OLPC is a failure in one aspect, but…

Chris Blattman linked to an Alanna Shaikh post that buries the One Laptop per Child project:

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure. Businessweek called it two years ago. Now, Timothy Ogden, editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action has made a compelling argument to give up on OLPC. He points out that supporting de-worming programs has more impact on child learning than the OLPC laptops.  The laptops were designed without end-user input, they cost too much both to produce and to run, and they’re now being outcompeted by commercial laptops. Only about a million OLPCs have shipped so far.

Meanwhile, a commenter, Gansler, notes Shaikh’s rhetorical tendency:

Alanna Shaikh and I worked together. I found then, as I do now, that her rhetoric is a bit thick, a bit black and white – all is doom and gloom (though sometimes it’s awesome and bright). I find her “Dream is Over” comment very much in line with that.

While I do consider the OLPC laptop project itself rather a failure — its relentless pursuit of volume, its alienation of the teaching profession (the two are related, in a chicken-and-egg way: OLPC has to sell in spades to achieve low per-unit price; third-world educational budgets are limited; ergo some money has to be diverted from traditional, human-resource-heavy teaching approaches. Rather unethical at the very least, using thirld world students and teachers as human lab rats.

Whether it would have worked better had it targeted educational niches in the developed world — home-schooled kids, isolated rural kids wanting to collaborate with others across geographical distances, or as a supplement in general for public school education, since after all, studies /do/ show that a high proportion of US teachers are not qualified to teach their subject — is an exercise is uchronia. We’d simply never know. We do know certain things, though:

  • OLPC single-handedly removes the linkage between ultra-portability and ruggedness on one hand, and price on the other. Remember the pre-netbook days of super-expensive ultra-portables? Intel responded by introducing the Classmate, which begat the netbook, and the rest is history.
  • The OLPC user interface, Sugar, lives on in Sugar on a Stick. It’s bootable from a USB stick, can be installed, and runs on commodity hardware which are aplenty even in underdeveloped countries.
  • The amazing LCD from OLPC is being commercialized by Pixel Qi, and is coming to a laptop near you within months. Obligatory plug: I maintain a Facebook group that (attempts to) keep track of Pixel Qi announcements. Some of the videos are just simply delicious.

So I guess this is turning into a eulogy. OLPC has failures in abundance, but it is a radical, category-creating product. Negroponte could have managed it better, but he should still be able to take pride of what the project managed to accomplish. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, after all.

For those of you steeped in Judeo-Christian history, think of OLPC as the John the Baptist to netbooks’ Christ: loud, insistent, un-PC, and martyred, but a success nonetheless.

More on disturbing cultural biases

As it turns out, my earlier conversation is degenerating into a case of full-blown conspiracy theory. One fears for the future of humanity when some people appear to be doing their damndest to prove Samuel Huntington correct.


Well I am talking about crypto-jews such as Sarkozy, Merkel, a lot of the Bush administration’s politicians and some nationalist leaders in Turkey. I know some cases from latin-america too. I’m seeing a pattern here and I think that’s so obvious.


Another strange point for Turkey is that some of the extremist “muslim” (!) terror groups have relations with masons and “Dönme”s. Hizbullah in Turkey had (now dead) a Dönme (secret Jewish) leader.

Another point is that in Islam, it is forbidden to kill people (if they are not trying to kill you at that moment). An Islamic leader says “A Muslim can’t be a terrorist and a terrorist can’t be Muslim”. So there can’t be a jihadism (in western means) at all. It is theoretically impossible. You can’t make war with noone if they are not attacking you. Jihad is about making war with your flesh and about spreading the word. So jihadism can’t stem from inside the muslim tradition..

I am trying to stay objective in response, but it is getting near to the point where I’d have to give up on any pretense of carrying out a dialogue, because it’s getting rather clear that what I’m saying is not getting through:

I’m sorry, but that’s being in denial. Most religions’ mainstream followers are moderate, but it is the case that the stray extremists of all creed (be it ultra-Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, or Islamists) claim to be strict adherents of their respective faith.

Disavowing them is convenient, but does not really help matter. You can call these people apostates, sure, but denying that they come from the same root as the rest of you is really a sophistic argument, it sounds really glib and disingenuous to outsiders.

The fact of the matter is, to a non-Muslim it does look like both Christians and Jews are actually more vocal in their criticism of their own fundamentalist branches, than moderate Muslims are of the jihadists. Your case in point — you deny that they are even Muslims (strictly speaking, they are not, but they come from the Muslim tradition, and Muslims have to try and understand how that happens, because outsiders certainly can’t help there).

When even countries like Egypt air “documentaries” about the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” pretending it is historical fact, something is really wrong here. Spreading rumours about others is certainly easier than engaging in self-criticism.

Differing latent biases prevalent in different cultures

I recently received the following message from a StumbleUpon contact, and felt that my reply warrants wider dissemination, given that the misperception in the original message is sadly quite widespread:

Hi,

nearly all the racist and right-wing parties;
leaders from all over the world have Jewish
origins. does this mean anything to you?

“Wilders Of Indonesian Descent” – News – The Hague Online

My reply:

Thanks for the link. I don’t consider Wilders to be racist at all — he’s a bit provocative in his anti-Islamist stance, but unfortunately it is the case that Western European countries often adopted a laissez-faire approach to integrating their immigrants, to the point that the younger generation in the UK is more anti-British than their parents! A lot of Islamic preachers in the West are blatantly jihadists, and their followers very radicalized — see the Channel 4 documentary “Undercover Mosque” for example.

He’s a bit excessive in denigrating an entire religion, but being a non-Muslim who have lived for an extended period in a Muslim-majority country myself, I must say the reverse is also true: there is this perverse fascination with Israel and Jewish people, and to a lesser extent, Christians, seeing them as a monolithic bloc. FYI, most far-right parties in the West are /anti/-Jewish, not led by Jewish people — if Jews dominated a certain type of politics at all, it would be communist parties of the early 20th century, because of their egalitarian nature that appealed to a people trying to escape from anti-Semitic prosecutions.

On the other hand, if Wilders is indeed of Indonesian descent, I welcome Wilders to the club of Indos, joining the rank of Multatuli, Ernest Douwes Dekker, Eddie Van Halen and Keren Ann!