Friday, August 31, 2007

Thoughts on the OLPC ($100 laptop)

I had the privilege last month to visit the remote area of North Ambrym, Vanuatu and to think about what impact the OLPC might have in such a community.

Vanuatu is a volcanic island chain in south Pacific. map map

It has a population of 210,000 (2005). The main island is Efate and the capital Port Vila. Most of the tourist resorts are located near Port Vila. Previously a French/English condominium, it gained independence in 1980. Per capita income is $1560 per annum. In 2005, there were 33 telephone lines, 38 internet users and 14 PC's per thousand population, presumably concentrated in Port Vila.

To the north is the island of Ambrym. It has a population of 7000 (1989). It has a central inhospitable ash plain created by an ancient explosive eruption of a volcanic cone. There are three coastal regions separated by difficult terrain and each region speaks a different native language (usually just referred to as 'language' to distinguish it from Bislama the national language) and French and English which are also commonly spoken.

North Ambrym can be reached by a 40 minute internal flight from the capital, Port Vila followed by a 3 hour trip in a small motor boat. There is also a cargo ship which can anchor in the deep water off the reef with supplies ferried by small boat to the beach. The economy is a subsistence economy. Copra was a significant cash crop but has declined with low prices. The deep volcanic soils and high rainfall give an abundance of food with yam and taro the staples. There appears to be some trading along kinship lines with foods going to Port Vila and manufactured goods coming back to the islands, there is probably considerable trickle down effect from tourist income in Port Vila.

The evening before the supply boat is due, canoes bring local produce to the beach

Pigs and yams are ferried by small boat through the coral reef to the supply boat

It appears that primary schooling is day school but secondary school is generally boarding school. The village where I stayed, Ranmuhu, has a primary school. The Ranon secondary school caters to year 10, it is one hour's walk away, there are no vehicles. The nearest government year 12 school is on the island of Pentecost. There is an EU French speaking school at Topol village nearby, education is $1,000 per annum, see other post. Boarding students have to help grow their own food in the school gardens.

Kitchen, Topol school

Bread oven, Topol school

There is no mains power. The schools seem to have generators or access to generators which are run for a few hours per night. Thanks Daryl for the following:
"Perhaps the most challenging problem is power and being able to afford to purchase petrol or diesel to run the generator if the fuel is available"
There seem to be a public phone in each village. They are solar powered and have microwave links to Pentecost island.

Tousi Co-op at Ranmuhu showing solar panel and microwave link for phone

"In total there are about 200 lines in the Northern Islands all sharing 32 channels back to Santo. Even if they can get an available line, at best they could only expect 16kb/s or at best 32kb/s Internet connections...The telephone service is solar powered and fairly reliable but very congested. You can wait from 10 mins to several hours just to get a dial tone".

There are (at least) 4 dimensions to consider the OLPC on:
  • power
  • communications
  • reliability
  • culture
There is no power in homes and power in schools is unreliable. The low power requirements of the OLPC are a plus, as is the ability to charge at 12 volts. Battery is 6V, 22 watt hours. The idle power consumption is 1 watt. Longer battery life would be good because there could be long periods with no fuel for generators. Charging from a simple solar panel and car battery combination should be practical. I hope there is reverse polarity protection, couldn't find it on the wiki.

Shenki writes:
"There is a one-time fuse inside the XO that protects from over voltage. It was discussed having a resettable fuse, however, they are considered too unreliable"
When turned off machines still support the wireless mesh network. The machine is expected to use roughly .5 watts of battery power in this mode. (so looks like 44 hours max. battery life). The range of the network does not seem to be specified but the wiki has speculation that an external antenna could greatly extend the range, with wifi systems capable of even 100 km. This would possibly allow mesh networks to hop islands, Most of the northern islands could be connected by 10km to 15km hops.

Shenki writes:
the XO's antennas are replaceable, so in theory you could hook up an external aerial to it. The solution that OLPC is offering is an "active antenna" - the XOs wireless chipset, in an external waterproof casing that acts as a mesh node, with a large antenna.

Pentecost Island from the beach at Ranmuhu, Ambrym Island, about 10 km

James Cameron writes of a range test in rural Australia:
"I was able to get perfect operation at the first two positions. Beyond 400m the presence of vegetation between the laptop and the access point began to matter. At the 900m position, the network name was selectable on the user interface, but association did not succeed."

Within North Ambrym, villages are in the order of 0.5 km apart. There is a good chance of line of sight, vegetation excepted, with the villages located on ridge lines, vegetation varies from fairly open, coconut plantation to jungle. Its probably too much to expect a good mesh from standard antennae, it looks like a big maybe there.

Servicing would be a problem. Port Vila is some days away and probably has limited facilities. The OLPC has a small number of replacable modules which should aid servicing. Circuit boards are probably throw away items. (Video of 10 year old and 8 year old replacing motherboard)

Some insight into the project goals:"It goes without saying that Internet access and tools for expression (text, music, video, graphics) are the contemporary “toys” for learning. Every child of any means in the developed world has access to a computer at home and usually his or her own, with music, DVD, plus interactive and rich media to do anything from learning languages to play games"

The OLPC will be disruptive, it is intended to be disruptive. Already missionary culture, kastom culture and modern secular beliefs are in collision in the villages (more other post). The integration of modern secular values into village life is inevitable but the pathway there is still ours to choose.

Traditional lines of kinship are complex. There are 8 kinship groups with complex rules. Children are often brought up by relatives other than biological parents. Strong relationships where people are cared for and given positive role models are essential. The destruction of the web of kinship is just one of the risks that comes to mind.

"When citizens do not believe they have a culture worth preserving, their children are beset with sorrows including a lack of hope, conviction, trust and aspiration. [What is needed is not computers or any other kind of gadgetry but] some meaningful story to tell our children. It may be a story about their souls or their minds or their history or their country or their planet. But it must be strong and romantic and inspiring. It must be capable of touching the hearts and the nerves, and it must explain who they are and why they are here and what is expected of them."
Neil Postman

Vanuatu, ICT use in education, Ms Ruby Vaa
World Bank ICT at a glance, Vanuatu
Telecom Vanuatu Limited

Labels: ,

Monday, August 13, 2007

Higher order thinking - a thought experiment

This is a repost of a blog of mine from February, which has been in draft till now:

I was challenged by the Connectivism conference to clarify what HOT (Higher Order Thinking) is. I was challenged by the perspective that Higher Order Thinking is not really distinct from other forms of thinking, it just consists of deeper levels of understanding, making more and better connections.

Bloom's Taxonomy helps a little but I suspect Bloom was a writer, a verbal reasoner, not an engineer. His highest level, Evaluate (assess, judge in relational terms), sounds a bit like making connections, it doesn't really ring true for the hard sweat of deep thinking for me.

So I decided to observe deep thinking in the only laboratory I have, inside my own head. To conduct a thought experiment. The big risk here is that we all think differently, we already know that there are verbal and visual thinkers, I'm definitely visual. Does my mental model building hold true for other visual thinkers?

So I decided to observe my thinking and document it. I wanted to analyse deeper thinking, problem solving, the example that came to mind was the truss, I don't know why, nor do I know why it came to me while riding my bicycle.

The word "truss" is stored along with a visual image of a truss, it looks something like this,

except that I can't visualise all the bars at once any more than I can concentrate on them when looking at them now.

I searched my memory for all connections and came up with the words "statically determinate", from that I was able to to retrieve a kind of visual image of a structure where, if you took out one member it would fall apart but if you added another, the braces would fight each other and you wouldn't be able to calculate the forces in the structure. Also the image of the triangle came up as the building block of statically determinate structures.

A visual image of the members being hinged or pinned at the joints came up like this.

Ok it's looking good, there's quite a bit of retrieved data and the problem is, in theory, solvable. But so far there's no higher order thinking, I have been bouncing round Bloom's lower order: 1. Recall data 2. Understand 3. Apply (use). Its all retrieval, making connections, so far.

Now time for the deep thinking, I build an animated visual image of the truss under gravity in my mind. I know it will sag, everything does, this is another connection, data by association. I allow the visual image to sag and observe it, a bit like this:

I observe that the top bars must shorten and the bottom bars lengthen, those visual images trigger the words "compression" and "tension". Yes I think the top bars are compressed and the bottom compressed.

Let's check that, let's run the mental simulation with a top bar removed, it plays in my mind like this.

Yes the top was definitely being compressed.

Now run the mental simulation with the bottom bar removed, it runs like this.

What about the diagonal braces, take one from the middle like this. I imagine it like this.

The structure doesn't know which way to fail, it could twist just as easily either way. I'm thinking that the force in the brace is near zero.

Does this hold for all braces? Try for an end brace like this.

No. So I'm thinking that the forces in the braces are zero in the middle and increase towards the sides. I've got a feeling that they will alternate between tension and compression but this mental simulation is getting taxing and I am at risk of falling off my bicycle.

What have I achieved here? I am satisfied that lower order thinking can be thought of as making connections, as information is recalled and cross checked against other data, checked for consistency, understood.

When the higher order thinking takes place, problem solving, the thinking is qualitatively different. It uses the "virtual serial machine built on top of the hard wired evolved natural predominant parallel processing" of our brain.

Mental models are built, understandings are constructed. The language of constructivism better describes the thinking process. HOT is different.

The simulations were run with sodaconstructor and captured with Cam Studio, then uploaded to Google Video.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Peak oil

I was struck by how dependant we are on fossil fuels when the man arrived to sweep the footpath of a small strip shopping centre. Once he would have turned up on foot with a large broom. Now he drives many kilometers with his 2 tonne truck and $140,000 sweeping machine.