in Bhagmalpur. So, we rely on batteries. And solar panels. We have an inverter setup to capture the electrons when they come in, stuff these in battery banks, and then consume these in AC mode via an inverter. Of course, there is energy loss in conversion, but the output is good enough to run a few fans, light bulbs, and the TV occasionally.


Battery Inverter

I am curious to see what headway Bruce Baikie and Laura Hosman make in Haiti and see if we can employ some of those Green -WiFi solar charge controllers to charge our XOs and run the school/book server there. It would be awesome if we could run the school/book server entirely on solar and battery!

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