Why are Australians dark brown?

I’m recovering from a horrible/wonderful trip to India. Bhagmalpur, Goa, Khairat and other places were great. Mumbai, not so much. Horrible to see the filth and corruption in places like Mumbai. Wonderful to see the children are doing well and there indeed is some hope.

I’ll start off by recounting a brief query by one of the children in Bhagmalpur. They were flipping through a couple of OLPC newsletters when one of them spotted the article on Australia and asked “If he is Australian, why is he dark brown?”

OLPC Australia

Two things struck me:

1) They were not simply flipping pages. They were paying attention. They were perhaps looking at others like them, elsewhere in the world.

2) How did they know Australians were anything other than dark brown? This time I wasn’t paying attention. Cricket of course! They had seen Australians on TV umpteen times, and none looked like this dark-brown kid in the picture above.

So, I sat down with them, pulled up a world map on the XO and walked them through the story of the human migration and how the indigenous Australians came to live on a continent of their own. We also talked about how the modern, fair-skinned Australians came to be, starting with the discovery of the continent and settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales.

Have I planted a bug that all peoples of the world are essentially the same, and look different because of evolution over the generations? I think so. I had no choice but to let them in on the secret of Melanin.

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The journey of Sugar

As I head to Bhagmalpur, I am reminded of my family’s sugarcane fields. The cane is crushed to produce sugarcane juice, which is then cooked in iron woks to make jaggery or Gud, as it is called in Hindi (गुड़). It’s quite an operation to go from sugarcane to Gud.

The etymology of Sugar reflects the geographical spread of this commodity as well. The English word “sugar” originates from the Arabic and Persian word “shakar”, which itself is derived from the Sanskrit word “sharkara”. Sugar came to English by way of Spanish/Italian/French words azúcar, zucchero, sucre. As an addendum, modern-day Rum comes from fermented molasses from sugarcane (produced in the Caribbean), comes from the last syllable of the Latin word for sugar, saccharum.

So, sharkara (sanskrit) -> shakar (arabic) -> sucre (French) -> sugar (English). Perhaps by extension, sugar (Python)? I’m off to harvest some sugarcane (गन्ना)



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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 http://on.fb.me/M7aDZC

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Two friends visit Bhagmalpur

I am thrilled to report that Arjun Sarwal and Anish Mangal are both in Bhagmalpur for a couple of days. They will be helping us in updating some content, some XS school server work, and log collection.  Both Arjun and Anish also have exciting activities for the children. Sensors, a makeshift telescope, Arduino board, and much more.

As a kid, I used to dream of taking my friends to my village with me. That dream has come true is strange ways. I am still in San Francisco, while Arjun and Anish are in Bhagmalpur, and while I consider both as friends, I have never met them in person…yet 🙂 We live in interesting times. Stay tuned!

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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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So, what’s working?

We went through an interview marathon with the children in Bhagmalpur yesterday. The interviews were done over the phone with plenty of help from my mother who translated and asked questions in Hindi. At this point, the children have had their OLPC XO-1 laptop for six-to-eight weeks. While we are still busy documenting all that was gleaned from these calls, here are some interesting observations:

  • Of all the children who have registered for a “computer” course at school, none have actually ever used a computer because they have been told that the computer is broken, and so the teacher cannot teach anything. Reminds me of the “Computer Club” at August Town Primary School in Jamaica.
  • Many children like to learn about elements such as Hydrogen and Nitrogen because they have started to learn about elements in their school. Note that nobody has ever told them about chemistry or elements on the XO. None whatsoever. They have discovered these on their own.
  • Many children like to use the calculator. They use it to get assistance in their math lessons. They use the Calculate activity to check their answers.
  • TamTamMini seems to be another favorite.
  • Most have asked about Internet or Browse Activity (they all call it “activity”, again something they have gleaned on their own) but none of them have ever used the Internet or even know what Browse is. We still don’t have good connectivity in Bhagmalpur.
  • We are using a “One Laptop per Child per Family” model, and in all cases, a sibling (older or younger) uses the XO laptop as well. However, in none of the cases do any of the parents use the XO. In some cases the parents actually think their child “wastes time” on the XO. They don’t see a reason why the kid should do anything but “study for school” on the computer. The parents want digital copies of textbooks on the XO. Interestingly, none of the children asked for textbooks on the XO.

While we’ll get more results in the next few months, these are some anecdotal observations that stand out. More to come soon.

Offline Wikipedia page on Hydrogen

Offline Wikipedia page on Hydrogen prepackaged on OLPC XO laptops. No Internet access required.

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A peer-to-peer learning model

Back in 2002, I had grand plans to bring the Internet to Bhagmalpur. Along the way, I learned about all the problems with power, connectivity, content and learning. Then OLPC came along in 2007 and I jumped on that train. There were so many possibilities! In 2008, I was in India, visiting several places including Khairat (India’s first OLPC pilot) and Bhagmalpur. At the local school in Bhagmalpur, I realized that equipping the school with computers to serve the 1100+ children wasn’t going to be trivial. So, I switched my approach to a “One Laptop per Child per Home” model. I had some very interesting conversations with Mary Lou Jepsen and Barbara Barry at OLPC SF Community Summit 2010. In fact, Mary Lou pointed out that my approach was similar to Grameen Bank‘s except I was using a laptop and the ownership was with a child as opposed to using a mobile phone sold to the woman of the household (Grameen’s model).

Then came the issue of teaching the kids. Who was going to be the trainer and who was going to be the trainee? So, we went through some basic training on the phone (its tough to train on the phone!). I also printed a copy of the Sugar manual and send a paper copy to the village. All that was helpful to get the process going.They understood the Zoom metaphor, the Journal, the Control Panel and such.

Next came the interesting part. Interesting because we’ve seen this in other projects such as OLPC Jamaica as well. After giving the children a starting point, they quickly took over. In fact, they took over so rapidly, that the people who were trained fell behind quickly. Now, we simply use the meeting time so that the children can work with each other and teach each other how to work the Sugar interface. The birds have flown the coop!

So, pay attention when I say to those who think that this project can only be successful via structured teacher training: “Ha!”

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