Daily Archives: December 31, 2007

Ex 2007, Oh 2008

[First published at GOTOXO as Ex 2007, Oh 2008 on December 31, 2007.]

We got back from Venice yesterday. I will write more on that trip shortly; suffice it to say for now that I did indeed take my XO to San Marco Plaza on Christmas Day, and also took a picture with my XO during a layover on the way back at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.

I was up quite early this morning due to jet lag, rising about 4AM. The day itself was both a summary of several developments and I hope an omen of some good things to happen in 2008.

Two more XO’s arrived while we were away. I left them in the boxes and drove down to the IBM Research Lab in Hawthorne in the morning to send them on their way to the Sahana project in Sri Lanka. It was a very satisfying experience to know the Sahana folks will soon be able to start bending the XO to their will, and I expect it will only be a matter of time before we will all see a picture of an XO at the scene of a major natural disaster.

When I read some of my email I learned that Josh and Zander Bolgar received their XO’s on December 27th, courtesy of the following email from Josh:

Dear Dave,

This is the first email sent from my XO! I’ve been working with Pippy to write my first programs. Here’s a logarithm calculator.
This is lots of fun. Can’t wait to program with you.

Josh sent along a small Python program that shows he has already started figuring out the language. I’m looking forward to working with both Josh and Zander soon.

I learned via phone mail that one of the folks at the k12 OpenMinds conference I attended back in October in Indianapolis wanted to continue some joint discussions we are having on some of the work of his company and possible opportunities for IBM. This might even lead to my attending an interesting conference that is coming up in a couple of weeks.

Later on in the afternoon I went to drop off a check to our dog’s caretaker, Alec. During our conversation I mentioned my new XO, as I recalled that Alec was a geek like me. He mentioned he had been trying to get MythTV running on his Ubuntu box, but was having some problems, so I went back to my house to get two Ubuntu books, and also took along the XO to show it to Alec and his dad. As we were talking Alec mentioned he was just learning Linux and wanted to know about how the kernel worked, as well as some of the details of the shell language. I then recalled I had an old SONY DVR that I had picked up a few months back at a garage sale. The owner said there had been a power surge and the remote stopped working, but that otherwise the device probably worked. So I asked Alec to hop into the car so we could go back to my house to get the DVR box and some more books.

I then had the great pleasure of loaning Alec O’Reilly’s book on Bash and my copy of The Unix Programming Environment by Kernighan and Pike.

Just thinking about K&P made me appreciate the great fun that some of the members of the XO Generation are going to have. The XO Laptop is powered by open-source software, the software created by applying the scientific model to programming. Though software is a relatively recent phenomenon, going back at most six decades, there is already a substantial literature about it. Some of that literature is quite good, and there are even classics such as K&P. I had thought of giving Alec my copy of another classic work, Richard Stevens Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment, but realized he should work through K&P first.

These incidents summarize what I think are the major developments of 2007 –at least from my perspective as a volunteer interested in promoting the use of open technologies such as open-source to help our curators, educators and librarians in their vital mission — as well as the immediate opportunities ahead:

  • The ongoing reduction in the cost of hardware so that it is now possible for about two hundred dollars to build a decent desktop (not counting the cost of the display, keyboard or mouse) or a laptop such as the XO. The cost of this hardware is now less than the cost of buying a copy of Windows and Office to run on it.
  • The k12 Open Minds Conference in Indianapolis in October. This was the first national conference to bring together educators and open-source folks in the U.S., and there was substantial participation from people outside the U.S. This was a historic event.
  • The first mass production and distribution of the XO laptop from the OLPC.

The major opportunity — and challenge — for 2008 will be to educate the new users of the XO, and using the XO not only to provide education in general, but education in computers and their programming in particular to at least some of these new users so they can go on to make the XO even better in the years to come.

Blogging Geek to Geek

[First published at GOTOXO as Blogging Geek to Geek on December 31, 2007.]

My wife mentioned earlier today that she had mentioned my interest in the XO laptop to one of the members of her book club, a woman who is quite well known in the NY publishing industry. She learned that her friend knows both Negroponte brothers: Nicholas, the computer scientist and OLPC founder and CEO; and John, a Deputy Secretary of State and former director of the CIA. Her friend also said that I must be a “geek.”

I realized later during dinner that her friend was right. As we were recalling our recent visit to Venice, I mentioned that whenever we went from one part of Venice to the other I always first decided how many bridges we would have to cross. For example, our hotel was near the train station. So if we were going to Plaza San Marco then we would cross no bridges if we turned to the right. If we turned to the left we would cross at least two bridges, unless we went by boat, in which case we would cross none.

My wife replied she would never even think of this, and that’s when I realized I really am a geek. I confirmed this even further a few minutes later when I mentioned that visting Venice reminded me of Euler’s Seven Bridges of Konigsberg.

Then again, my geekiness was apparent when first we met. She once said that after our chance meeting she thought she would never see me again, since I had never asked for her phone number. I replied that I hadn’t needed to ask for her phone number, for I had learned during our conversation that one of her roommates was a fellow student at the Courant Institute, NYU’s graduate school of mathematics. I thus knew that I could find her phone number just by asking her roommate for her phone number, since the numbers must be the same. I then went on to explain that this was an example of what is called a “lemma,” an intermediate result that simplifies getting things done in mathematics, and thus began my wife’s education in living with a geek.

Crunch Time

[First published at GoToXo as Crunch Time on December 31, 2007]

Software, like mathematics, is but a form of writing. I have been doing one or the other for several decades, and so have come to know some of the fellow authors who do this kind of writing. While authors of novels tell stories about people, the authors of software and mathematics write about other things, but they are also people, and have their own stories, as I was reminded by a recent post in Slashdot that brought back memories of a chance meeting back in the 1970’s, my “Crunch Time.”

I just noted via a post in Slashdot, A Look Back at One of the Original Phreaks, that the New York Times recently ran a story, Dial-Tone Phreak, that reported the death of Josef Engressia, one of the original “Phone Phreaks.” Though I never knew Mr. Engressia, nor had I heard his name before, on reading the story I learned he was an associate of “Captain Crunch” himself, John Draper, whose web site can be found at John T Draper (AKA Captain Crunch) .

I once met Mr. Draper, as they say, “back in the day.” This would be during the SETL project, around 1974 or so. I was one of the few people who were around for the entire history of the project, over a period of close to a decade. Many other people were associated with the project, some for several years, others for just a few months. For example, I recall that Lambert Miertens spent about a year with the project around 1978. On his return to the Netherlands, Lambert worked on a programming language called “ABC” that included some of the ideas from SETL, as well as some of the work he had done on Algol 68. Guido Rossum, the inventor of Python, was familiar with this work, and it played a role in the design of Python, the main programming language used in the XO Laptop.

One of the visitors who spent some time around SETL, though I think it was just for a few months, was Bob Bonic. His story was interesting in itself,in that he was a tenured professor of mathematics who gave up his career to open a bar in SoHo (the area in New York City just “SOuth of HOuston (street).” I just found mention of this episode via Google in DIALECTICAL MARXISM The Writings of Bertell Ollman. Several other stories about Bob can be found via this, that, and the other.

It was Bob who introduced me to Captain Crunch. Bob came into my office on the fourth floor one day accompanied by someone he thought I might like to meet. After a while, as the new acquaintance talked about some of his work, I realized I was talking to Captain Crunch himself. Later on Captain C. offered to teach me some of the tricks of his trade, but I politely declined. Though I had never been a Phone Phreak, I had been an undergraduate at Caltech, and so had some experience with activities at the boundaries of the law, as for several months I carried around a set of lockpicks, tools that were part of the curriculum at CIT devoted to an obscure ritual called “Senior Ditch Day.”

I declined the offer to learn how to make free calls. When I read a few months later than Captain Crunch had been indicted I realized I had made the right call.

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