Thursday, May 26, 2011

Farewell Uruguay

I leave Uruguay tomorrow night. By this time tomorrow, I should be in Brazil. It's hard to find the right words for a despedida, or farewell. Partially because it's emotional, partially because it's still beyond my level of Spanish.

I remember being in the Plan Ceibal lobby on my first day, going upstairs, seeing the beehive of activity. I felt like a house painter from a small island nation walking into a giant art studio. The same week I was learning bus routes, finding a place to stay, and struggling to say words like "menu", "task", and "bag". Fast forward to last Monday - I visited a school, demo'd the new activities and fixes we've been working on, described the concept and fielded questions, all in Spanish. There's more to education technology than proving a program works, but it's an achievement I can be proud of.

This week also marks a point where I go from spending 4 months of the last year abroad, to much of the next 18 months on the west coast. I have less time for OLPC, but this is my chance to do meaningful work with the leading companies in my field. I believe it was the philosopher Katy Perry who once said about California:
you can travel the world
but nothing comes close to the Golden Coast
So that's where I'm going. That's all for now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Paso de los Toros

Today was my school visit in Paso de los Toros. The students' preparation and the response from the principal and teachers was fantastic:

Also it was great to visit the school alongside the experienced teacher-trainers from Tacuarembó. I want to share their insights with Plan Ceibal and the Sugar/activity developer community. These are the people who see how an activity works in the wild, and their support for an activity can make or break its use in the curriculum. They also confirmed numbers we heard at the conference - rural and impoverished schools are using the laptops more than urban ones. They say a similar trend exists for eToys and TurtleArt. This was part of our larger discussion about programming, which was an encouraging look at how teachers could move their curriculum in that direction. A major issue here was the rapidly changing interface, and how on Olidata, programs such as TurtleArt have too little actual workspace.

I did a demo of the new Uruguay Map activity, Memorize with Sensors, and a new version of the Browse-Hack activity. The general consensus is that the new Uruguayan Map activity fills the need for creativity in their current geography activity, Conozco Uruguay. The group was most interested in expanding the Memorize activity - asking for some source code and hardware diagrams ASAP.

This experience is making me re-think the discussions we had about putting libraries on the schools' local servers. While the Plan Ceibal organization is considering ideologies of education and privacy while considering a wiki, teachers are already making wikis and blogging with their classes, online. The experts specifically talked about WikiSpaces.

Travel photos included in newly-posted photos

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Learning Spanish

I learned some new Spanish vocabulary this week:

It's funny until someone packs up all of their dirty laundry and brings it to a car wash place which would never, ever happen to me.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Roadtrip III

This weekend is taking me all over the country - I'm coloring this weekend in blue on the travel map.

Friday was an awesome, field-day like visit in Canelones. On Saturday, I went to Punta del Este (Marker H in the southeast; a tourist-friendly place not unlike Provincetown). I planned a school visit for this Monday, so I'm spending today in Durazno (Marker I). Tomorrow morning I continue up the road to Paso de los Toros (Marker J) and visit a school! There'll be teacher-trainers coming from Tacuarembo as well.

I'm still preparing for the school visit, and the internet connection from Hotel Durazno isn't good enough to upload photos, so I'll write more later this week. The main thing which I found today, while completely lost outside Durazno, was a library with a Braille section. I'm going to try meeting with the librarian tomorrow, seeing what resources they have, and finding out what ñ looks like in Braille.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Almost a year ago, I used RFID to connect kids' art and computer guts. You could put a tag on the paper, scan it with the RFID reader, and make something happen on screen. Things went pretty well.

Since then, I've learned that RFID is part of Near Field Communication (NFC), and NFC is big. Shortly after legendary Marissa Mayer took over Google's location services, they took the visual barcodes off of their Google Places posters and started using NFC, which makes it faster to look up restaurant offers and reviews, but only if you have the right smartphone

I was watching a demo of how their future phones will use this when I realized what's going on - Google is making a long bet against Apple.

  • Apple's main business is catalogs - music, movies, and apps. People print barcodes so that you can get a song or a cool app from a printed page, poster, or website

  • NFC tags have actual wire in them, like this homemade one, and can't be printed in magazines. In the demo, when the Google guy scans a CD case to sample its music, I could only think who buys a CD? So, weakness: NFC only really works for physical goods or places.

  • Apple doesn't have a market for real world places. The iPhone and iPad rely on Google Maps, which Google has been making bigger and better by connecting businesses to their own Place page on Maps, and giving out free posters like the one above.

  • Apple doesn't have a market for physical goods, and they take a huge cut out of everything sold through them. Google has their Paypal clone, Google Checkout, just waiting to be used.

  • NFC supports sharing, so you can push a YouTube video to someone with a different phone, or a big TV, just by putting your phone next to the receiver. You don't need a Starbucks app and a Dennys app and a WeirdMallStore app after all - any nearby screen or surface can talk to your phone, even if Steve Jobs never approved its design. Both of these concepts are heresy in the iPhone world.

Personally I care more about using it for maps and cities, but I want to figure out where it's going before I get on board. If this post is close to the mark, then Apple will be slow to adopt NFC without an attachment, but there's enough potential for techies and businesses to start using it now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Multimedia Update

Photos, videos, and slideshows! This is my multimedia update with some eduJAM and all of my trip to Colonia del Sacramento.

Video of the deployments roundtable with Rwanda, Madagascar, and more - I talk about OLPC Uganda at 33:15. Slides below.
OLPC Uganda
View more presentations from eduJAM 2011


Saturday, May 14, 2011


I've had a GPS for awhile, but never got around to finding things with it. I actually looked up coordinates of hidden caches in Africa last year -- but never followed up. On Thursday my boss at Plan Ceibal was asked about geocaching, so she forwarded the idea to me. Fortunately I had my GPS in my backpack and could explain the whole thing.

So today I decided to geocache for real. I wasn't prepared. There was no arrow to point me - I just knew I wanted to head northwest. Following the compass and GPS led me to dead ends, dirt roads, to a marsh blocking the beach... I was lucky there was a full moon tonight because it was awful dark by the time I was closing in. Finally I was only a minute (1/60th of a degree) or two away from the destination. I walked up the road to a light which I guessed would be the entrance to the beach. As I was about there, I startled some dogs and they ran up barking. I was thinking that I had made an awful, awful mistake. I waved them off and moved around them to the beach. There were two fishermen, who were even more startled.

Here I had to assure them that I was not looking for my hotel; I was miles from anything like that. I could explain that there was a game with maps, and I had to take a picture of an unusual place. The fishermen told me there'd be nothing, and that I was lost, as in, they weren't sure how I could have gotten this lost. I had my GPS, and explained that I knew there was something very near us... eventually one caught a small fish which gave me a chance to walk the remaining 100 yards or so. At long last, I was at the ruins of a stone turret on the beach. The night sky, partly illuminated by Buenos Aires over the horizon, the waves reflecting the night sky, and the red and green flashes of dozens of boats far out from the shore... Worth it. I checked the GPS over and over until I was standing in exactly the right spot. Checkmate.

I showed a photo to one of the fisherman and he explained that he was trying to tell me about that, and how it was built by Argentinians. I still need to work on my Spanish =( Before I had gotten far up the road, he caught up to me on his motorbike and took me halfway home. I thanked him, used the GPS to plot the rest of the way.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Project Outreach

Some other things that just happened this week:

  • A volunteer at the Las Piedras school asked me to write to her son, who's studying programming in college. On his blog, he posts great resources for the Magallanes Classmate PCs. Argentina, are you seeing this? I told him to check out Hacker News Spanish.

  • I started a conversation with WorldReader about hacking eReaders. Then I heard interesting rumors about the next generation of eReaders, so I've put it on the back burner. If I work in Seattle this fall with super secret company then I could follow up.

  • I asked Garage48 if their traveling hackathon was going to visit Uganda. Now they're making plans with our OLPC contacts at Kampala University. Hoping there will be education apps and future Ugandan entrepreneurs at this event!

  • I was selected for a Code for America 2012 fellowship, so I'll being making plenty of maps and apps for cities next year.

Roadtrip II: Colonia

I only have two weeks, with two weekends, before I leave South America. So I've decided to spend both weekends traveling. Tomorrow, I'm going to Colonia del Sacramento, which is in the southwest part of Uruguay. That's Point G on this map of places where I've been:

Colonia is famous for its old Spanish architecture and sandy beaches. At the supermarket, I noticed all of the cheese was from Colonia, like an Uruguayan Wisconsin. A conversation at work about geocaching inspired me to look up a couple of hidden items to find with my GPS.

So what about the north of the country? I want to go next weekend, but there aren't a lot of tourist activities as we get closer to winter. My co-worker suggested Lavalleja, which is north of E and F on that map. Lavalleja sounds like it has a lot of volcanoes -- I mean, hiking trails and such. If there's a volunteer thing there or another part of the country next week, I might try visiting that, instead.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Coding, SocialCalc, and +1

Programming is weird. You have to make a mental connection with the computer to really understand what it's doing. Similar to Scout reading the cobra's mind in Scout's Safari.

Yesterday I added a "+1" feature to the digital library; basically a Facebook like button. I spent a minute on the icon, and much more time getting it to appear

Me gusta eso libro

On May 2, a teacher made me promise to fix SocialCalc. On Friday I had almost solved the problem, but hit a dead end. At the code jam on Sunday, Tony Anderson of OLE Rwanda helped me walk through the traces and meanderings of what experts call "spaghetti code". By the end of that day, it looked like we found a route around the problem. After a few design and translation updates today, SocialCalc is fixed! The code is on SugarLabs and you can download the activity.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


The past week has gone faster than ever, at the Conozco Uruguay tour run by Pablo Flores and RAP Ceibal, and a conference being organized by CeibalJAM volunteers. I can't blog the whole thing, so, highlights:

Thursday - the reunion

After typing a big report in Spanish at work, I went downtown to the conference launch at an art university. People flew in from everywhere, including Boston and San Francisco.
Here you see an XO-controlled robot invented by university students:


Friday - the Sugar system

If you were starting a school from nothing, you could make a very interesting one using our software for the XOs. One of the key parts of this theory would be teaching programming and teaching it well. All of the kids know how to make geometric shapes in the Logo/Turtle program, but here we had something much more advanced. Theoretically we can address gaps in kids' education and inequalities in schools by giving them a better kind of learning (constructionism), and software that allows that learning to happen.

Saturday - swapping stories

I talked about Uganda on the Deployments panel. This included Madagascar, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, and Nepal. Each speaker was translated in realtime to the audience's headphones.

Image CC-BY-SA Christoph Derndorfer

During the unconference, anyone could suggest a talk. OLPC's experts/idealists discussed robots, sensors, and inspiration from The Diamond Age, a book which also inspired me in Uganda. My talk was on maps, particularly the Map activity, olpcMAP, and the new sensors activity. I started bilingual, but the discussion turned entirely Spanish. Teachers were especially interested in the sensors and putting more information and easy downloads online for all of the activities.

Users of the Map activity in Uruguay

Memorize con Sensores

After a special session on hackerspaces, a few of us then went to visit Uruguay's own HackSpace Montevideo. This is a space where programmers and garage-builders can pool their resources to buy advanced tools and build incredible projects. The space here was quite new, but they had WiFi antennas and a homemade plotter printer assembled with resourceful use of low-cost materials. Also, a library full of books such as "Organizing Free Software Groups in Latin America" and my former employer Deitel's C++ book.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Photos from Rocha and Canelones

I posted new photos from Saturday's conference, Sunday's visit to an internet-broadcasting project by a farmers' coop in Tala, and Monday's visit to a school in Las Piedras. The album also includes some photos from my last day of vacation in Rocha and La Paloma.

Top three (all link to photo album)

La Paloma, from their lighthouse

XOs at a school in Las Piedras

XOs in a school in Las Piedras