Teaching the Burmese Python

I'm now in MaeSot, Thailand. Monday Jan 5th was the first day of school 2009 at Hsa Thoo Lei. I spend most of my time in a computer lab at the small end of the L shaped building located here. This is my 3rd trip here in 4 years, and given my increasingly nomadic life, I think I can now call this a home. By April I'll return to the USA, but which city remains undecided.

I would like to have spent more time with the XOs in Cambodia, and I feel recommitted to the olpc vision. I firmly believe that machine can improve the world, but the needs and potential for me to have an impact are greatest here.

I'm formally teaching from 3p until 9:30p. There are 10 machines in the computer lab. Most of the computer classes here pile as many kids as necessary onto each machine, and some of my early classes work the same way. But my focus is on the oldest students and on ensuring only one student per machine. Learning doesn't work as well unless you control the mouse and keyboard. School finishes by 4, so most of my teaching is to students who stick around for an optional afterschool program. This minimizes the impact on their traditional classes, and allows me to work late with the students who live here fulltime. For the general classes we've begun with google maps. It requires minimal english, and takes on special significance for these refugees. We begin by finding the school based on satellite photos, and then explore the town they know. Next they explore the whole world. For some this means using street view to see the eiffel tower, or visit san francisco. For some it means seeing the house of a friend who has since been relocated to Minnesota or Norway. In many cases it means a search for the home they've left behind, and revisiting the often painful circumstances of their departure. If only virtually, it means they are allowed to leave this narrow strip of land, between a host country that does not want them and a home country that wants them dead.

Today I taught our first class on wikipedia. Earlier in the day the 12th grade students had been studying the history of Burma during World War 2. We started at the front page, explained its multilingual nature, and then we began to read about World_War_II. Following the link to the Japanese capture of Burma we picked up where their earlier class had left off. Students were encouraged to click on any of the blue links and begin to appreciate the depth and Special:Random to grok its breadth. High School Musical 2, Ronaldinho, Church of England ... . I introduced them to the relevant languages and began to explain who writes wikipedia, and how it works. We'll do more in the coming days, and before I leave there will be some efforts at improving at least the simple.wikipedia coverage of their own cultures.

From 7:30 till 9:30 (and it seems occasionally into the wee hours) I've begun the experiment that I've long hoped for. I want to teach the Burmese Python. Not just because the name is amusing but because I think this could matter more than anything else I do.

These refugees cannot leave a very small area without a pass. Even if they could get there, Thailand prevents foreigners from holding many jobs. They are inelligible for any Thai university, even if they somehow manage to acquire the necessary skills. There needs to be a light at the end of this tunnel to make education worthwhile.

They may not be citizens of any country, but they can be citizens of the internet. There they can find better jobs than the sweat shop garment factory just outside the school. In fairness, around here, that is a pretty good job. But if the parents can live on a dollar a day, rentacoder.com is 6 figure salary in comparison. Even if this first group doesn't make it to that level, they teach their younger peers, and can do so in native language. This plants the seed.

So far a few of my old students have been doing the best. Wahlershee and Deetway are notable standouts. This isn't yet a fair test, since we're still at a stage of copying simple programs into the intrepretter. This favors those who read english well and type more quickly. As I remind them, soon it will be more about how fast you think, not how fast you type. I confess, a few students have failed to show for tonight's class, but new ones have shown up to take their spots. Since this is largely self directed, and students move at different speeds that is fine. They have other classes with grades, and I know few people find this enjoyable. They will do it for love, or because they see the value, not for credit or any near term reward. If anyone is in the class a month from now this has been worthwhile. If anyone still studies a month after I've left, it has been a success. But I may not be able to measure real success for many years. You do not become a programmer in a year.

ps. clowns without borders.org the most worthwhile organization you've never heard of.

Notes from Cambodia's olpc deployments

Reaksmy, Preah Vihear, Cambodia is home to Cambodia PRIDE (Providing Rural Innovative Digital Education). Elaine and Nicholas Negroponte founded this school in 1999, and Elaine is living in Cambodia for over half of most years. Before there was an xo, the elementary school was providing classroom laptops. Those original machines were Panasonic Toughbooks, many of which are still in daily use. At present there are ~250 xos here, and they can be seen as a response to the challenges of this environment. However the xo is still young, and it is important to measure the results, and look for places where further improvements are needed.

To date only 2 machines have been seriously damaged. One screen was cracked when the machine was dropped, the other was damaged when washed with water. Other students seem to have taken this lesson to heart, and it seems unlikely that mistake will be made twice. The Sugar interface makes it surprisingly easy to permanently remove activities from the xo, which can create some extra work.

As others have reported, the most common problem is the 'jumpy cursor'. Interestingly there has been much experimentation and some success putting scotch tape over the trackpad. Perhaps other sites will find this useful until the next software update. Long term this needs to be solved at the software level, as do several networking issues. In particular I'd hoped to be able to provide remote support, via an ssh tunnel into the xo. However even with a usb to ethernet dongle I'm still unable to have the machine simultaneously use mesh and internet. I hope to hear from anyone with technical experience related to xo networking who can help me to learn more about this topic.

Primary school students have a computer class 1 hour per day 5 days a week. On my first day here I watched Scratch based multimedia presentations made by each student in the 6th grade class (ages 13-15). Topics included "how we cook rice in my home," "how to grow a vegetable garden," "how to play baseball". These were similar to the powerpoint presentations I've watched at scientific conferences and corporate boardrooms, and in many cases these were far better. The project had begun several days earlier with some group storyboarding, then students used the xo to take pictures at home. Lastly they recorded narration which provided an opportunity for students who aren't as comfortable with english to rerecord and edit until they were happy with results.

Later in the day some of the younger students were taken outside to use 'Paint' and draw the buildings and nature around them. During previous similar teaching experiences I've learned to appreciate how important drawing programs are to allow students to learn cursor control, cut/copy/paste, save & exit. The ability to take the xo outside, into direct sunlight opens up their creativity in a way that does not happen when everyone is looking at the same four walls.

Historically, education in South East Asia is largely rote memorization. This is far from the olpc model which encourages individual creativity and collaboration, but establishing new habits isn't easy or quick. Western teachers have told me that they often need to show an example, then quickly erase it, to avoid having students copy it verbatim. Having a girl raise her hand in the middle of class and say "Teacher, I have a question" is the sort of too rare moment where you realize real progress is being made.

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olpc cambodia

Paris was wonderful, catching up with Charlie Tacorante my friend from growing up in Miami. His wife Chantal and her cousin Anna joined us for exploring the city. I returned to Keygene in Wageningen, did a bit more work related to microRNA and then returned to the States. First stop was Chicago to present some of my work on personal genomics at a conference, and then back to DC to vote.

JC invited me to watch the returns near the whitehouse and when McCain made his concession speech we took to the streets to celebrate. We started off in front of the whitehouse and when the carnival like enthusiasm was just too much for the moment, we walked to the Lincoln Memorial which was more powerful and serene than ever. I can assure you Abe Lincoln was smiling. This is going to be one of my fondest memories of DC, so its particularly well timed.

You are now leaving Montgomery County

I've given notice on my apartment and I'll move out shortly after Thanksgiving. I'm buying a one way ticket to Cambodia where I hope to spend a few months teaching computers. I've done this sort of thing before but this is my first chance to do it with an olpc, a laptop computer designed for children in developing countries.

I've previously spent several months volunteering at a school in thailand which serves refugees from Burma. I fix hardware, cleanup the spyware, and where possible I teach. On my last trip I even brought along seven older laptops donated by friends.


Nicholas and Elaine Negroponte have been doing similar work since 2000. They were impressed by the results of giving laptops to kids, so much so, that they're trying to do it on a MUCH bigger scale.

My last visit to Thailand was 2 years ago, before the olpc was yet a reality. During that time I met megabroad though her work at SAW school (home of Jack Zany). Via Facebook I learned that she has recently moved to Cambodia to work at the Negroponte's original school.

Like a lot of self professed geeks, the olpc appeals to me for technical reasons. It's a ruggedised low power Linux machine with an innovative screen which works well in direct sunlight. It has gigabyte of flash memory for storage with no fan and no hard drive -- no moving internal parts that can fail. Its software is written mostly in Python and C, both languages I'm very familiar with. While the kids might think they have a toy in their hands, in many ways it exactly the same sort of machine which I use everyday for big science. I want to help unlock its potential.


The same is true for the students I've met. They live in a post internet world, and just because your family lives on $1 per day in South East Asia doesn't mean mean you can't attend an MIT lecture during lunch.

On Monday Nov 17th you can buy an olpc at http://amazon.com/xo for $400. This actually buys 2 machines one machine is sent to you, and you've just bought an extra one which is sent to a school in a developing country. Don't think of this as a replacement for your current laptop. If that's what you have in mind you will be disappointed. But for what it is trying to achieve it is a remarkable device.


What can I really achieve? I don't know. But previous trips felt like they did accomplish something. These olpcs are still very new technology and they have their fair share of bugs to work out. I think I have the right mix of skills to be useful. I hope that being in the field will allow me to find ways to help. I've got lots of ideas, but I think on the ground reality needs to dictate how I spend the little time I have.

Almost half of my colleagues at BioTeam.net also own olpc machines, and they've been very supportive of my decision, so I will have a job waiting for me when this is over. I expect that will be in mid March when I expect to return to the Netherlands for meetings with Keygene. Afterwards, will I come back to the DC? With no lease and no return ticket anything is possible.

Paris bound

This is an 'on the road' month. I started in Miami to catch up with old friends. I've spent most of this month in the Netherlands working on microRNAs, and by the 28th I'll be in Chicago for a genomics conference. At the moment I'm using a 3G card to post from a train as I ride from Utrecht to Paris via Brussels for the weekend.

(no subject)

Missing your plane is stressful, unless you never wanted to be on it in the first place.

Sadly, eventually I did have to catch it. I'm home.

catching up with down time

I'm in North Carolina visiting my parents. I didn't grow up here, but ~12 years ago my folks bought a nice little house overlooking a lake. Since then most of my family holidays have been spent in a town where I know only these two wonderful people. This isolation tends to give me a an opportunity to do the projects that I find worthwhile. My first year here I did my first improvements to the Less Than Jake website.

This visit has resulted in a Mac version of Promethease. Promethease is a tool to explain what your DNA means. I recently used it to win a contest. My prize is having my own DNA tested. More importantly it has helped to draw attention to SNPedia and its capabilities.

As long time readers of this blog know, it gets more frequent and more interesting updates when I'm traveling. This is partly because life seems more storied when I'm in new places. But it is probably even more due to my reluctance to blog about things which have not yet happened, and the fact that work never really completes. For several months I've known I was (probably) going to the Netherlands for a few weeks for work. But I don't want to blog about it, and show my enthusiasm, only to have to report back if it all falls though. Even today the necessary contracts aren't signed, and I'm reluctant to count this chicken until it has hatched. But if you're anywhere near Wageningen, I'd be happy to swap a few emails, and perhaps meet during my visit (starting ~Jun 15)

Isn't it Pythonic

One of my geekiest blog posts lamented the alliances and leadership around my favorite language. Almost a year later it actually attracted some mildly heated comments. Today I'm happy to report that python looks very strong. Here's some stuff I've built in python in the last year:
cheap and easy rent-a-supercomputer from your windows desktop

knows all about the human genome

knows all about YOUR genome

Santa got me an olpc this year, and I'm very pleased with it. But I won't really get to know it until I've done a project. I'm particularly interest in its mesh networking. This has a lot of cool properties but I think these 2 show it well enough.

  1. if there are two of us in the desert with no internet, the machines can see each other and share information wirelessly. This works even better with 100 people.

  2. if one machine in the mesh has internet, they all have internet

That networking model is new, and I want to play with it. Since the olpc is still a bit lacking on games, I hope to create a version of Pong for N players using some of the mesh guts. So these tutorials are my primary reason for going to PyCon08.

But conferences are also a chance to meet new and old friends. If you'll be at PyCon, Next Gen Sequencing, BioIT World, or PSB please say hello.