The Kamala Project

Kamala Verma, my grandmother (नानी), passed away a few days ago. She was the pillar of the household and the community in Bhagmalpur. For a woman who didn’t go to school past 8th grade and lived most of her adult life in Bhagmalpur, she had some very open-minded opinions about the world. She encouraged people to read, study, go to school, and be as educated as one could be. She raised her 11 children in Bhagmalpur (three died young) to not only go to school, but become a doctor, an engineer, a college graduate or go on to get a Master’s degree. Impressive for a village woman with a middle school education.

We have a room on the second floor in our home in Bhagmalpur, which used to be a library back in the day. She couldn’t read the English-language  books there, but would say “When I die, come into this room and call my name. This is where you’ll find me”.

In her honor, we are starting the Kamala Project. We plan to run a Book Server in Bhagmalpur, with a capacity to serve several thousand books. We’ll start off with the Pathagar book server project and go from there. The 14 XOs in Bhagmalpur are a good starting point to read books with. Pathagar can work outside the OLPC XO laptop software stack as well, so we should be able to reach out to others with regular laptops as well.

To Kamala Verma. We’ll come into the library and call your name. Your spirit shall live and prosper over the millions of bytes we hope to spread.

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The power of Hydrogen

pH – its the level of acidity or alkalinity. In chemistry, pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution. pH stands for the power or potency of Hydrogen. pH of water is around 7. Gastric acid sits at 1 while bleach measures at 13. Wikipedia has a colorful scale.

Upendra, my uncle who farms in Bhagmalpur, has asked me about pH meters to help with assessing the soil on different fields he has. The pH of a field may determine its suitability for a crop or what needs to be added to the soil so that he can grow a certain crop (sugarcane, peas, mustard, wheat, etc.). There are several simple pH meters available at Home Depot in the garden section, but the fact that they have XOs now leads to a new possibility.

We recently did some fun experiments with Copper and Zinc nails during a recent OLPC San Francisco meeting. Stick the nails into a lemon (acidic solution) and fire up the Measure Activity. Then strip bare a earphone cable or fashion one using a 3.5mm TRS (Tip-Ring-Sleeve) mono audio plug. The minute amount of electricity generated by the electrodes plugged into the lemon can then be measured by the Measure activity.

I wonder if the pH of a soil sample can be measured this way, using two electrodes and the Measure activity. One major hurdle would be calibration of scales in Measure, but using some referential samples, we should be able to “zero” the scale.

Perhaps an exercise for Arjun?

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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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Bombings in Mumbai…

Mumbai experienced yet another series of bomb blasts a few days ago. Troubling and sad. Many people died and many more were injured. Will it have an impact on our project which is clear across the country? Unexpectedly, yes.

Our friends who went from San Francisco and were going to visit Bhagmalpur happened to be in Mumbai that day, out sight seeing when the bombs went off. The city shut down, with all local transport frozen. They were stranded, and had to find a hotel to spend the night. Then, they ended up missing their train the next morning. So much for a visit to Bhagmalpur 😦

Thankfully they are all safe and should be returning to San Francisco sometime soon. They were carrying three XOs with them, but these are now in safe custody in Mumbai and will eventually find their way to Bhagmalpur. In the mean time, Utkarsh, my youngest cousin has taken the initiative and will be helping out with our project in Bhagmalpur. He has already become adept with the XO and Sugar. Now that they have an Internet connection, it will be a lot easier to get things done.

I’m looking forward to some interesting feedback from Utkarsh!

Utkarsh with an XO in the backyard.

Utkarsh with an XO in the backyard.

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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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A San Francisco connection?

So, while the XOs in Bhagmalpur are getting ready to be given out to the kids, I have three more in San Francisco, that are getting ready to make the trip. I spend the afternoon updating these and testing all the hardware.

XOs being readied for Bhagmalpur

XOs being readied for Bhagmalpur

Maria Jenerik of Creative Arts Charter School is making a trip to India, and she plans to visit schools while she is there. Through a series of conversations, we settled on the school in Bhagmalpur, and while she is there, her team will help out with setting up the kids with their XOs, answering their questions, and help us in gathering data. She hopes to establish a connection between the school in Bhagmalpur and her school in San Francisco. A connection between the communities of Bhagmalpur and San Francisco. The two worlds are so far apart, and know so little of each other that its almost like folding the space-time continuum!

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Garima

On my visit to Bhagmalpur in 2008, I made an extra effort to go to the local school and see for myself how things were done. Until then, most of my family members would not be too enthusiastic about any of us visiting the school. My mother is a product of this school. So are all her siblings. However, back then the school was a lot more resourceful. The current state of the school isn’t great. Maybe that’s why nobody really wants to go check it out.

Bhagmalpur Pre-Middle School was started by my mother’s paternal grandfather Dargahi Lal and his brother Rajkumar Lal. As far as I can tell, the school was started either pre-independence (pre-1947) or right around then. Eventually, the school was handed over to the Uttar Pradesh government to be subsumed into the abyss of the educational system. It now serves the population of six neighboring villages.

पूर्व माध्यमिक विद्यालय Poorva Maadhyamik Vidyalaya (Pre Middle School)

पूर्व माध्यमिक विद्यालय Poorva Maadhyamik Vidyalaya (Pre Middle School)

One afternoon, off we went to the school, to meet with the Principal and see what things were like, and what potential it held. At the school, we found out why all the kids were outdoors. No, it wasn’t recess. The classrooms were too small to hold the entire class. Each room held 35 children, while each class had 100+ kids. Boys and girls sat separately (reminded me of my high school from many years ago), but they sat under a tree. Each grade level had its own tree.

Under one such tree, we set up a table and I had a little chat with the children. It was 7th grade as far as I can remember. They called forth the “best” student, a girl by the name Garima Srivastava, to come forward and type her name on an XO in Devanagari, the script used for Hindi (I had obtained two OLPC XO-1 laptops from the Digital Bridge Foundation (DBF) as loaners. These had Devanagari keyboards). After typing her name on the XO – for the first time ever on a computer – Garima held it up for all to see and I took her photograph.

Garima on Flickr

Garima in Bhagmalpur

Given that the XOs were loaners, I couldn’t leave these in Bhagmalpur (I could, but I would end up upsetting my DBF friends) so Garima posed with an XO, but never owned one. That one photograph has traveled far and wide. It is up on Flickr. It showed up front and center on OLPC’s video. Most recently, Garima shares the pages of SF State Magazine with the likes of Annette Bening, Delroy Lindo, Johnny Mathis, Dana Carvey, and of course, many SF State projects.

After a long and trying effort, I am very close to fulfilling a promise I made to myself in 2008. Garima will finally get her own XO. Watch this blog as we work towards fulfilling that promise soon. In the mean time, we’ve printed out her pictures and shown her the video. She is on the World Wide Web and all over the world, while she awaits her XO in Bhagmalpur.

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