What keeps me going...

Sameer Verma sverma at sfsu.edu
Mon Jan 12 16:58:33 EST 2009

So, a lot of people have been asking me this lately in the OLPC
context. "What keeps you going?" Of course, this question has been
asked by different people with different intentions. Some are
genuinely surprised that I have so much free time, while others
suspect a hidden treasure. So, I decided to shoot off this e-mail to
the lists for two reasons. One, I am not sure which list is
appropriate, and two, I think many of us do question the merits of
this project from time to time, and I want to share my sentiments with
you all. Feel free to delete if you don't like it.

During my visit to India a long time friend asked me this question.
"What keeps you going with a project like this?" He wanted to know
where I got all this free time from. Well, the assumption is a bit
off. A lot of the time I put into the project aligns with my
profession as well. Sustainable IT, network infrastructure, software
development, collaboration, etc. are all parts of my research stream.
so is FOSS development, adoption and use. So, finding time isn't that
much of a stretch. Its a two way street. I am able to bring these
things into my classroom and into my research. Of course, without
support from my family, this would be extremely difficult. For
instance, when I am off, gallivanting in Jamaica and working on a
pilot there, my wife has to cover for me and she does so with a lot of
effort, but we think its all for a good cause. We hope some of this
will make a difference in the lives of communities there.

Others, such as some of my students, have asked me the same question
but with a little "wink wink" glint in their eye. They think there is
something ulterior or somehow I am getting paid or I am bucking the
system (wonder where they got that idea from). Getting across the
volunteer ethic is very hard. Either you get it or you don't. Of
course, volunteer-ism is driven by many things including ego, fame,
and little green laptops. It is also driven by a desire to make a
difference in the system. Sometimes the system doesn't want that
change, but we still push for it. But that's another e-mail.

Then there are some of us who have an addictive desire to take things
apart. You know who I'm taking about! Take apart and put back together
things that most people would leave untouched. People who subscribe to
Make magazine or own a soldering iron would know. Its a strange itch,
but its an ethic that brings people together. Its hard to explain
these things to people who've never opened a radio, or a watch. On the
other hand, if you are the "Maker" type, you would instantly know. We
were surprised at the courage of attendees at the December OLPC-SF
meeting. They took their XOs apart and put them back together. Well,
most of us did. Only Robert needed some help from a 7 year old
attendee :-) (Sorry Robert. Couldn't resist!)

I think its a lot of these reasons that keep us all together in this
project and its offshoots, but one experience has captured my
enthusiasm unlike any other. This was a trip to Khairat, India's first
pilot site (http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Khairat_school). I had seen
pictures, and even videos and news clips of Khairat. But driving out
there with the folks from Reliance (the pilot partner) was a turning
point. Seeing five year olds handling their XOs with ease was just
amazing. Seeing them document their lives and showing me photos via
the journal suddenly made a lot of sense. All discussions of a lack of
a file manager were moot at that point. Rahul and Manisha sure don't
need a file manager to show me what they did! They could care less
about /etc or /usr/local/  I wish I could get the journal on my Ubuntu
Thinkpad laptop.

They had documented a tight rope walker who visited Khairat. They had
documented Gandhi's birthday (2nd Oct) and showed me the photos. They
didn't care that Sugar was slow. After all, for them to know that
Sugar is slow, they would have to know something faster! They love
their XOs and it shows. Then there is Mr. Surve, the teacher at
Khairat. With very little training, this man gets his gang going. He's
built solar system animations in e-toys and precipitation cycle in
Paint. He has made his own lesson plans in Write and is constantly
yelling in Marathi (local language) "Go to the neighborhood. Join the
mesh". Who woulda thunk it? In the middle-of-nowhere-Khairat, a
teacher is yelling a his kids to join the mesh. A draft version of
802.11s has made it that far! Of course Rahul and Manisha don't know
that. And they don't need to, because we have a team of do-gooders who
take care of all that. And that's where my respect and unconditional
support for this group comes from. I've met very few of you in person.
But, my sentiments for this group as a whole are always equated with
the joy that is now in the lives of kids like Rahul and Manisha.

OLPC brings a level of hope that is rare in projects. Netbooks, while
an offshoot of what OLPC has done, still fail to address key issues.
They still have embedded Wi-Fi antennas with poor range, they still
are not sunlight readable and I don't think any of these are fanless
(no moving parts). All these in my view are failures, and I think
these companies have failed to address these items because their
constraints and goals are very different. They are not thinking of
Rahul and Manisha in Khairat, or Garima in Bhagmalpur, who does not
have a classroom and has to sit under a tree outdoors. They are very
much thinking of Lawrence and Raj (two of my students) in San
Francisco, who will sit inside a well light room, next to a power
outlet. So, yes netbooks are cheap and many of us flock to it, but its
still no answer to the original problem. Nothing revolutionary there.
Its just "Honey, I shrunk the laptop".

In Bhagmalpur (http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Bhagmalpur), my maternal
village, I saw what passes for education. Its more along the lines of
going through the motions of going to school. The children are sent
there so that they don't pester the folks at home. They also go to
school because the government provides a free meal. But, as far as
learning is concerned, there is none. At least none that happens in
class. The school has rooms too small to house children, so they sit
outside. Many don't have books, or have books that are torn and need
TLC. The teacher can barely corral 100 students per class, let alone
teach from a book or the board. They are more like shepherds than
teachers. The children know this well, and have resigned to it as a
way of life. Will XOs make a difference in their lives? The enthusiast
in me says "Yes!" The researcher in me says "If the null hypothesis is
'no, it won't', then there is only one way to find out."

Times are difficult. We are facing severe cuts in our own system here
at SF State and we have to start thinking creatively. In light of a
weak budget, some are starting to look to FOSS for cheap software -
something good is coming off of this downturn :-) If the OLPC project
were to shut down, I think some of us will still live in denial and
hang on to our XOs like a worn blanket, but let's hope that day does
not come. Please keep plugging away. Karma is a terrific attribute. I
hope you all earn lots of it.

OLPC-SF will meet on Jan 17, 2009 and celebrate our first anniversary

Dr. Sameer Verma, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Information Systems
San Francisco State University
San Francisco CA 94132 USA

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