Archive for July, 2007

Announcing the Summer of Content


Some of you have asked what I’ve been up to the last few weeks. Thanks to a late-night wiki cleanup crew (thanks, Xavi, Nikki, Andy, and SJ!) we are finally ready to go live.

So without further ado… I proudly present the Summer of Content (SoCon), a collaboration between OLPC and the Commonwealth of Learning. In a nutshell, we match interns who want to contribute to open content with mentors from existing open-content projects who can help them, while providing stipends to the interns that allow them to work full-time on their project.

SoCon runs two summers a year, one for each hemisphere. This summer is the Northern Summer pilot, with projects running from August 10 – September 24. Groups like Google and Fedora are already on board. We’re ridiculously excited and can’t wait to get started.

What’s the Summer of Content?

It’s kind of like Summer of Code, minus the code, plus a few key differences (below text mostly lifted from the stuff I wrote for the website).

We’re aiming for the inverse demographic.

The Summer of Code program has traditionally attracted a large number of individual students with technical backgrounds from the developed world. By making our stipend $500 instead of $5000 and allowing teams to apply together, we’re hoping to attract an even larger number of collaborating creators from the developing world – including non-students and people with non-technical backgrounds.

Collaboration is good.

I mentioned above that you can apply in teams. I’d like to point it out again. Actually, applying in teams only helps your chances. (The catch is that the team all has to split a single stipend, but if you come from the developing world, that’s still pretty good money.)

Emphasis on joining the community, not cranking out a product.

You do have to get something done. But we’re going to make it very clear that the real job of the interns is to learn how to work with a particular content community, not to act as a contractor that just churns out stuff for them in exchange for pay. There are people involved. Get to know them. Collaborate.

“Content” doesn’t just mean Content.

We’re aiming to nurture a self-supporting networked ecosystem of projects. In other words, in addition to more traditional content-production projects (write a book, curate an encyclopedia, compose a piece of music, etc) there will be meta-content projects – for instance, accessibility and documentation projects with interns whose jobs will be to publicize, disseminate, and make other SoCon projects more accessible to various populations.

There will also be event/testing projects with interns whose jobs will be to run Test Jams and other local free culture conferences/events to get feedback to other SoCon creators about the work they’re producing. Other types of projects will also be encouraged, but the important point to note is that SoCon is not just about the creation of open content, but instead about making that content useful and accessible and therefore used for Awesome purposes by the rest of the world.

We’re hiring, and we need help!

We’re looking for mentor organizations, mentors, and interns as well as volunteers. Check out the current project proposals (better yet, suggest your own)!

The deadline for applications this round is August 6, so please help us spread the word – if you’re interested or know anyone who might be, there are some template letters you can use. We’re especially looking for non-English-speaking organizations, mentors, and interns, and for participants from the developing world.

We also have an immediate need for volunteer translators - if you can help us translate the website into your language, please contact me. We’re especially looking for people who can do Amharic, Arabic, Hindi, Nepali, Portuguese, Thai, and Urdu.

Questions? Thoughts? Ideas?

We’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment on this blog or a message on the official Summer of Content Talk Page, and we’ll get back to you (make sure we have your contact info, though).


The quest for plane tickets + recipe for Tim Neng


I didn’t win the round-trip plane tickets which I was going to use to run a Curriculum Jam in Manila (for those following along, Roger did – congrats, Roger!) so it’s time to crack out the ol’ thinking cap and find myself another way to get there. I reckon $1,200 should do the trick – that’s all for transportation, by the way, planes and taxis… need to ask my family if I can unroll my sleeping bag on their couches.

Also need to find a local coordinator, a location, and food donations for the Manila Curriculum Jam. If you’re in the area or know anyone who might be interested (or know someone who might be interested), holler! We’re looking for teachers, students, and people interested in creating educational materials for the One Laptop Per Child project. If you’re interested in finding out what we’re about or lending a hand in helping us do it (giving every kid in the world the power to teach themselves anything they want to know), a Jam is a fantastic way to get started.

I’ve been spending the last 5 days sleeping on various couches in the area (Lauren’s, Matt’s, my aunt Lynne May’s, and the floor in the back corner room of the OLPC office between 5 and 7:30am one morning) and I am so happy to have wireless back again. My apologies to people I was supposed to communicate with this weekend… maybe I should pay for internet on my phone?

Also, thanks to my aunt Joji, a recipe for Tim Neng. It’s a sort of Asian quiche – tasty. I’ll need to hit Super 88 to get ingredients and make this at some point.

How To Make Tim Neng

Ingredients:
1/2 lb ground pork
1/4 lb shrimp, chopped
1 pc dried shitake mushroom. chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
salt & pepper to taste
4 pcs eggs, beaten + water mixture (1:1 ratio, but add a bit more water if you want a softer Tim Neng)
spring onions, chopped (for topping)

Instructions:
Saute garlic until fragrant. Add pork, mushroom, shrimp and continue to saute until cooked. (about 10 mins). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Put all sauteed ingredients in a big soup bowl or pyrex (or an 8×8 cake pan, or anything else you can heat and cook in). Pour egg/water mixture into the meat mixture; it will soak through and surround them (you don’t need to mix). Sprinkle the chopped spring onions on top.

Steam for 45 minutes or until eggs are fully set. The easiest way to do this is to set the bowl of eggs into the middle of a shallow pot of boiling water; make sure the boiling water is shallow enough that it doesn’t spill into the eggs – there should only be boiling water between the inside of the pot and the outside of the bowl of eggs. (And remember to cover the container you’re steaming in.)

Dig in!


Computing thinking


Amusing ad from october 1998: this made me smile.

This powerhouse was configured with a Pentium II 266MHz MMX processor, 128 MB of RAM, 24xCD ROM drive, 6.4 GB hard disk, 56Kbps USR modem, built in Zip 100MB drive, Matrox Millennium II graphics card and Altec Lansing’s ACS90 multimedia speaker system. It is still a great performer.

Currently in New York on the couch of Lauren’s (OLPC) apartment. The traffic noise of Brooklyn is drifting through the window, which has a stained-glass plate of a robot hanging in front of it with fishing line. This post is my online indulgence before I return to the Massive Block Of Tasks awaiting me on the OLPC wiki… it’s definitely a working trip. (And as I write this, there are at least three simultaneous conversations on the #olpc-content IRC channel, where Nikki and I – among others – have become regulars. You can join us if you’d like; ask one of us if you don’t know how.)

Today’s train of thought comes from a conversation I had with Eric Munsing on the notion of “computing thinking” (during which I went on a long spiel about the use of computers as thinking tools – this was several months before I read Papert’s book Mindstorms, which words it much more eloquently).

The following is taken almost verbatim from notes on the conversation and some scattered emails – side conversations on other topics have been clipped for clarity, and some sentence fragments have been filled in to add context, but otherwise they’re untouched.

Eric: I’d hazard a theory that computers are naturally conservative analytical tools – they only process existing data reflecting the current structure/beliefs and don’t introduce new concepts or frames for analysis.

Mel: Interesting exercise – take your four lines of text above and replace the word “computers” with the word “languages.”

I see computing thinking partially as a different type of language. Mathematics as well, for that matter. There’s a grammar, a vocabulary, and a set of structures you can build both mentally and electronically. In and of themselves, they don’t mean anything, but they can be used to build spectacular things that do have meaning, and as tools to help people express and create meaning. It’s the “Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people” philosophy, except the non-depressing version with computers and innovation instead of guns and death.

From one perspective, computers are very powerful tools for manipulating information in ways that enable humans to see new concepts and come up with different paradigms for viewing the world. The plots that facilitated the development of chaos theory, prototyping houses in SketchUp, sorting columns in Excel, or Hans Rosling’s first Gapminder presentation on TEDtalks are all new worlds of creativity we couldn’t have explored before. There’s more. The entirety of Eyebeam’s R&D lab output. The communications capabilities of the internet; croudsourcinig, open-sourcing. The ability to provide statistical, historical, analytical proof to back up a glimmering hypothesis you came up with in the shower.

They’re powerful tools. But tools need to be learned, mastered, understood, and appreciated. There’s a craftsmanship behind the black boxes that I feel that many people don’t even try to understand.

If computers become the dominant tools we use for gathering information, they will be stagnant and silent (and we won’t realize it, trapped inside that box). My lack of fluency in non-English languages restricts my thinking to English structures. My lack of fluency in non-engineering disciplines restricts my thinking to technical structures. (I’m finding this a difficult thing to cope with in my sociology class.)

Eric: I’m of the belief that most technology is like this. I’d say that funding a new computer science program is not very likely to give new insight into major societal problems like environmental injustices or the eradication of slavery.

Mel: But it can help you track and understand, however imperfectly, how you’re doing in working towards those goals.


It’s official.


Apparently, I’m now a “respectable” person, as I have a house and a job as of this moment – both occurred within the last 12 hours.

The great thing is that I’m not actually going to change the things I’m doing or anything at all. It’s just that I have a place to dump my stuff come January, and that my bank account will look a little less malnourished shortly.

Mmm!


Things I never thought I’d appreciate


This summer alone has seen some tiny openings of my world and worldview – stuff I never thought I’d like or appreciate. Here are a few.

Good toilet paper.


The thick, soft kind. It sounds silly, but every time I’m in a bathroom with the good toilet paper now, I go “How nice! A little luxury in my day.” One of those weird, tiny little affordable luxuries that I probably won’t spend the extra on for my own place without prodding, but which is… I mean, face it, comparing that stuff to single-ply is like driving a new Lexus versus a 2-decade-old Honda. Sure, they both get you there just as fast. The Lexus is totally a luxury buy. But it’s so… nice.

Rap lyrics.


I got a thick, rich mixed bitch, handling bricks/And a quick-witted slick clique to manage the chick (from one of T.I.’s raps)


Roll that around on your tongue a bit. Taste the (thick, rich) spitting explosion of off-cadenced syllables – then try to say it faster, then faster, then faster, while still folding your lips fully around each word. It’s a whole different sort of mastery of the English language that I’ve only slowly – and just now – become aware of. Whoa. I want more. I want more… who and what should I listen to? I want to learn how to appreciate it better. I’d like to learn how to do it. Need to listen to and read more, though, in order to get a feel for it.

Beer.

It really is tasty. I drink beer like I drink tea – not for the physical effect it has on me, but to appreciate the artistry of the taste. (In fact, I dislike being even mildly inebriated, and hate the jittery
feeling I get with caffeine, and do my best to avoid both.) The Cambridge Brewing Company’s summer hefeweizen is currently tied with fresh-drawn Sam Adams Boston Lager for my favorite.

Cold, fresh, filtered drinking water.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmm, delicious. With the water cooler at OLPC’s office not far from the mess of tables I work in, I’m closer to being not-dehydrated now than I think I’ve ever been in my life.

$2.

You can do a lot with $2. You can get a sandwich of some kind – a whole meal, reasonably filling if you eat it slowly. You can get a large drink – one that comes in a 24 oz. sports bottle, so that you can reuse it as your water bottle and have a way to tote around free hydration with you. When I have $2 in my pocket, I feel rich and free – like I can get something useful (that is to say, food) if I need to. I don’t think I’ve thought of $2 this way since I was in elementary school.


Up on the roof


This post will be oddly disjointed and incoherent – it’s a series of mental snapshots. The title comes from one of my favorite James Taylor songs.

I’ve developed a fondness for butter tea since eating at Rangzen,
the local Tibetian restaurant. I usually drink my tea straight, but a
little bit of milk, butter, and salt make it taste oddly good. It also
takes more time and means I get to wash a knife in addition to a cup,
so that’s a tradeoff.

It’s (almost)* official; I’m addicted to OLPC. My leave-the-office times in this week alone have crept from 7pm… to midnight… to 2am… to 4:30am in a memorable flamenco-soaked fest last night. (That, by the way, is the OLPC summer blog, which consists mostly of the Content crew so far.)

*oh, you’ll find out soon, although some of you have undoubtedly guessed it by now.

(the remainder of this post written almost a full day later:)

My brain is becoming wikified. Transparency, crosslinking, talk pages, and a strange sense of stability-in-anarchy are popping up in my metaphors for everyday life. I have occasional compulsions to put things in [[Brackets]] (in mediawiki syntax, that would make a link to the “Brackets” page). I blame SJ. Well, I blame him from starting me on this and continually feeding me input that reinforces it, but I’m steering myself into it, so I suppose I really can’t blame anyone but myself.

(and yet some hours later…)

A longer post tonight has been superseded by a wonderful long talk with Joe. That’s not the right word, but I’m attempting to convey that the creative, expressive impulse to share what’s normally the continuous introverted thought process of my mind – in an attempt to let the world in and stop myself from shutting more of it out – that impulse has been nicely fulfilled by the conversation, and my mind is quiet enough now that I can… think. And sleep. Thank you, Joe.

Some potentially cryptic notes from that conversation, which will probably mean different things to me tomorrow morning taken out of context:

  • Jealousy and envy have subtly different connotations. I want to obtain things (not necessarily physical entities, mind you) for myself by creating more of them in the world, not by taking them away from other people.
  • Physical awareness is good stuff. I need more of it.
  • Comfort in your own skin is preferable to detachment/shutdown, but shutdown is (to me, at least – and I think to Joe as well) preferable to a mask. They’re the truth, silence, and a lie, respectively.
  • The preceding statement implies an objectivity and precision that doesn’t actually exist around this topic.


The world is wonderful, and I am being selfish tonight for once… and going to bed.


Powering on!


Where did the power icon come from, anyhow? The jury is still out on that question, but the “stop” icon is explained here. The history of design is fantastic; it’s almost like tracing back a pictorial linguistic thread.

In other news, OLPC Austria had a Sewing Jam. The fuzzy laptop carriers “warm the cockles of my heart,” as my high-school physics teacher Laura Nickerson would say.


We spent most of tonight working on content for the upcoming release. Or I should say we spent a long time trying to figure out the organization scheme of different hierarchies and how much curation work they’d need to become useful (the answer, more often than not, was “a lot”). Among other things, we found lessons on how to maintain a chainsaw. Especially in a way that’s approved by New Zealand.

Organizing information is hard. How do you push around raw thoughtstuff? It’s easier when you verbalize or symbolize and then draw/write them, easier to manipulate and sort things with some element of physicality. But information? I don’t even know where to start sometimes.

When I don’t know what to do, I either freeze, ask for help, or (with increasing frequency now) just try making something. It’s the ask-forgiveness-not-permission philosophy; I bank on the tendency of those older and wiser than me to lunge forward and catch me before I injure anything and show me a Better Way to do things. Last night, after witnessing my flat-footed mangling of the OLPC wiki, SJ gave me a mini-lecture on how to create pages with information organized in an elegant fashion, writing the style guide as he went. (And after going back and renaming and relinking all the Jam pages, I will never forget that lesson.)

Working on “fuzzy” things, working with people, coordinating folks you may have never met in person, jumping into something while only hearing snippets of a conversation that has been going on without you for weeks if not years… it’s tough. No taking a project into the back room and hacking. No being a Plant. In fact, Cliff (from Apache) said today that even with technical things, independent code modules, they’d run into problems there when someone just went off and Made Something without trying to get to know the way the community worked first.

If I ever had any doubts as to whether non-technical work was “just as hard” as technical work, they have all been erased now (in fact, at least four or five times a day, I find myself thinking that it would be so much easier to be a coder or an engineer.) But hard is good. It means you’re learning.


Learning about PGP and microformats


Because I haven’t posted about anything remotely technical in a very, very long time:

Today I finally got a PGP key because I needed one to get an account on the OLPC dev server.. (For my parents: A PGP key is a special number that sort of acts like a “password” for messages. It helps make communications like email and such private.)

Aside from “it’s something related to crypto,” I didn’t actually know what PGP was. (I’m still mildly fuzzy on it, so if anyone’s into that kind of stuff and wouldn’t mind explaining…) So I did a little reading, and got my key with the help of this tutorial. My favorite part was the way Phil Zimmermann challenged the US regulations on exporting PGP (they considered cryptosystems with 40+ bit keys “munitions”). Via Wikipedia:

Zimmerman challenged these regulations in a curious way. He published the entire source code of PGP in a hardback book, via MIT Press, which was widely sold in bookstores. Anybody wishing to build their own copy of PGP could buy the $60 book, cut off the covers and separate the pages, then run them through a scanner and an OCR (optical character – or text recognition) program to create a set of text files containing the source code. One could then build the application using the GNU C Compiler and GNU Make utility, which are freely available on the Internet. The compiled files could be put on a server anywhere in the world, and anyone could download them. The principle was simple: the export of munitions–guns, bombs, planes, software–is restricted; but the export of books is protected by the First Amendment. Anybody could buy a book and cut it up, so any computer programmer with common UNIX skills could build the software. However, the question was never tested in court.

I also learned about microformats while working on the OLPC sample library, or rather, trying to find out how it ticks; it’s all html and css right now. If you’re looking for neat free childrens’ books to read your kids, siblings, or students, check it out. They’re multilingual, too. And we’re looking for translators, people to read the books out loud and send us the sound-files (bonus points for , and of course… more books.)

Microformats are “adding simple semantic meaning to human-readable content which is otherwise, from a machine’s point of view, just plain text.” That was the idea behind Ad Libris (which is on the back-burner for now as we gather content to test it out with).

In other words, we read text (for instance, this blog post) and it means something to us; you can say “ah, the post is about pgp and microformats, and Mel wrote it.” But your computer sees a bunch of letters (or ones and zeroes, really) and can’t answer those kinds of questions. Microformats tell your computer that hey, Mel is the author! Hey, this post is about PGP! so it can begin to answer intelligent questions like “Computer, show me all the stuff Mel’s written about OLPC in the last year” without someone having to build a custom database of time-sucking glory.

Nifty stuff. Happy Mel. Man, the world is full of great ideas.


Endless summer, or: with a single click, you can sponsor an OLPC Education Jam in the Philippines


This a post chock-full of happy excited announcements. Woo!

Endless summer finalist

First of all, I’m a finalist in the Endless Summer competition, which (by providing round trip airfare anywhere plus $1000 to donate once I get there) would put me one step closer to that ’round-the-world engineering education trip I’m working on. Vote for me here. (Voting closes July 13.) If you think someone else should go, by all means vote for them! I especially like Dawn’s entry.

Now, I can’t do the research trip on a single round-trip ticket. I’d also need a place to live, food to eat, that kind of thing. So if I win, here’s what I’ll be doing.

Running an Education Jam in the Philippines

Remember the OLPC Game Jam we did at Olin? (If not, the Boston Globe and Needham Channel article/video-clip here can quickly explain things). Well, we’re doing an OLPC Curriculum Jam in the fall in several simultaneous international locations. Teachers and high-school/college students interested in education will spend a weekend developing open-content learning materials; after ~2.5 days they swap their curricula with a group in another country (so a teacher in Vancouver might make materials for a teacher in New York to use, and vice versa) and then proceed to teach their partner group’s lessons to a group of younger local kids that very afternoon.

Instant feedback. Content creation, community building. And everything that’s designed that weekend is automatically guaranteed to be sustainably flexible – usable by teachers in different countries with little to no support from the content’s original creators.

Problem: Right now we have groups in the US and Canada. Not a very representative sample of folks from the developing world.

Solution: Go to the Philippines to run one in Manila. My family’s there (read: free food and housing for the Mel). My parents went to school there and some of my cousins still do, so contacts (especially young student-testers from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds) would be easier for me to find on short notice than most other places. Most people speak English, making communication barriers with OLPC headquarters minimal. We can mobilize the open-content community there, get something for the local userbase to nucleate around. $1000 goes a long way in Manila; I think we could do the entire Jam on that budget.

That’s what I’d do with the grand prize. It’s a win-win-win; starts a snowball of education goodness that ripples through a community my family once called home, jump-starts content development and a local community for OLPC, lets me visit and work within an educational system very different to the American one I’m used to. Also, I can (finally) visit my grandmother!

(By the way, if you’re interested in running an OLPC Jam in your location or helping out with one in Manila, Vancouver, New York, Boston, or Chicago, give me a ping.)

And a few other things I should explain…

Astute readers of my Endless Summer entry may note some things I’ve forgotten to mention here.

  1. I’m learning how to talk! That is, I’m going to do aural rehabilitation, which is apparently code for “speech therapy for deaf people.” If I’m going to teach and speak, I can’t do that from behind a keyboard all the time. The catch is that the student-teachers at Northwestern are out for the summer, so I’ve got at least 2 months to do things on my own like learn about the musculature of the throat, learn IPA and go through lists of words people have heard me mispronounce, that kind of thing (if you have any ideas for fun things to do with this, please let me know; I’m totally making things up right now).
  2. I’m learning jazz piano. Okay, I’m slacking off on this and playing swing sheet music instead (my “how to play jazz piano” books are in Chicago) but I’m also starting to break away from sheet music and improvise around songs, even starting to bang out complete ones of my own instead of just aimlessly playing “things that kinda sound good.” It’s probably not jazz, but it’s something.

Summer of Content

And then something you probably haven’t heard because it hasn’t been announced… until now. For those of you who are familiar with Google’s Summer of Code, we bring you the Summer of Content. Basically, we’re paying students to work with mentors from open content organizations to make… anything they want. Textbook, music, movies, photographs – want to make it? Propose it!

We’re running a 5-week pilot at the end of this month (all students eligible), a Southern Hemisphere one in the Winter, and another in parallel with next year’s Summer of Code. The program is still under construction, but it’s moving forward fast. Interested in mentoring a project? Interested in doing a project? Know someone who would be? Please forward and ask questions!

Right-o. Thanks for reading. I just had two mugs of Golden Monkey tea, so I’m super-hyper tonight, and proportionally more shameless.


4th of July: "Boating" "on the Charles"


“We’re going boating on the Charles. You should come,” said Chandra.
“Sure. What boat?”

Three sporting goods stores later, I was $27 lighter and the proud owner of an inflatable raft rated to carry approximately 50 lbs less than the combined weight of myself and Matt Ritter, my co-captain in this adventure. Wrapping food in garbage bags, Chandra, Molly, and I drove to the Beef & Beer house in Somerville and chilled on the porch as more Oliners started showing with boats… and then more, and more. The lady in the house next door thought it was an auto accident because there were so many people clustered by the curb, talking.

We packed everyone into as few cars as possible, drove to the Charles, and dashed! furiously! across fences and Storrow Drive, where we inflated and launched, somewhat precariously, from the BU dock. Matt and I found that our boat was low enough in the water that we couldn’t row because the oar-paths intersected with our scrunched-up knees. We proceeded to use them as paddles, sitting cross-legged across from each other, scuttling backwards because Matt didn’t have his glasses and I was navigating.

A string of twenty-something tiny plastic rafts (and one canoe) scooted the mile down the Charles, their forty-odd occupants singing merrily and bashing into each other. Chris Dellin wins for Most Ghetto Paddle: tennis racket wrapped in a garbage bag and duct-taped to a pole. Did I mention it was raining? We can only imagine what it looked like to the passing helicopters.

We lashed our boats together under the Mass Ave bridge and began to eat the strawberries, bread, sausage, and cheese we’d brought. (Hypothetically we had soda, but the ginger soda Matt had was spicy and went straight up your nose, so nobody drank it.) The current driiiiiiifted us out from under the bridge and we started to get soaked. We cut loose from the flotilla, paddled back under, and began to eat again. The current driiiiiifted us out… people on the bridge started staring down at us and pointing.

After a few rounds of this, the Coast Guard came and chased us back to shore for not wearing life jackets. We hauled the raft ashore and went running back and forth along both riverbanks with Duc and Chris to see if we could find Matt’s friends from Pika, who supposedly had life jackets. Four soaked, muddy college students peering from group to group, asking for directions to the sailing pavilion. I ended up watching the fireworks with Matt on the MIT side of the river, dripping river and rain onto Heather’s flip-flops, which were much too large for me and cut into my feet enough that I ran barefoot as much as I could.

The fireworks were beautiful.

Later we found out that Kelcy and DJ had ripped a hole in their now-useless raft, that David (from IMSA) had capsized into the river, that some members of the scattered group had managed to stay on the Charles, that others climbed to the bridge, and that everyone had, by and large, had a grand ol’ time (if not the time we’d expected). A hot shower never felt so wonderful afterwards.