Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”

Posted on 31st March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags:

The best road maps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals.
– Neil Shubin


Your Inner Fish

Your Inner Fish

There’s a fascination to tearing apart an old house, tracing its history through what you find hidden behind the plaster. Electrical wires and pipes will run up to the attic and across, instead of taking a direct route through a wall, or worse, run up the outside of the house to enter a second-story bathroom. Awkward plaster intrusions will run between ceilings and walls, where air ducts were added after the house was built. Lead and asbestos hide under new layers of paint and insulation made from safer alternatives. Doors are shaved into rhombus shapes so they can fit into doorframes no longer rectangular from decades of shifting. Bad wall and floor joists are sistered up with new ones for seemingly redundant support. Other times, you just stare at the work of some carpenter long gone and ask yourself, “What on Earth were they thinking?”

The human body is like an old house. Our ancient ancestors started out with one design, a multi-celled organism, which morphed into animals with faces, which morphed into animals with legs and heads, which morphed into animals on two legs and big brains. The end result is a body that has nerves doing loop-de-loos through our body, running absurdly obtuse routes from our central nervous system to the areas of the body they service, holes pushed through muscles to make way for the male’s external sex organs, leaving a weak spot prone to hernias, and flexible throat muscles good for speech, but leave us prone to choking and sleep apnea.

Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish is a comprehensive exploration of all our human evolutionary traits, and traces them to our ancient ancestors. I was a bit self-conscious reading this book in public. What would you think of someone intently reading a book titled “Your Inner Fish?” You’d wonder what psychiatrist recommended it, so you could avoid using them.

The book’s title is misleading in scope. This is not just a book about our inner fish, but our inner shark, inner worm, inner moth, sponge, single-celled organism. Haeckel’s Phylogeny Recapitulates Ontology may not be true, to the endless delight of Creationists, but understanding why it isn’t true opens the doors to understanding how different species can all start out looking the same as embryos and yet their organs develop into different specializations.

Several of my grade school teachers would explain the human appendix as once aiding in the digesting of raw meat, like cave people supposedly did. This was wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. Wrong on soooooo many levels. All my teachers had to do was look inside modern animals with functional appendixes to understand how wrong they were. That’s how we know our ancestors’ appendixes were for digesting cellulose found in plants. Comparative Anatomy is indispensable to understanding why our bodies work the way they do.

Shubin draws this fact out through recounting his adventures in fossil hunting, which sound so interesting that they made me want to go on finds myself. He describes fascinating experiments where biologists patch tissue from one animal embryo to another, producing growths that reveal the purpose of different genes, or scientists evolving algae from single-cell to multi-celluar life in the lab by introducing single-cell predators to their environment, or tying a hair around a newt embryo to cause it to grow into twins.

Shubin’s down-to-Earth, hand-on explorations make this book a gateway for laypeople to the biological sciences. The thrill of fossil-hunting, extracting DNA with common kitchen ingredients, or simply looking at the biology of other animals and appreciating how we relate to them make this book a keeper. It will change the way you look at everything in the Animal Kingdom.

Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”

Posted on 18th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: ,

The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate

I love books that shake up my preconceptions, and reading Pinker’s book was like experiencing one big personal iconoclasm. The thoroughness with which he engaged gender, violence, intelligence, and other aspects of our social understandings unsettled my positions on much of the whole “Nature VS Nurture” debate. While it did not convince me entirely, it did work effectively to move me a few degrees along the debate spectrum.

Where Pinker and I were in full agreement was in rejecting the antiquated idea of the noble savage, the idea that we are born pure and innocent, living in harmony with nature and it is civilization that corrupts us. The fossil evidence shows human on human violence and environmental destruction in primitive times. The noble savage is an idealized concept that we need to put away in order to understand the histories of all the civilizations that have failed before ours.

Where Pinker’s arguments got weak is when tackling the role of media on our perceptions. He criticizes the logic behind political correctness and efforts to have minorities portrayed respectfully:

Since images are interpreted in the context of a deeper understanding of people and their relationships, the “crisis of representation,” with its paranoia about the manipulation of our mind by media images, is overblown. People are not helplessly programmed with images; they can evaluate and interpret what they see using everything else they know, such as the credibility and motives of the source. (pinker, 216)

Putting the obvious straw man aside (no one claims we are “helplessly programmed“), what are images and language but an effort to construct context? Why do people rally against the crass distortions of perspective on Fox News? What are political advisors, advertisers, artists, and opinion columnists of all types doing but to try and move the line of scrimmage?

Pinker’s writing suffers from a wealth facts that he takes for granted on subjects he obviously hasn’t looked into with much scrutiny. He dismisses the hypothesis that the United States Constitution was in part inspired by the Iroquois Federation as “1960s granola (Pinker, 296);” however, this is an unsettled dispute among historians, and the Smithsonian has admitted to striking similarities between the two government models. He makes the claim that people irrationally lobby to remove carcinogenic chloroform from drinking water, but peanut butter 100 times more carcinogenic. This statement is pure bullox. As is his use of the Darwin awards to argue that men are gender-biased to daredevil stunts (Pinker is very fond of anecdotal evidence throughout the book).

So Pinker is prone to some unsupported claims, urban legends, and exaggerations to make his case. Nobody’s perfect, but it does give us perspective on Pinker’s approach to his subject matter.

Where Pinker makes his strongest arguments, and justifies his book, is in arguing that, just because something isn’t Nurture, doesn’t justify eugenics, discrimination, and inequality. Wherever you fall on the NvN debate, Feminism was a good thing for women and society in general. Everyone deserves the same shot at an education because, even if intelligence were hereditary, everyone must still start on the same footing. Equality makes civilization stronger regardless of NvN

While Pinker makes great strides in banishing the false division between nature and nurture, he ultimately makes the mistake of estimating it at a 50/50 ratio (pinker, 388), keeping the false dichotomy firmly in place when he should have concluded it was time to do away with it. In psychology the whole NvN debate is considered naive since nature and nurture are so interwoven that their influences are ultimately indistinguishable.

Consider the meta argument that ultimately everything is innately nature since we are ultimately products of the physical laws of our universe, and the same case is true for nurture, as we are ultimately products of the environment of those physical laws. Environment and genetics are wrapped up in one another, so let’s stop trying to pin one down as the root cause for what we are. So while Pinker is correct that Nurture is over-hyped, he is equally guilty of over-hyping Nature.

Movie You Should See: Quest for Fire

Posted on 10th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: ,

Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire

Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire

While 10,000 BC was an over-hyped, glamorized, film that simultaneously gave too much credit to primitive humans and, at the same time, not enough, Quest for Fire takes place in 80,000 BC, at a time when there are scattered tribes of humans all at different levels of cultural advancement. These are dirty primitives, they appear parasite-ridden, some are lame, unkempt, and malnourished, as they would appear during such an era.

The film follows the Ulam tribe, which does not yet know how to make fire, and must continually feed their bonfire to keep warm. When another tribe attacks, the Ulam’s fire is extinguished, and three members of the tribe must venture out to find a flame and bring it back. Along the way these cavemen will face sabertooth tigers, mammoths, cannibals, cave bears, and tribes more advanced than their own.

Cavemen Adventurers in Quest for Fire

Cavemen Adventurers in Quest for Fire

As all dialogue is spoken in fictional languages without subtitles, we rely entirely on the actors’ actions to convey the social dynamics and primitive minds, and they are truly primitive, grunting and lurching on the screen like our primate descendents. The film is like watching a documentary with a dramatic plot, and it is rewarding watching human culture evolve on the screen as the cavemen learn concepts we take for granted.

So add this one to your netflix, it’s what 10,000 BC should have aspired to, a much more historically accurate film.

Roger Ebert also gave QFF a good review.

Movies You Can Skip: 10,000 B.C.

Posted on 10th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: , ,

10,000 B.C. tells the story of a tribe of people living in what is, to my mother’s best guess, the Himalayas. All year long, the tribe looks forward to when the mammoths come migrating through their land, so they can hold their great hunt. This is actually right about the time Mammoths went extinct due to climate change and over-hunting by primitive tribes just like the one in this movie. These are hunter-gatherers, but we don’t see them do much gathering, which would have been their primary source of sustenance. I guess they focused on gathering after they finished eating all the mammoths.

Somehow this is a multi-cultural tribe, some members look Caucasian, others Asian, others North American Indian, but they all speak English with an inconsistent Arab accent in dialogue that is meant to be primitive, but is actually just really really bad. I cringed every time a character referred to a long time as, “Many Moons.”

One day a blue-eyed girl shows up, the local shaman looks into her mind and predicts “four-legged demons” would come one day, meaning men on horseback, 6,000 years before the domestication of horses. And they do come, taking much of the tribe as slaves, including the blue-eyed girl, who our well-waxed hero must go on a quest to save.

This quest takes him through the bamboo jungles of Asia and India, where he is attacked by Phororhacos, a giant predatory bird that not only lived in South America, not the Old World, but was long extinct by this time. He then somehow travels through Africa (before reaching the Middle-East), where he gathers up many African Tribes into an army, including one tribe with bones sticking out of their chins, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever (seriously, somebody please get a photo of it and explain how that works).

Eventually, they arrive at the Pyramids at Giza, which are nearly complete 7,500 years before they were actually finished, and located alone in a vast desert that was actually lush farmland, a fantastic metropolis, and one of the most advanced civilizations of the time. There are also Mammoths being used to build the Pyramids… but whatever.

The Pyramids in 10,000 B.C.

The Pyramids in 10,000 B.C.

Instead of being run by the Pharaohs, the pyramids are being built by people claiming to be gods whose city has sunk into the ocean. Thanks to my Mom the New Ager, I now know they were referring to Atlantis, a myth probably based on the Minoan civilization, which was wiped out by a volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago, 8,500 years after this movie takes place.

The slaves revolt, the oppressors are toppled with much slow motion dramatics (Yes, I know this is sort of a plot spoiler (If you’re one of those people who doesn’t know the good guys are gonna win.), but if you still plan on seeing this film after everything I’ve told you, then you deserve to have it spoiled.). The movie accurately depicts the pyramidion, the top of the Pyramid, was covered in gold leaf, but doesn’t bother to explain how the Pyramids were finished after the slaves push the pyramidion off to avalanche down one of the Pyramid’s slopes. I guess the Pharaohs could have come along thousands of years later and said, “Hey look at those half-built Pyramids! I know, let’s get some slaves and finish building them!”

The one thing the film does get right is that blue eyes was a genetic mutation that appeared between six and 10K years ago; however, this film was made before the fact was known. The director got lucky, which does give 10,000 BC one redeeming quality: proving the hypothesis that even a blind squirrel can find an occasional acorn.

Stephen Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”

Posted on 18th February 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: , ,

A New Kind of Science

A New Kind of Science

Many books I like to read with a yellow highlighter, reading Stephen Wolfram’s ANKOS I was compelled to whip out a red pen. While his 1,000-plus page field-guide to cellular automata and complexity theory is brimming with fantastic examples of all shapes, sizes, and dimensions, Wolfram’s writing and failure to acknowledge accomplishments in the field beyond his own research make this book a difficult read.

Wolfram violates the rule of science writing that you must disassociate yourself from your research. I was skeptical of the importance of this principle, until I saw what happens when you don’t follow it:

Just over twenty years ago I made what at first seemed like a small discovery: a computer experiment of mine showed something I did not expect. But the more I investigated, the more I realized that what I had seen was the beginning of a crack in the very foundations of existing science, and a first clue towards a whole new kind of science.

This book is the culmination of nearly twenty years of work that I have done to develop that new kind of science. I had never expected it would take anything like that long, but I have discovered vastly more than I ever thought possible, and in fact what I have done now touches almost every existing area of science, and quite a bit besides.

Wow! Stephen Wolfram considers his book an Earth-shattering iconoclasm that will revolutionize science, and it’s all on Wolfram himself and his 20 years of research; however, despite his repeated use of “I” and casual dismissal of all the research preceding him, Wolfram is not publishing in a vacuum, and that hurts his efforts profoundly.

Put simply, Wolfram believes he has discovered Emergence, the idea that complex systems and patterns can arise out of simple processes or rules. Wolfram mentions searching for patterns in primes, but never mentions Ulam’s spiral. Mentions seeking patterns in pi, but never mentions Carl Sagan’s Contact, which entertained the idea first. Chaos/Complexity Theory gets mentioned in a footnote. A footnote!!! Wolfram never acknowledges that he is standing on the shoulders of giants like Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, or Edward Lorenz.

Lines of Prime Numbers in Ulam's Spiral

Lines of Prime Numbers in Ulam’s Spiral

Maybe Wolfram isn’t ignoring all the history behind his subject, maybe in the 15 years of writing his book, he simply never noticed that it’s all been discovered without him, before he even started writing. If we were to lose Einstein’s Theory of Relativity today, someone else would uncover it within a few years. That’s the nature of truth, everyone can arrive at it independently.

The problem is that Wolfram’s failure to explore the near century’s worth of work by his peers on this subject cripples his presentation. Instead of a broad, eclectic overview of ideas from across the field of research shedding light on each of his examples, we are forced to look at them with Wolfram’s blinders on, and given only his insights alone. This is a frustrating treatment, teasing at enlightenment, but never yielding any depth.

Wolfram hasn’t invented anything. Speculation isn’t invention. In the end nothing has been discovered. There is only more wonder. People speculated on these patterns before Wolfram, and they will speculate after him.

Cellular automata, emergence, chaos theory, and other incredibly complex mathematical wonders produced by basic rules allowed to play out over time are absolutely fascinating concepts. You can lose yourself for hours staring at fractals. You can wonder at the increasing wave function of unpredictability produced on a system by something as seemingly mathematically insignificant as a butterfly flapping its wings. You can ponder infinitely complex numbers like pi and phi impossibly running away forever, while appreciating the way they somehow manifest in nature. It defies logic.

Luckily, Wolfram’s book repeatedly appeals to his readers to take up this subject, to explore the phenomena of which he provides so many wonderful examples. Anyone experiencing an Ionian Enchantment from Wolfram’s book will continue his train of thought and discover Turing, Neumann, and myriad of mathematicians and computer scientists immersed in this field. They will discover the whole realm of mighty minds who have also immersed themselves in these puzzles.

Then they will return to A New Kind of Science, and appreciate that Stephen Wolfram has put together a very good coffee table book on cellular automata, just not a revolutionary one.

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What a Wonderful Trip It’s Been: Y the Last Man

Posted on 30th January 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: ,
Y the Last Man

Y the Last Man

I would love to go back and read through all the graphic novels I’ve bought collecting this series from its beginnings, but they’ve all been loaned out to people who loaned them out to other people and so on and so on. I did recently have the time to review my sister’s collection and enjoy how far this story has come in the last five years.

Something spontaneously kills all males of every species of mammal on Earth, with the exception of Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand. As the last man on Earth, he is pursued by neo-Amazons, who, like the Amazon’s of history, burn off one of their breasts for their cause, and want to kill him because he threatens their female domination. The Israeli army, now the strongest army in the world for including women in strong numbers, is after him. Not to mention the news reporters, politicians, and others interested in the most valuable person on Earth, the one bearing the last of the Y Chromosomes.

Today the final issue arrived, and it did not let me down. I was reminded of all the strong female roles that came into play, and all the logistics of a male-less world for the remaining gender to adapt to. Now that the series is complete, I can honestly give it the thumbs-up and recommend anyone interested in a well-written, thought-provoking series filled with great characters, social commentary, and science fiction themes pick it up.

This summer the final Y the Last Man will be included in the last graphic novel. I highly recommend them. There’s also a movie in the works, which I’m sure will be awesome; however, I can’t see it being superior to the comic or encompassing the whole story in a way that does it justice.

Vertigo Comics has Issue #1 (PDF) available for download, and the complete series (almost) is available for purchase online.

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Dr. Jay Hosler’s “Clan Apis”

Posted on 24th January 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: , ,
Clan Apis

Clan Apis

Clan Apis chronicles the life and times of a single worker honey bee, Nyuki, who’s delightfully wise-ass and wholly enchanted with her life in a hive where her personal experiences are no different from those of the her thousands of neighbors.

Dr. Jay Hosler’s understanding of entomology, evolution, and natural science allows him to fill Nyuki’s life with all the minutiae of the honey bee’s world. From the details of her life as a larvae, joining the swarm to establish another hive, and defending that hive from other bees and animals. We even learn the physiological effects of the bee ageing process, what happens when bees get old and how they die.

Dr. Hosler’s literary knowledge gives the story another layer. The irony of a dung beetle named Sisyphus, forever rolling his boulder of poop along. The bee characters all have names like Nyuki, Dvorah, Hachi, Zambur, Abeja, and Melissa, which mean “bee” in Swahili, Hebrew, Japanese, Farsi, Spanish, and Greek respectively.

While the his decision not to anthropomorphize his bees’ physiology ensures Disney will never have anything to do with the story (that and its realism, Hosler’s worker bees are female), Dr. Hosler’s choice does not make it difficult to distinguish characters from one another and keeps them entirely bee-like, instead just of being dumb humans with bee-features.

Dr. Hosler’s combination of literary, artistic, and scientific talents create some wonderfully witty moments that stick with the reader long after. My favorite of these is his recounting of the evolution of life in the sea, as things get more complex and more crowded, a lone amphibian, struggling to find some breathing room, struggles to find its way onto land, the first human ancestor to do so:

Clan Apis

Although Nyuki’s life is wholly ordinary and unexceptional for a honey bee, her attitude, her perpetual ionian enchantment with her world makes her exceptional and unique.

You can purchase Clan Apis online through Amazon.


Jay Hosler also has some great comic strips online.

Cloverfield Creeped Me Out

Posted on 21st January 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: ,

Saw Clovefield this morning and the film has been haunting me all day. It’s abstractness, catching glimpses of the monster here and there, trying to figure it out, has left me distracted and scouring the Web for more information.

A commenter I read at one site said to watch the ocean carefully in the background of the film’s final shot. I wish I’d had this advice before going into the film, because I definitely thought I saw something going on there; although, I am also certain that whatever it was, would only raise more questions.

What is the monster? The kids at the comic shop believed it was a creation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu mythos, which would explain its seemingly supernatural nigh-invulnerability. One of the film’s characters suggests it might have come from the sea, which would explain the ravenous lice that rain from its body, what might have been air-bladders on it’s neck, and its fin-like tail. This same character also suggests space and top-secret government projects.

The unknowable nature of this film’s monster and much of its action is what brought me into its world. One character’s death is extremely unnerving because we don’t get to see it directly, but what we see in the shadows makes our imaginations run wild with gruesome possibilities. This is a film that, despite it’s high-budget, wholly convincing special effects, wisely relies on the audience’s imagination to fuel its believability.

The mysteries of this film, all the questions it raises, not the answers, are what made it so effective at leaving the audience disturbed and seeking any details that might help figure it out. It’s a film that will lend itself to weeks of debate and speculation.


While Cloverfield gave me bad chills, a teaser trailer before the film (also by Cloverfield’s director) tingled my spine in a very good way:



 

A Tale of Two Flatland Movies

Posted on 18th January 2008 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: , ,
Flatland the Movie VS Flatland the Film

Flatland the Movie
VS
Flatland the Film

I really enjoyed and appreciated Edwin Abott’s 1884 classic book Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions, which tells the story of Square, a lawyer living in Flatland, a two-dimensional world that has height and width, but not length. It’s in the public domain and free to download at a variety of places if you’re interested in checking out a book that will change the way you look at the world.

In 2007, two animated adaptations of Abott’s book arrived in DVD format Flatland the Film and Flatland the Movie. While neither was wholly satisfying, they each had their good points.

FtF was definitely the more hard-core of the two films. We can see its Flatlander’s internal organs, the clockwork of their brains and hearts, just as we should being Spacelanders looking down on them, and just as four-dimensional beings would see our insides. The social dynamics of Abott’s world are preserved here, in all its male-chauvinist, authoritarian glory. The Flatlanders in this representation are covered with wiggling hairs, which we may assume aid their locomotion and interacts with the world. Unfortunately, the film is filled with intertitles that don’t add anything to understanding Flatland, but do everything to let you know the writer thinks you’re too stupid to get it. I definitely didn’t appreciate having my film interrupted so I could be insulted every few minutes with statements like, “Did you get that important plot point?” and “SuchandSuch should be obvious to you.”

FtM side-steps many of Abott’s more controversial social issues, or rather dumbs them down into a substantially less controversial form. Women and Men are both Squares, unlike Abott’s world, where women are intellectually inferior, however physically superior lines. FtM’s Flatlanders have fractals for their insides, and they carry suitcases with them by magical means. When they turn upside down, the eye and mouth of these Flatlanders magically switch places so as not to upset the viewer. The movie does present a disclaimer that it is not a true representation of Flatland, so as to make it more palatable to Spacelanders like ourselves.

FtM was 100% kid-safe, its concepts presented in an easily digestible format, and was filled with characters resembling those we have here in Spaceland.

FtF was most definitely not something you could watch with your kids. In fact, one scene, where an asymmetrically-shaped senator with revolutionary ideas is assassinated in the public forum, drags on forever as isosceles triangles hack him to pieces, and then into smaller pieces, and then even smaller pieces. Not cool. I was looking for enlightenment and got gross juvenile indulgence.

At 30 minutes in length, FtM barely skimmed the multitude of fascinating aspects to Abott’s world and left me wanting for more mathematical goodies. Luckily the special features on the DVD included a talk with a mathematician who walked through a thought experiment of going through our Spaceland’s three-dimensions into Hyper-Spaceland’s four-dimensions.

At an hour and a half, FtF had me checking my watch about halfway through, trying to figure out how much longer they could draw it out, and then was left gawking as the credits rolled, “That’s how they ended it??? Nooooooo!!!”

FtM has a vastly superior website with flash animations and sound effects. FtF has a flat brochure website with black text on a white background. FtM runs $30, FtF runs $22. These factoids had no affect on my impression of either movie, I mention them because there they are.

I have to go with Flatland the Movie, despite what I think is the flaw of not being alien enough in its presentation of the two-dimensional world, the film is accessible and it focuses on the intellectual, enlightenment principles I admire. The Movie’s website does make the dishonest claim that you need to buy the Special Educational Edition of the DVD if you want to show it in the classroom.

However Section 110(1) of the Copyright Act qualifies showing any film in a classroom for education as Fair Use; and, therefore, not a violation of copyright law. So share this film with your students, follow up with the extras, and have an enlightening discussion about life in dimensions one through four and beyond. You can supplement this discussion with the book, and maybe provide a few screenshots of Flatland the Film to explore the hard-mathematical realities of these worlds.

The OLPC XO-1, Shortcut to the Information Age

Posted on 16th January 2008 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: , ,

So I got my OLPC XO-1 in the mail about a month ago, and I’m still wrestling with my opinion of it. Personally I think it’s the bee’s knees. Everyone who comes into the comic shop fawns over it. I’m the envy of the local geek crowd.

I love it when people ask me, “What’s that?” and I get to extol the virtues of Nick Negroponte’s beautiful vision of supplying underprivileged children all over the world with their own laptops to learn art, reading, mathematics, programming, science, and connect them with the entire world as their classroom. Just like so many people here in America have done through the Internet.

“Huh. But don’t those poor kids have more pressing concerns, like survival, that need to come first?” they always reply in some form or another, and the heart-bubbles floating around my head all pop and I wake up, blinking dumbly.

Which brings me to my conflict. While I dig the OLPC XO-1, will it serve its purpose of enlightening young minds all over the world? Even I laughed at Newt Gingrich when he suggested we provide the homeless with laptops, but now I’m not so sure.

People get stuck in this idea that other nations need to repeat every step of America’s history to achieve America’s quality of life. China can either work through America’s entire history of building a middle class that will demand its own fair workplace standards, or Americans can exert economic pressure on China to do away with its sweatshops. Similarly, third-world countries can step through fossil-fuel power plants, or they can skip straight to renewable energy.

Why reinvent the wheel? The OLPC is a shortcut for lesser-developed nations. Why not help them skip being a second-world country and go straight to the Information Age, with all its collaborative memetic innovation? I say get them into the Global Village ASAP. The sooner they start using LEDs, solar panels, and well-water pumps, the sooner they’ll start contributing their own inventions, software, art, and literature to the world.

OLPC as an E-Book

OLPC as an E-Book
Image Courtesy OLPC Foundation

On the downside. This laptop is hand-me-down softwares and technologies. The hand-me-down 433mhz processors with hand-me-down 256k RAM. Hardware-wise, this brand new laptop is my brand new PC from 1993. Software-wise the hand-me-down Sim City is the same one that ran on my Apple IIe in Junior High, but I’ve got a better opinion of the rest of the software suite further down.

So is the $200 price tag justified? The software’s open-source, so there’s $0 of the total. A refurnished Thinkpad runs $200-$300, but this is brand new. Former OLPC CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen, is now working on a $75 laptop. How they intend to accomplish this when they couldn’t accomplish it with the OLPC is anybody’s guess, but the competition among charities will definitely spurn more innovation. The $200 price tag is very prohibitive to the OLPC’s ultimate success.

On the plus-side, the hardware has features that are uniquely perfect for the OLPC’s intended recipients. Practically speaking. This is a rugged little #$%@ of a machine. A fully charged battery runs for hours (three hours for one of my sessions). The twin wifi antenna are rubberized and folded in to serve as a locking mechanism for the laptop when closed. With flash memory storage, I don’t have to worry about bouncing it around and wrecking the hardrive, and stuffing all the main components behind the screen means it doesn’t make your sperm-count decline uncomfortably when it sits in your lap.

The keyboard is a rubber mat, which is awesomely spill-proof and would feel great if it wasn’t so tiny. I read one hacker’s first mod to his XO-1 was to convert it to a Dvorak keyboard layout. What’s the point? I’m reduced to hunt-and-peck mode using my forefingers when I type on it, but that’s okay because the keyboard isn’t meant for my adult hands, and when my friend’s five-year-old daughter got her hands on the laptop, she looked like a pro typing utter gibberish into it’s Journaling Software.

The monitor flips completely around and folds flat on the laptop, turning it into an e-book reader. This is a really nice feature, and one that makes this laptop a real keeper for me. If nothing else, I’ve now got a screen bigger than my cellphone to read all the free books I download from Project Gutenberg, and a laptop with the battery life to survive a long flight.

OLPC Network Neighborhood

OLPC Network Neighborhood
Image Courtesy OLPC Foundation

So this is a sweetly innovative, however overpriced, bit of technology. Which brings me to the second most common objection I get to the OLPC, “Are kids in third-world countries even going to be able to use that thing?”

The assumption here is that this learning toy is beyond the technological grasp of children living in villages without electricity. That somehow people deprived of Best Buy, Cinema Multiplexes, and the mind-numbing inanity of American Idol lack the cognitive foundation for Computing 101. Whenever a Baby Boomer raises this objection, I just remind myself that they are from the same generation that couldn’t program a VCR.

The reality is that the OLPC’s linux user interface sorta takes me back to my Commodore 64 days, when computing was just the basics. Only my Commodore’s interface was a command line, (LOAD *,8,1 anyone?), whereas the OLPC is cartoony and graphical. Kids will get into this thing and make it sing in ways the developers never anticipated. Just like kids run technological circles around their elders in modern America.

The OLPC provides plenty of pre-loaded software that will educate in a well-rounded fashion. The Video, Picture, and Sound Capture capabilities using the built in video and microphone introduce students to multimedia. The journal provides a creative writing outlet, while the Paint and TamTamJam softwares allow for art and music creative outlets.

Etoys and Turtle Art introduce kids to programming logic, while Pippy introduces kids to the joys of Python Programming, the easiest, most advanced programming language out there. Through these, kids are introduced to mathematics, building their own software toys, and logical constructs.

Most of all, the web browser introduces them to the world’s knowledge. The chat introduces them to world’s people.

They’re doing all this on an open-source operating system, where they can eventually incorporate what they learn into publishing their own improvements and innovations to the World Wide Web, where the rest of us will enjoy them.

That’s dream worth supporting, not to mention a huge return on our investment.