Sunday, December 28, 2008

OLPC and IPhones

My son was given a One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptop this holiday season. It came in a neat little box with icons on each side. The neatness continued as we unpacked it, revealing a sleek white and green plastic lozenge with a handle. A bit of effort was needed to figure out how to open the thing, but we were pleased that it fired up immediately, not requiring a 12 hour charging cycle.

For those not familiar with the OLPC project, the idea is to create $100 laptops that can be given to children worldwide to try to bridge the technology divide and empower young people to use technology. The purchase of our OLPC was actually paired with the gift of a second OLPC to a Third World nation.

My son already has a laptop, it turns out, but I was bound and determined to set-up and try the OLPC. My fun began with trying to get build 706 of the Linux OS to recognize our WiFi network. The problem is that I have a hidden SSID (non-broadcast) for security reasons (this is security through obscurity, which is not the best policy, but when paired with strong encryption reduces the threat of easy compromises). So I began the Linux hacks that I am far too familiar with having five Linux servers in my stable.

I could never get the OLPC machine to see the network for more than a moment, unfortunately, so I eventually relented and just exposed my WiFi node. Then I hunted down the upgrade procedure from within a command line shell and spent hours doing an upgrade. The upgrade radically re-arranged the UI's already cryptic iconic interface (I still can't figure out a few of the button functions!) but also brought some improvements to the WiFi connectivity UI.

Overall, though, my wife complained that I spent 6 hours hacking on a computer that was supposed to be useful to African tribesmen. I also have something like 15 years experience with Linux, even running early versions on laptops with experimental X windows servers by 1994 as an alternative to purchasing a Sun "luggable" at the time. I also have innumerable hours pouring over the Linux FAQs/wikis that are always out-of-date or pertain to earlier builds, trying to unravel the correct changes to make something work. I think OLPC has some more work to perfect.

I contrast OLPC with my IPhone 3G that cost only marginally more. If the claim holds true that WalMart may start offering $99 IPhones (8G), the cost would be comparable to the OLPC while providing substantially greater memory capacity. Some of the educational aspects of the OLPC are missing (built-in graphical Python programming, for instance), but everything else is easier and more stable.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Monophony and Complexity

I like George Will because he is slightly less loopy than, say, Jonah Goldberg at the National Review. I like his inventive language and use of baseball metaphors. But he has recently become monophonic and uninventive. Perhaps that is the fate of political conservatives who have a quiver filled with dozens of the same arrow labeled "smaller government might be better government."

Here he is in the most recent Newsweek building a rickety historical scaffolding to re-explain how an originalist (political originalism to distinguish from legal originalism) interpretation of the Constitution takes a dim view of government involvement in almost anything, how government involvement in almost anything inevitably leads to a request for more government involvement in our affairs (repeating Hayek), and how regulation drives lobbying because regulation drives defensive politics by business entities.

The odd thing about Will's unending exposition of political and economic history is that it minimizes or ignores the complex problems that led to our modern state. Madison's America was a smaller, emptier and more racist place where notions like the tragedy of the commons were only intellectually interesting; the vastness of the wilderness was also a vastness of available resources for exploitation. It took a hundred more years for economic interactions to become complex enough that monopolistic inequities began to become obvious and regarded as unfair. It took longer still for environmental pollutants to be understood and pervasive enough that regulation and environmental law was shaped. It took almost as long for American law to begin to shed itself of racism and sexism and expand that originalist notion of equality to all people.

For American conservatism to move forward there must be something more than raw originalism crossed with Hayek's fears of serfdom. There are too many counterexamples of each in the modern world for those arguments to carry much weight. Instead of fixed ideology, what is needed is targeted creativity. As an example, while environmental regulation is a thorn for conservatives like Will, a targeted improvement might be to focus on streamlining and using technological means to speed the process of regulatory approval. Partisan efforts that broadly deny the value of such regulation can't possibly succeed.

The same is true of health care reform which Will mentions in passing. He rings the topic with Grover Cleveland's assertion concerning originalism but doesn't penetrate to exactly what might be wrong with the specific programs that Obama hinted at in his platform. It's enough for him to proclaim it might be bad because the Constitution failed to mention it in succinct language (unlike, say, the existence of the Navy).

Fair enough. We are warned. Now I want actual policy that goes beyond a single note.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanksgiving and Poodles

So the Thanksgiving events wind down.

There was soggy architecture, rain-soaked and oversubscribed at the California Academy of Sciences. Two giant spheres sandwiched between a living roof and a subterranean aquarium, pushing the roof outward with a graceful femininity and seemingly mocking the functionally irrelevant twisted tower of the De Young Museum directly across from it.

There was a sunset dinner cruise on the Bay, with detailed discussions of the implications of new theories concerning IGF2, imprinting and the spectrum of mental disorders from autism through to schizophrenia as the swells poured in through the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then, finally, there was SFMOMA, Martin Puryear and participatory art projects. Katharina Fritsch's visually stunning Kind mit Pudeln (concentric circles of black poodles surrounding a baby) invoked the embrace of kitsch (yes, Fritsch invoked kitsch) by, say, Jeff Koons, while simultaneously reminding me that the singular requirement of art is discovery of the art by critics and museums. Advocacy is the requirement. It's not that Fritsch's piece is not interesting, but it has the postmodern conceit of denying conceptual depth with a gentle tongue-in-cheek amusement. As observers we spend time interpreting it, but the interpretation is at best a reference to Faust, at worst a reference to Koons.

The social aspect of art was reinforced while browsing a volume on the roots of cyberart in the 90s (and before). The examples and the narratives built around explorations in coastal metropolitan centers and major universities. The author spun a narrative history in a web of advocacy connecting together their friends and acquaintances from that era. There was not, nor could there have been, an appreciation of anything other than what passed through the author's sphere.

Could it be otherwise? Disintermediation and long-tails might hold a key with the internet supporting better access of artists to art markets and observers, but they also promote an unfiltered view of content without sieving by non-amateurs.