OLPC = One Laptop Per…toddler?

So, at precisely 2:45 this afternoon, the FedEx man pulled in front of my apartment building and delivered the package that I’d been awaiting with about as much patience as a kid getting a Wii for Christmas. My very own OLPC XO laptop! It should have arrived five days before (a series of holiday screw-ups at the FedEx location in the Bronx) and so I practically pounced on the deliveryman as soon as he walked through the door. I dropped to the floor, tore open the tape and packaging and dumped the grail to the floor.

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My, I thought, that looks…small.

Right around now, all of the members of my writers group will be crowing “I told you so!” Okay, I knew what the “C” in OLPC stood for. But I had read that the keyboard would be only 20% smaller than a normal-sized keyboard. My hands are tiny, I thought, no problem. And look at all the countervailing awesome: a spinning monitor that can fold back into a tablet for reading ebooks, 17-hour battery life, a screen that goes black-and-white for easy reading in daylight, water and damage resistant casing…I mean, it seemed like the perfect travel laptop!

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And all of that stuff is still great, only I have one problem: I needed a travel laptop to write. And by write, I mean type on a keyboard upon which I don’t have to squish my fingers together and practically roll them back and forth to reach adjacent keys. Holy crap that keyboard is small! It must be half the size of a normal one. When they said this was designed for children in third-world countries, I assumed that they wanted almost all children to be able to use it. But plenty of eight and nine year olds will have hands too big for this thing. And I just feel sorry for the tweens. (Pictures below comparing it to a regular keyboard)

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I guess I could get one of those folding portable keyboards and connect it with a USB. But that seems to sort of defeat the purpose of a lean, mean travel-typing machine. Should I sell it on ebay? Learn to type small? Endure the friendly cackles of my writer’s group?

Well, I think I gotta do the last one no matter what 🙂

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The wounds we give our children

Boy wizards are all the rage around the world. In America, a few religious loonies seem to believe that waving a stick and shouting “Accio!” really will make their children’s broomsticks wobble towards them before they go out for a bacchanal in the night, but mostly those in the first world seem to agree that it’s all in good fun. (Unless you’re Kathleen Duey, out to write the most grim, bleak and awesome book about boy wizards ever penned).

And then we come to Nigeria:

Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities

Sam Ikpe-Itauma is one of the few people in this area who does not believe what the evangelical ‘prophets’ are preaching. He opened his house to a few homeless waifs he came across, and now he tries his best to look after 131.

‘The neighbours were not happy with me and tell me “you are supporting witches”. This project was an accident, I saw children being abandoned and it was very worrying. I started with three children, then every day it increased up to 15, so we had to open this new place,’ he says. ‘For every maybe five children we see on the streets, we believe one has been killed, although it could be more as neighbours turn a blind eye when a witch child disappears.

In a nearby village The Observer came across five-year-old twins, Itohowo and Kufre. They are still hanging around close to their mother’s shack, but are obviously malnourished and in filthy rags. Approaching the boys brings a crowd of villagers who stand around and shout: ‘Take them away from us, they are witches.’ ‘Take them away before they kill us all.’ ‘Witches’.

The woman who gave birth to these sorry scraps of humanity stands slightly apart from the crowd, arms crossed. Iambong Etim Otoyo has no intention of taking any responsibility for her sons. ‘They are witches,’ she says firmly and walks away.

I’ve visited Nigeria. I drove from Port Harcourt through Lagos to Accra, Ghana in a taxicab during the height of the Harmatan winds. It took us over two days, and I will never forget my experiences there. I saw many things that I’d previously only encountered in novels: child amputees from tribal wars, lepers, polio victims, endless corrupt public officials, and a particularly violent, bloody form of animistic Christianity. I also loved it– the people we encountered, the fufu and kenke sold on the side of the road, the kola nuts, the women selling water and live fowl and anything else they could find from baskets on their heads. Nigeria is a beautiful country, but most of its people are numbingly poor, in a way I’m sure I still don’t understand. They are also very religious. When we first left Port Harcourt, our taxi driver was a taciturn man with a particularly gory crucifix hanging on his rear view mirror, and a bumper sticker in a cheesy-yet-disturbing blood drip font that read: “The blood of Jesus drenches this car.” I had the strangest feeling that he meant it literally.

And so, horrifying as it is, this story doesn’t really surprise me. Nigeria has the perfect combination of extreme poverty and extreme religiosity that makes it sadly easy for unscrupulous child-murderers like these pastors take advantage of their “flock”. Imagine, these parents are paying the pastors to murder their children! I’ve emailed the Observer to ask if there is any method of donating to the child refugee farm referenced in the story. I’ll post the details here if I get them.

Century-Old Smackdown

Mark Twain clearly knew his way around the literary bitchslap:

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are–oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

~Mark Twain, on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer

Ouch.

(And incidentally, his discussion of imprecision in language and Cooper’s prodigious lack of observational skills are pretty relevant to modern writers. Recommended reading.)

For knowledge’s sake

ERV

There’s a really interesting article about endogenous retroviruses and their implications as regards human evolution (in brief: invaluable shards of evolutionary history scattered throughout our genome like a Sumerian rubbish pit) in the most recent issue of the New Yorker. You should really read the whole thing, but my brain kind of snagged on one bit in particular, which I think raises some thorny intellectual and ethical questions about the nature of science, knowledge and research. This is obviously relevant to researchers and scientists, but also pertinent to folks like me, who just like to invent and extrapolate upon what those former hard-working individuals discover.

First, the article discusses the burgeoning and promising new field of paleovirology, wherein scientists of various disciplines use the reconstructed genomes of millennia-extinct viruses in order to learn more about the nature and process of evolution. It’s a novel way of learning about our prehistoric past, with serious shades of Jurassic Park. And like Jurassic Park, this new technique has serious dangers lurking just beneath the surface. Exhibit A, a group of students who used commonly-available materials and information to reconstruct a working version of the polio virus:

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