Monthly Archives: December 2007

Ex 2007, Oh 2008

[First published at GOTOXO as Ex 2007, Oh 2008 on December 31, 2007.]

We got back from Venice yesterday. I will write more on that trip shortly; suffice it to say for now that I did indeed take my XO to San Marco Plaza on Christmas Day, and also took a picture with my XO during a layover on the way back at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.

I was up quite early this morning due to jet lag, rising about 4AM. The day itself was both a summary of several developments and I hope an omen of some good things to happen in 2008.

Two more XO’s arrived while we were away. I left them in the boxes and drove down to the IBM Research Lab in Hawthorne in the morning to send them on their way to the Sahana project in Sri Lanka. It was a very satisfying experience to know the Sahana folks will soon be able to start bending the XO to their will, and I expect it will only be a matter of time before we will all see a picture of an XO at the scene of a major natural disaster.

When I read some of my email I learned that Josh and Zander Bolgar received their XO’s on December 27th, courtesy of the following email from Josh:

Dear Dave,

This is the first email sent from my XO! I’ve been working with Pippy to write my first programs. Here’s a logarithm calculator.
This is lots of fun. Can’t wait to program with you.

Josh sent along a small Python program that shows he has already started figuring out the language. I’m looking forward to working with both Josh and Zander soon.

I learned via phone mail that one of the folks at the k12 OpenMinds conference I attended back in October in Indianapolis wanted to continue some joint discussions we are having on some of the work of his company and possible opportunities for IBM. This might even lead to my attending an interesting conference that is coming up in a couple of weeks.

Later on in the afternoon I went to drop off a check to our dog’s caretaker, Alec. During our conversation I mentioned my new XO, as I recalled that Alec was a geek like me. He mentioned he had been trying to get MythTV running on his Ubuntu box, but was having some problems, so I went back to my house to get two Ubuntu books, and also took along the XO to show it to Alec and his dad. As we were talking Alec mentioned he was just learning Linux and wanted to know about how the kernel worked, as well as some of the details of the shell language. I then recalled I had an old SONY DVR that I had picked up a few months back at a garage sale. The owner said there had been a power surge and the remote stopped working, but that otherwise the device probably worked. So I asked Alec to hop into the car so we could go back to my house to get the DVR box and some more books.

I then had the great pleasure of loaning Alec O’Reilly’s book on Bash and my copy of The Unix Programming Environment by Kernighan and Pike.

Just thinking about K&P made me appreciate the great fun that some of the members of the XO Generation are going to have. The XO Laptop is powered by open-source software, the software created by applying the scientific model to programming. Though software is a relatively recent phenomenon, going back at most six decades, there is already a substantial literature about it. Some of that literature is quite good, and there are even classics such as K&P. I had thought of giving Alec my copy of another classic work, Richard Stevens Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment, but realized he should work through K&P first.

These incidents summarize what I think are the major developments of 2007 –at least from my perspective as a volunteer interested in promoting the use of open technologies such as open-source to help our curators, educators and librarians in their vital mission — as well as the immediate opportunities ahead:

  • The ongoing reduction in the cost of hardware so that it is now possible for about two hundred dollars to build a decent desktop (not counting the cost of the display, keyboard or mouse) or a laptop such as the XO. The cost of this hardware is now less than the cost of buying a copy of Windows and Office to run on it.
  • The k12 Open Minds Conference in Indianapolis in October. This was the first national conference to bring together educators and open-source folks in the U.S., and there was substantial participation from people outside the U.S. This was a historic event.
  • The first mass production and distribution of the XO laptop from the OLPC.

The major opportunity — and challenge — for 2008 will be to educate the new users of the XO, and using the XO not only to provide education in general, but education in computers and their programming in particular to at least some of these new users so they can go on to make the XO even better in the years to come.

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Blogging Geek to Geek

[First published at GOTOXO as Blogging Geek to Geek on December 31, 2007.]

My wife mentioned earlier today that she had mentioned my interest in the XO laptop to one of the members of her book club, a woman who is quite well known in the NY publishing industry. She learned that her friend knows both Negroponte brothers: Nicholas, the computer scientist and OLPC founder and CEO; and John, a Deputy Secretary of State and former director of the CIA. Her friend also said that I must be a “geek.”

I realized later during dinner that her friend was right. As we were recalling our recent visit to Venice, I mentioned that whenever we went from one part of Venice to the other I always first decided how many bridges we would have to cross. For example, our hotel was near the train station. So if we were going to Plaza San Marco then we would cross no bridges if we turned to the right. If we turned to the left we would cross at least two bridges, unless we went by boat, in which case we would cross none.

My wife replied she would never even think of this, and that’s when I realized I really am a geek. I confirmed this even further a few minutes later when I mentioned that visting Venice reminded me of Euler’s Seven Bridges of Konigsberg.

Then again, my geekiness was apparent when first we met. She once said that after our chance meeting she thought she would never see me again, since I had never asked for her phone number. I replied that I hadn’t needed to ask for her phone number, for I had learned during our conversation that one of her roommates was a fellow student at the Courant Institute, NYU’s graduate school of mathematics. I thus knew that I could find her phone number just by asking her roommate for her phone number, since the numbers must be the same. I then went on to explain that this was an example of what is called a “lemma,” an intermediate result that simplifies getting things done in mathematics, and thus began my wife’s education in living with a geek.

Crunch Time

[First published at GoToXo as Crunch Time on December 31, 2007]

Software, like mathematics, is but a form of writing. I have been doing one or the other for several decades, and so have come to know some of the fellow authors who do this kind of writing. While authors of novels tell stories about people, the authors of software and mathematics write about other things, but they are also people, and have their own stories, as I was reminded by a recent post in Slashdot that brought back memories of a chance meeting back in the 1970’s, my “Crunch Time.”

I just noted via a post in Slashdot, A Look Back at One of the Original Phreaks, that the New York Times recently ran a story, Dial-Tone Phreak, that reported the death of Josef Engressia, one of the original “Phone Phreaks.” Though I never knew Mr. Engressia, nor had I heard his name before, on reading the story I learned he was an associate of “Captain Crunch” himself, John Draper, whose web site can be found at John T Draper (AKA Captain Crunch) .

I once met Mr. Draper, as they say, “back in the day.” This would be during the SETL project, around 1974 or so. I was one of the few people who were around for the entire history of the project, over a period of close to a decade. Many other people were associated with the project, some for several years, others for just a few months. For example, I recall that Lambert Miertens spent about a year with the project around 1978. On his return to the Netherlands, Lambert worked on a programming language called “ABC” that included some of the ideas from SETL, as well as some of the work he had done on Algol 68. Guido Rossum, the inventor of Python, was familiar with this work, and it played a role in the design of Python, the main programming language used in the XO Laptop.

One of the visitors who spent some time around SETL, though I think it was just for a few months, was Bob Bonic. His story was interesting in itself,in that he was a tenured professor of mathematics who gave up his career to open a bar in SoHo (the area in New York City just “SOuth of HOuston (street).” I just found mention of this episode via Google in DIALECTICAL MARXISM The Writings of Bertell Ollman. Several other stories about Bob can be found via this, that, and the other.

It was Bob who introduced me to Captain Crunch. Bob came into my office on the fourth floor one day accompanied by someone he thought I might like to meet. After a while, as the new acquaintance talked about some of his work, I realized I was talking to Captain Crunch himself. Later on Captain C. offered to teach me some of the tricks of his trade, but I politely declined. Though I had never been a Phone Phreak, I had been an undergraduate at Caltech, and so had some experience with activities at the boundaries of the law, as for several months I carried around a set of lockpicks, tools that were part of the curriculum at CIT devoted to an obscure ritual called “Senior Ditch Day.”

I declined the offer to learn how to make free calls. When I read a few months later than Captain Crunch had been indicted I realized I had made the right call.

Shock Block: On the power of a single individual and the power of computer simulation

[First published in GOTO XO as Shock Block: On the power of a single individual and the power of computer simulation on December 20, 2007.]

Here is a photo of a unique object, my Shock Block:

Shock Block
Shock Block

Here is how the Shock Block came to be.

First a block of very hard clear plastic was machined to be a rectangular block to an accuracy of a few thousandths of an inch. Then a small hole was drilled through the center and a wire was run through the hole. The ends of the wire were then attached to a bank of capacitors that filled a room about fifteen feet long, ten feet wide, and perhaps ten feet high.

A switch was then thrown so that the entire charge stored in those capacitors was fed into the wire. The wire instantly vaporized and the effects of the resulting shock wave can be seen in the photo.

During my college summers in 1962-1966 I worked in the Air Force Weapons Lab (AFWL) in Kirtland Air Force Base in my hometown, Albuquerque, New Mexico. I got the job because I was an Explorer Scout in a troop that meet at the base during my high school years. It was there I first used a computer, and I still have the computer manual to show it, as I have described in an earlier post, Back In The Day: Computing in 1959, 1971. One of the scoutmasters worked at the personel office in the base, and with his help I was able to secure the job.

The main mission of AFWL in those days was to simulate the effects of nuclear and thermonuclear explosions in the atmosphere. This was due to the efforts the 1960’s of President John F. Kennedy’s his science advisor, Prof. Jerome Wiesner, to end nuclear testing in the atmmosphere. [1]
See for example, The Road Less Traveled and JBW: Foreward. The latter reference is particularly interesting in that I learned on reading it that Prof. Wiesner played a key role in founding MIT’s Media Lab, the creator in part of the XO Laptop:

At the time of my visit, Jerry was still weak from surgery and I did not want to tire him, but I had one other pressing question: Would he continue his efforts to realize a media laboratory at MIT? He responded that sometimes you get into something so far that you cannot pull out.

I worked at AFWL after the ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which confined testing to underground explosions. As a result the mission of AFWL included both underground tests, conducted at Yucca Flats in Nevada, and various simulations. I was not involved in any actual tests at Yucca Flats, though I did gain some education in office politics. One of the officers was deemed a bit of a pest, as was confirmed when I learned he had been given his own A-bomb to explode at Yucca Flats, as this would remove him from our presence for at least six weeks.

AFWL thus had a nearly unlimited budget to construct various Rube Goldberg devices to simulate the effects of nuclear explosions in the atmosphere. The Shock Block is one example. During my first summer at the lab I spent much of my working day in a Farday Cage, a room about twelve feet on a side encased in copper sheeting. I took thousands of pictures of oscilloscope traces as we vaporized various materials. The main form was to machine a similar block of plastic, insert a thin sheet of foil on top, and then cover the foil with a thinner piece of hard plastic with a square cut out in the middle. My area of expertise became the mixing of epoxy and its used to attach the thinner piece to the larger block. The capacitors were then charged up. When they were discharged the resulting current vaporized the foil, sending a small slice of material up to impact on the same material used in warheads. The scope pictures measured the effect of the resulting shock on the warhead material.

Within a few years we moved on to the use of computers. Again, cost was no object. As described in the “Back in the Day” post cited earlier, I wrote code for the CDC 6600 at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (CIMS) starting in the fall of 1966. That machine was serial number 2. A few months earlier I had written and run code on the CDC 6600 at AFWL. It was serial number 1, as the Air Force had first dibs in acquiring what was then the world’s premier supercomputer. Save employees of the maker, Control Data Corporation, I’m quite certain I am the only person to hav ever used both these machines, since you had to work at AFWL , have some programming skills, and have a Secret clearance to make use of S/N 1.

My programming efforts in the summer of 1966 were primarily done to determine the number of lead bricks that should be placed as shielding around what was then probably the most intense man-made source of X-rays on the planet. There was an immense device that could saturate a space of about a cubic meter with an intense burst of X-rays for the purpose of determining their effects on a nose cone and the electronics contained inside it. Though I can’t say I did the best possible job, I can assert I did an acceptable one, at least on a personal basis, for I am a father.

This is one of the great powers of the computer. It can be used to simulate things. As I have described in a previous post, Python-XO: Alan Turing’s Definition of a Computing Machine are computers are fundamentally alike. In particular, you can use one to simulate another. For example, you can use an XO to simlate the computer chip that can be found within a cell phone. You can also user a supercomputer such as IBM’s BlueGene to simulate the ways proteins fold. That is why IBM built it, though of course it can be used for other purposes.

It will be interesting indeed to witness the ways in which the XO will be used for simulation. All it will take is some imagination and some innovation.

It will also require providing education on how to do this. This is the main reason I write this blog.

Notes:

1. Prof. Wiesner’s son Steve was a fellow resident of Paige House at Caltech for part of my undergraduate days.

On Philately

[First published in GOTOXO as on December 20, 2007.]

Courtesy of Sam Ruby’s Planet Intertwingly I just came across a wonderful post by Rob Weir, A Lick Back in Time. Though Rob also works for IBM we have never met save via our blog postings. This is so far my favorite of his posts, for in it I learned that we are fellow stamp collectors, or philatelists.

Rob’s post is about the U.S. Commemorative stamps issued in 1957. I was an active collector in those years. I got an allowance of about $15 each week. My mother said I had to pay for my school lunches and do what I wished with what was left. As a result, since I was a passionate collector in those days, I ate very sparingly so I could save as much as possible for my weekly journey to the local stamp dealer in Albuquerque in those days, Mr. Flynn:
Stamps 1957
Cover Scott’s Catalog

Stamps 19574

I spent many wonderful Saturdays in his store, looking at many stamps and buying a few. My specialty was U.S. commemoratives, and I have a pretty complete collection from 1933 to about 1960. Here are a few photos I just took of my stamp collection. I hadn’t viewed some of these stamps for several decades:

Stamps 1957
First Day Covers circa 1957

Note the Polio Stamp. See Don’t forget to get your Flu Shot and the mention of Polio therein.

The Noah Webster Cover is also of interest, for it bears the postmark of Hartford, Connecticut. As it happens, I had a phone call yesterday with one of Connecticut’s leading proponents of the use of open-source and other open technologies in Connecticut schools. He lamented that while all of Connecticut’s school districts now have access to high-speed Internet courtesy of a statewide initiative, few schools have the resources and trained personnel to make proper use of the connection, and cited Hartford as a case in point.

Stamps 1957
Plate Blocks 1957

Stamps 1957
1957 Commemoratives, Page 1

Stamps 1957
1957 Commemoratives, Page 2

Stamps 1957
1957 Commemoratives, Page 3

Stamps 1957
1957 Plate Block of Oklahoma Stamp

Rob wonders in his post why the Oklahoma stamp has the symbol of the atom. My own guess is that this was a reflection of the peaceful uses of atomic power of the mid 1950’s, as a similar symbol can be found in Scott’s 1070, “Atoms For Peace,” 1955:

1957 Stamps
1955 Commemoratives

Note the similiarity of the atom in this stamp to that found in the Oklahoma stamp.

It is also worth noting the stamp honoring Andrew M. Mellon. The foundation named after him provided much of the key funding for the Sakai and Kuali open-source projects that were developed by, and are being used within, several of our major Research Universities.

My grandfather, Dr. E. Kyle Simpson, born in 1883, was also a philatelist. He saved many stamps during his years as a doctor in Pontiac, Michigan, in the 1930’s and later. He saved many full sheets, though since he started doing this only after 1933, they were of little monetary value, though a good deal of sentimental value. He sent them to me in the 1950’s when he learned I also was a stamp collector.

Grandfather's Stamp Collection1

Grandfather's Stamp Collection2

Grandfather's Stamp Collection3

I am posting this on my XO blog as there is a bit of the collector in all of us, and I would hope that one of the main uses of the XO in the years to come will be the cataloging of their culture by the members of the XO Generation

Laughable Links

Blogging can be fun. Not only is it fun to write posts, if you use WordPress to do your blogging you can learn how people reach your blog posts. Some of the incoming links can be quite surprising, and some are quite funny.

I just noted that a link to my post On the shortest Python program can be found at Affordable Life Insurance!

I have no idea what led to this link, though it does recall one my of favorite scenes in all of Woody Allen’s movies. In Take The Money And Run (1969), there are some memorable quotes. Here are a few featured in the IMDB article:

Bank Teller #1: Does this look like “gub” or “gun”?
Bank Teller #2: Gun. See? But what does “abt” mean?
Virgil: It’s “act”. A-C-T. Act natural. Please put fifty thousand dollars into this bag and act natural.
Bank Teller #1: Oh, I see. This is a holdup?

Virgil: Nobody wears beige to a bank robbery!

There is at least one missing from this list. It comes in my favorite scene, where the hero, the hapless bank robber Virgil is sentenced to three days in jail with a life insurance salesman. As the cell door slams shut we hear the immortal words:

Let’s talk term life insurance.

I expect the salesman wanted to tell Virgil that term insurance was the best because it was so affordable, and perhaps that explains why Affordable Life Insurance linked to the work of Blogger Dave.

I can think of a similar scene that I would love to see put to film. Titled “The OOXML War Against Reason,” the film would have a scene where a number of Microsoft senior executives and technologists are convicted of the high crime of Insane Reasoning and Utmost Stupidity In The Drafting Of A Standard, and are then sentenced to thirty days in a jail cell with Andy Updegrove, Bob Sutor and Rob Weir.

I have earlier written of the possibility of using recognized open-source experts to star in movies, in Who should be the Pirate of the Caribbean? Linus Torvalds? Johny Depp? Russell Crowe?, and hereby suggest that Brad Pitt should play the role of Rob Weir, reprising his performance as Achilles in Troy, for Rob has specialized in exposing the Achilles heel of the OOXML standard, faulty reasoning.

IMDB’s list of quotes from Take The Money And Run includes another that is especially apropos to the topic of my recent post Technorati Considered Harmful:

Louise: He is always very depressed. I think that if he’d been a successful criminal, he would have felt better. You know, he never made the ‘ten most wanted’ list. It’s very unfair voting; it’s who you know.

Alan Turing’s Definition of a Computing Machine

[First published in GOTOXO as Python-XO: Alan Turing’s Definition of a Computing Machine on December 20, 2007.]

In a previous post in this series about the Python programming language and the XO laptop, XO-Python: On Von Neumann’s First Program, I made mention of the work of John von Neumann in 1945 in which he wrote one of the first known programs in a form close to that used in today’s programming languages.

In this post we look at the work of another of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, Alan M. Turing. One of the fundamental papers in the history of mathematics and computing is Turing’s ON COMPUTABLE NUMBERS, WITH AN APPLICATION TO THE ENTSCHEIDUNGSPROBLEM, published in 1936.

Turing asked himself the question, “What does it mean to compute something,” especially in a mathematical sense. Towards that end he defined the notion of a “computing machine” as follows (with my emphasis added in bold):

We have said that the computable numbers are those whose decimals are calculable by finite means. This requires rather more explicit definition. No real attempt will be made to justify the definitions given until we reach §9. For the present I shall only say that the justification lies in the fact that the human memory is necessarily limited.

We may compare a man in the process of computing a real number to a machine which is only capable of a finite number of conditions q1, q2, …, qR which will be called “m-configurations”. The machine is supplied with a “tape”, (the analogue of paper) running through it, and divided into sections (called “squares”) each capable of bearing a “symbol”. At any moment there is just one square, say the r-th, bearing the symbol S(r) which is “in the machine”. We may call this square the “scanned square”. The symbol on the scanned square may be called the “scanned symbol”. The “scanned symbol” is the only one of which the machine is, so to speak, “directly aware”. However, by altering its m-configuration the machine can effectively remember some of the symbols which it has “seen” (scanned) previously. The possible behaviour of the machine at any moment is determined by the m-configuration qn and the scanned symbol S(r). This pair qn, S(r) will be called the “configuration”: thus the configuration determines the possible behaviour of the machine. In some of the configurations in which the scanned square is blank (i.e. bears no symbol) the machine writes down a new symbol on the scanned square: in other configurations it erases the scanned symbol. The machine may also change the square which is being scanned, but only by shifting it one place to right or left. In addition to any of these operations the m-configuration may be changed. Some of the symbols written down {232} will form the sequence of figures which is the decimal of the real number which is being computed. The others are just rough notes to “assist the memory”. It will only be these rough notes which will be liable to erasure.

It is my contention that these operations include all those which are used in the computation of a number. The defence of this contention will be easier when the theory of the machines is familiar to the reader. In the next section I therefore proceed with the development of the theory and assume that it is understood what is meant by “machine”, “tape”, “scanned”, etc.

Turing went on to prove some of the major results in mathematics in the last century. By defining in abstract form a “computing machine” he was able to characterize the kinds of things that could be computed by this machine. He then proved there were some things that could not be computed by this kind of machine, and in doing so he demonstrated there were fundamental limits to what could be computed. While these computers were universal in power, they were not universal in reach. There were, and are, some questions that cannot be answered by any computer, no matter how powerful.

Moreover, while his machine was abstract, all the computers we use today — the creation of scientists and engineers — are but practical instances of this abstract computing machine. Our real computers can compute everything that can be computed by what is known as “Turing’s machine,” and they can compute nothing that cannot be computed by Turing’s machine. For example, the XO can compute anything a desktop can compute. It may take longer, much longer, yet the XO has, at a fundamental level, the same power to unlock the secrets of the universe as does the desktop, or the world’s largest supercomputer.

All computers are fundamentally equivalent. Some are smaller, others are bigger. Some are faster, others are slower. Yet all do the same thing. It is a matter of degree, not a qualitative difference.

I wrote in a previous post, Python-XO: The Farmer in the Dell that programming is just a form of writing. The key point I wish to make here , especially in understanding the importance of Turing’s ideas to the nature of programming itself, is that computing itself is but a combination of reading and writing. This is why I emphasized “scanned symbol,” for this is the reading part. The writing part can be found in “writes down a new symbol” and “liable to erasure.”

Computing is a form of writing, as is a shopping list, a novel, or a computer program written in Python that instructs the computer how to do its reading and writing.

Do You Have To Prove It Works?

[First published on GOTOXO as Do You Have To Prove It Works? on December 19, 2007.]

I just came across an interesting post at planet.laptop.org by Bryan Berry, Speech to the OLPC Learning Club of DC.

Bryan speaks to three difficult issues he has encountered after people get over their first rush at seeing an XO Laptop:

# 1: There is hardly any content for the XO.

# 2: Teachers don’t have time for the XO.

# 3: You have to prove it works!

I don’t yet have my XO laptop, and I’ll give my own views on it when I get my hands on it.

However, I think it worth looking at these three issues from the perspective of the PC, the Personal Computer we have had around in the United States for over twenty-five years.

# 1: There is hardly any content for the PC in the classroom.
Whenever I speak to an educator these days, or someone who works with educators, I ask them the following question:

We’ve had PC’s around for over twenty-five years in the United States. Can you name just one computer program that has really led to an improvement in pedagogy in our largest, poorest, urban schools during that period? Just one?

No one has yet ventured an answer, and one person whose opinion I respect said that his best guess was that, taken all in all, personal computers have done more harm than good in these schools. [1] The dollars spent on them would have been better spent elsewhere.

I often then remark that if we have invested just one-tenth, or even just one-twentieth, of the money we have spent on building computer games to write better educational software then our classrooms would be in much better shape. No one has yet said I’m wrong on this.

Here is another way to express the lack of content:

Name, in order of measured success, the five Microsoft products that have demonstrably improved the quality of education in the United States in the last decade.

Five? Four? Three? Two? One? None!

Yet another:

Let’s assume that, miracle of miracles, Microsoft could made Windows XP, or Vista run on the XO Laptop, using no more space than that needed for Linux and the current XO applications that are written in Python. What would then be the five must-have applications from Microsoft that every educator would want, ones that would still fit on the XO’s and leave enough room for the students to do some meaningful work?

I can’t think of even one … Five? Four? Three? Two? One? None!

What about Linux?

Name a Linux application that has improved education as well as any commercial product?

This is a trick question, in that we are asking about what I think is an empty set. See Python-XO: On the shortest Python program. Since no commercial product has had that much effect, then Linux is as good as any of them. So the answer could be “all” or “none.” You take your pick.

The net is that Linux is probably almost as good as most available commercial software when it comes to classrooms. It certainly costs much less. Yet since folks don’t really want to admit just how bad the current software is, especially in that so much money has been paid to license it, things will stay pretty much as they are.

# 2: Teachers don’t have time for the PC.

True. Teachers don’t have much time for anything except to prepare their students to take standardized tests of questionable value, and since they are paid too little many of them have to work at second jobs.

Given this environment, there is little incentive for teachers to try anything new, especially if there aren’t even resources available to teach them how to use proposed new technology.

# 3: You have to prove it works!

Do you? Available commercial software seems to have achieved a market share close to 100 per cent even though evidence to date suggests it is of little value.

If the PC hasn’t had to prove itself, why should the XO have to do so?

In a rational world, people would accept that innovation in education is hard, really hard, and so would understand that many paths would have to be tried, even though some would fail, for that is the nature of true science. See On Education, Innovation, OLPC, And Open-Source for some more thoughts on the difficulty of doing innovation in education.

But, sad to say, the world isn’t always a rational place, and the XO will probably have to “prove itself,” even though the current incumbent hasn’t proven itself. This is one of the problems of innovation. Everyone always views the world through the lens defined by the current reality. It is hard to look through that lens and recognize a new reality is possible, especially if one only makes “reasonable” estimates of what is truly possible, or what can be accomplished.

For example, I was recently in a bit of an argument about affirmative action. I said that I supported it, and that schools such as Harvard should admit more black students than they do now, and not necessarily always picking the brightest ones they could find. They should just do it as an investment, in the hope that in the long run it will make our country a better place than leaving things the ways they are now.

They responded by saying:

Affirmative action is not logical. It is not “fair.” This would be unfair to the white students. Shouldn’t Harvard admit solely based on merit?

This is the paradox. People assume irrational acts, especially injustice, must be dealt with rationally. My own view is:

Fair? Who cares? Harvard spent at least two centuries keeping Jews, Blacks, and Women out of its classroom. Why not give those groups preferential treatment for the next two or three hundred years before we next review the “fairness” of the admissions process?

Evidence to date suggests that most folks in the U.S. are taking a similarly irrational “rational” approach to evaluating the XO. That is their call. For my part, I think the real action, and the real fun, will be found outside the United States, in countries that can’t afford current PC’s, or the currently available commercial software for them, or do not have the electricity needed to power them even if current watt-hungry computers were made available.

We shall see, and though it may take years — or even decades — to make real measurable progress, we’ll have fun making the journey.

Notes.

1. He is almost my age. He is black, and was hired by IBM after he graduated from a technical high school in Detroit in 1966. He worked for IBM for a few years, then went on to a long and successful career in the computer industry. He has spent the last few years working with educators in large, poor, urban school districts, and knows whereof he speaks.

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