Monthly Archives: November 2006

The $100 Laptop, revisited

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Today my friend Jason linked to an MSN article about the $100 laptop initiative: The $100 Laptop: What Went Wrong. Now, I have my issues with the project, which I’ve detailed here before, but the MSN article, it seems to me, missed most of the actual problems with the project and went straight for the non-issues, the solved issues, instead.

Some excerpts:

Then along comes the latest scheme to actually provide a unique hand-cranked laptop utilizing a small generator to power the thing.

First, I will try to swallow my pet peeve about the word utilize. (Why use the word ‘utilize’ when what you mean is ‘use’? What does the ‘-ize’ do for you? Make you sound smarter? More professional? I don’t get it.)

It’s not a crank, it’s a string that you pull, first off. Second, what do we mean by “a small generator”? A battery? A battery that gets charged by muscles rather than by plugging it in? I feel that the author used the term “a small generator” to make it sound more unweildy, and to me that’s intellectually dishonest. It’s just a battery. Just like the one in your own laptop. But different.

Besides incredible difficulties with the distribution networks in Africa, Zachary wonders who will maintain these machines. Generally speaking, a societal infrastructure with a lot of computers needs a lot of support mechanisms.

“And in today’s world the real value of a computer is it being networked,” says Zachary. “Finding a network in the poor areas is either impossible or very expensive.”

All of these criticisms are rather hallow, since they are addressed by the project. On the first poirnt, I don’t know much about distribution, but I know the project talks about that with the government in question before the deal is inked. As for support: I think it would be nice to provide support to teachers in particular, and I would like to see librarians get involved in that. (Librarians Without Borders, I’m looking at you.) But the people involved in the project are not support folks, it’s not their territory; they need the rest of us to rally around them on that point. Seeing something missing in the project should encourage people with those skills to step up; shouting from the peanut gallery isn’t terribly helpful.

But that’s not the support the author meant; he meant technical support, hardware support. The laptops ship with spare parts; part of the purpose of this project is help nurture a local industry around these computers, to create experts on the hardware in the countries themselves. I agree that there will be a need for these things, but rather than provide it from across the ocean, it would be best to have that expertise grow in the country itself. Again, I think this is something another profession should step in to assist with. What a fantastic project, don’t you think? Go help people in Cambodia or Namibia to become experts at hardware/software support and let them create their own industry. It’s a nice idea, where the computer becomes merely a product in a chain, something that could help improve an economy. I know this is what they’re thinking, and I think they have a point; but a little support to get it started wouldn’t hurt. But the criticism in the MSN article is crude and blunt, not as precise as an article about the project should be.

And as for networking; why, this author clearly doesn’t know a damn thing about the project at all. Doesn’t it sound as if he’s imagining the children of South Africa being handed macbooks, as if the leaders of the project failed to consider that an internet connection would be hard to come by? Reality: a) part of the negotiations include the requirement of the government to set up access points, and particular kinds. After that, the laptops themselves are the network. They use each other to share the signal. The laptop closest to you is your nearest access point. That’s why there’s no off button on the laptops; they’re meant to be running all the time, if only as a piece of the network. The moment I saw that link in the article I wrote it off; if you can say that, you don’t know the first thing about how those laptops were designed. How can you call something folly when you clearly don’t understand it?

But Zachary has a more profound point: “The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem,” he says. “The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful.”

I think this is actually a ridiculous point. This idea is based on the premise that there are only a certain number of people in the world who would do charitable work, and that adding a technology project just drags people away. This is simply not true. I think what the laptop project is doing is creating a piece that those people who don’t know how to help can contribute to in their own way. I don’t see this project stopping Heifer International or even World Vision. People like Sarah McLachlan are still going to donate their video budgets to charity projects in developing nations. I think it’s rather insulting to the very smart folks at MIT to suggest that they haven’t considered the implications of providing these laptops to children in developing nations. And who are we to tell the Cambodians what’s “useful” to them? MIT isn’t foisting these laptops on children; the governments, the education departments and all their advisers, are the ones to make the decision and foot the bill. If it’s not what they want, it’s not what they’re going to get.

Perhaps the organization should be thinking of the hand-cranked generator as serving that purpose alone [lighting the family hut] and not computing. Lights, along with cellular phones and radios, seem more important than laptops.

But…what if the laptop can provide light, VoIP, and streaming radio (which it can)? Do want to focus on one, or provide a cheap (free) solution for all three? This seems like a terribly unimaginative line of criticism.

In fact, this is a massive exercise in futility. And it’s a shame.

It’s awfully satisfying to knock down straw men, isn’t?

Google wants you to stop Googling

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It’s a trademark issue, and I’m surprised it hasn’t come up until now. Google wants people to stop using the term “googling” to mean searching for something on the internet.

“We think it’s important to make the distinction between using the word ‘Google’ to describe using Google to search the Internet and using the word ‘google’ to generally describe searching the Internet. It has some serious trademark issues,” a representative for the search company said.

I understand where they’re coming from; if the word becomes too distinct from the product, they lose their ability to control their own name. And that could get annoying.

But, in all honestly; does anyone “google” something without actually using Google? And if so, what’s wrong with those people? You can’t “google” someone on Yahoo or Alta Vista. (Does Alta Vista even still exist?) That would just be wrong. I personally would never ever consider using the term “googling” to imply using just any search engine, but then, I am a librarian, aren’t I. But still. I “google” all the time. Using Google. I even sent one of my favourite people to Google as a human sacrifice. That’s what you call love. I wouldn’t betray them by “googling” through a Yahoo interface. Never! Anathema! Perish the very thought!

Affirmative Action for Underperforming White Men

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From Inside Higher Ed this morning: US College rejigs admissions to get more white men accepted. That might not have been their explicit goal, but it’s clearly their implicit goal; they’re accepting applicants who did badly at school but did better than average on the SAT. That sounds fairly reasonable, almost as generous as my undergraduate institution, which purposely let its admissions minimum trail that of other institutions (yay Carleton!) because, hey, high school represents a particular form of learning, and not one all of us excel under (yours truly very much included). But that’s not quite what’s going on at Towson University. By opting to privilege the SAT, they are knowingly privileging a test that has a well-known gender bias.

This is a classic case of test score misuse,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “Towson University is relying on the well-known gender bias of the SAT, which underpredicts college performance for females and overpredicts for males, to recruit young men who have failed to compile strong high school records. Towson’s message to teenagers is wrong-headed: It’s OK to slack off in the classroom, so long as you do well on a four-hour test.”

And not only that:

from the Fair Test Fact sheet:

African American, Latino, new Asian immigrant and many other minority test-takers score significantly lower than white students. Rigid use of SATs for admissions will produce freshman classes with very few minorities and with no appreciable gain in academic quality. The SAT is very effective at eliminating academically promising minority (and low-income) students who apply with strong academic records but relatively low SAT scores. Colleges that have made the SAT I optional report that their applicant pools are more diverse and that there has been no drop off in academic quality.

So why are they doing this? Why are they purposely skewing admissions to get more underperforming white men?

Brian Stelter, a senior who is editor in chief of The Towerlight, the student newspaper, said that he earned a 3.4 GPA in high school and so wouldn’t have needed the new program, but he also said he wasn’t bothered by it. He said that the gender gap is a big issue for students on the campus, so he’s in favor of efforts to do something about it. “If you ask girls on this campus what they think, their top question is: Where are the men?” he said.

So that the girls will have a marriage pool of underperforming white men. Good to know that universities have their priorities straight (no pun intended, ahem).