Thursday, February 25, 2010

I've Moved!

I have moved my blogging to:

Please feel free to follow me there. I will be covering what I am doing now, mostly covering the photos that I am taking.

-XO Mike

Thursday, August 20, 2009


If you're still reading this I've added my pictures to flickr.

You can visit the pictures at:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Server Work

This week I spent almost every hour of our student training in the other room working on our server. We realized that we need to setup the Moodle installation (digital classroom for testing, turning in assignments, etc.) to display Portuguese. We also came up with the idea of creating a student created school Wikipedia. Both of these tasks were above what I knew how to do but I am powering through.

The biggest problem this week has been dealing with the slow internet; at the school we have the fastest connection I’ve seen on island, but even then we average 6KB/s downloads. To put that in perspective, Comcast will get downloads around 300+KB/s; 50x faster. Whenever I wanted to Google something I would need to wait a while just to let the page load and realize it isn’t what I need/want. The second biggest problem is that the power will go out and the worst moments. Some of the download managers I was using were able to save partial downloads and continue later but others weren’t as fortunate and after a 30 minute power outage I would start over.

Moodle needed to be addressed first and all of the manuals I would read online would tell me to click on this one item in the administration panel that I didn’t see. I thought I must have a different version of Moodle and kept reading post after post about how to set the global language to Portuguese. After hours of frustration I finally gave up and decided that the “admin” account on the XS (XO Server) is a crippled account which only allows limited access. Reuben, the technical guy from OLPC, replied to my email, with directions on how to activate the true admin account. Once I set the global language I realized there was another problem…

When we first setup the XO computers we register them to the server so that they are enrolled as students in Moodle and the server begins automatically backing up their files. When they were enrolled in Moodle’s database it set their default language preference to the only available language at the time: English. I searched for a “Bulk User Language Change” command but found none. I thought, how bad could it be changing each individually, there are only 85 accounts. When I went to edit the first user I realized that the registration automatically set their language but did not select a country, city, surname and two other fields, all are necessary to be able to save a language change. The time required was starting to add up and I put this job on hold.

Getting the Wikipedia server setup on our XS was one of the most confusing processes I have ever been through. Not knowing where to begin I tried downloading the 10MB file from Mediawiki which includes the Wikipedia server. Unfortunately I found out I needed several other packages to be able to make the Wikipedia site visible to users. I told the server to download Mediawiki and all the necessary dependencies for the server and after hours and hours (maybe 15 hours of actual download time, 36 real life hours) I thought I finally had everything I needed. When it didn’t work I tried to determine the problem and found out that it didn’t install everything it needed like it should have. I installed a database server and still it didn’t work. Despite downloading and installing the database server, I needed to run an install script which installed what I just installed >:-O !!!

After four days of work I am left without the site switched entirely to Portuguese and a Wikipedia page which has no template and is in the most unusable layout. This weekend is going to be kinda lame as I work on fixing these problems.

-XO Mike

Monday, July 27, 2009

Student Training – Week 2 – Days 3 and 4

The second half of our week two training involved teaching Paint, Distance and Chat; this was the most frustrating and embarrassing training yet.

Paint, led by Chika, went rather smooth and students now understand how to draw with a traditional brush and how to paint predesigned shapes in various sizes. The worst part of training students in Paint was that the program has a complex color choice system. The system allows you to graphically choose a color or to put in the color numbers. To graphically choose a color you need to select which color you want in a wheel and then the hues of the color appear in a triangle within the circle. After selecting the circle color, you need to click again to choose the hue of the color you want; finally you click OK and can start painting in a different color. If it sounds confusing, it is; far more complex than necessary given the applications limited functions. Unfortunately, this was just the start of our frustrations with the design choices on the XO for the day.

After painting pictures and having the kids become comfortable with the program, students switched to test out Distance. Distance is an activity which requires two laptops. The two connect to each other and play a “CHHHH” sound and measure the time it takes for the other laptop to hear it. By knowing the speed of sound the laptops determine the distance between the two computers. Problems arise when there is lots of noise pollution and when the XOs choose to not connect to our network and server.

As we started introducing the idea to kids, we started noticing that some computers decided not to auto-reconnect to our network. When we manually told the laptop to connect to the network it would try and then eventually stop. Because of the simplicity of the XOs interface, there was no knowing why the computer could not connect. The teachers that were helping us in the classroom were looking at us asking for answers but we really didn’t have one. There was nothing wrong with the access points or server because other computers connected fine but there was no explanation why the computer wouldn’t connect. When we moved onto Chat, we had the same problem where computers were on different networks and some kids were unable to join the same chatroom as their friends.

The days were difficult to get through and it really shows the delicate balance between open-source and product oriented development. Using open-source programmers to collectively build and patch problems leads to unfinished, unpolished projects which have yet to be fully thought through. We are waiting to hear back from other Corps teams to see if they know of a way to work around the problems.

-XO Mike

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Student Training – Week 2 – Day 2

In order to better teach Class 2, Chika and I chose to do a demonstration (his idea) which would get the kids playing with the commands in a real world situation.

The Scratch interface.

Scratch is setup in three columns: on the left are possible commands in natural language (move 10 steps, play sound “miau” (meow in Portuguese), wait 2 seconds, etc.). In the center is the commands window where you construct the operations you would like your sprite to perform. On the right is the viewing window to see what your animation does and below you can switch to different sprites. Chika and I drew similar screens on the chalkboard and asked the kids to give us commands.

We started with the kids giving me the, “move 10 steps” command. I wrote it down and did nothing. I then explained that they need to tell me when to do it and we added the, “when you clap your hands:” command. When they clapped their hands, I moved 10 steps. We added more commands and then added a second sprite, Chika. Chika received his own set of separate commands but we both started when they clapped their hands. We had the kids running us into walls, putting on glasses, saying “Ola!” and other movements which had them interested and constructing.

Critically thinking.

The switch to using the program was easier than the previous day but it is still difficult to get the kids to remember how to click and drag. Pretty soon the kids were able to get their animations moving and we finished what we had accomplished the previous day in just over half the time. We were able to explain how to paint and change backgrounds to the second class and, because of time, we are going to let that diffuse to the other class.

Pleased with how well day 2 went, Chika grabbed a candid of me.

There is a very fine line between being a good teacher and a bad teacher. We were lucky to have a second chance at the program but it is difficult to know what works and what doesn’t before trying it. Danielle will be using a similar demonstration lesson to teach Memorize (a flash card game and learning tool when you make your own flash cards).

-XO Mike

Student Training – Week 2 – Day 1

Training continued in week two starting with a day of Scratch training. Again, I was running the training and I tried to mimic how I taught the teachers. The training did not work too well because the kids were exploring the program rather than listening to some crucial bits of information such as how natural language commands will control the object. Furthermore, many of the kids found the button which adds a random new sprite (animation object) and after they had added 30 or so different sprites the program would become exceptionally slow due to hardware limitations and they would need to create a new project.

Working with the students can be fun and rewarding.

After struggling with the kids to keep them roughly guided down a path I changed gears and tried to have them work in groups to create an animation with two sprites which both move and say something to each other. The students quickly arranged their desks into groups but did not understand the concept of group work. The students appeared to start individual projects but it became apparent that they didn’t understand, or at least want to understand, individual work.

The group I was working with couldn’t stay close to on task. I tried to let them explore the program but at a certain point, they needed to begin participating in the creation of new animations rather than being entertained by example animations and adding new, random sprites.

As my frustration grew it became increasingly difficult to be effective in helping; I was thankful when music started blasting outside our classroom 30 minutes before we dismissed. We could barely hear anything over Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebration and packed up to prepare for the following day.

One of our students with a South African flag for Mandela's Birthday.

While the day was not a failure, there were several things which should have been executed differently teaching for children. When we got home we had a meeting to discuss how we should teach the same material to class two on the following day. Check back to see how we reacted.

-XO Mike

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pico de Sao Tome – Day 2 of 2

As Judy, Corey and I climbed out of our tent into the bright and chilly morning, Brice got the fire started again. We munched on some bread and bananas that we had brought for breakfast and just as we were starting to warm up Brice announced that we would go to the peak now. It was still 50 degrees and about 6:40 and he started to change into his t-shirt and told us we would want to do the same. I didn’t fully believe that I would get hot but I took his word and followed suit.

We set off for the peak and my legs finally felt refreshed. The cold air woke me up and I was excited to reach the peak. 15 minutes into the climb and I was warm as we stopped to look out across the mountains. In the distance Brice pointed toward a mountain and said it was Mt. Cavallo, the peak we had crossed the previous day. I was stunned to see how far we had walked knowing that the path was anything but straight.

After 15 more minutes of near vertical climbing we reached a clearing and a small monument marking the peak! The view was incredible and we could see most of the north half of the island. To the south vegetation was blocking our view but it gave me a sense of pride to know that I had made it to the top. We were standing at 6,640 ft when the previous morning and that night we would be at maybe 15 ft above sea level.

Although there were no artifacts left behind by previous climbers (Brice explained as few as one group a month reaches the top) we scrambled to find the first Illinois memorabilia we could find. We decided to leave Corey’s hat behind, affixed to the pole after all signing and dating the bill. We returned to our campsite after a few minutes of glory and were back within an hour to prepare the last of the remaining Shpaghet and some tea brewed from the bark of a tree we passed while climbing.

After packing up our tent and gear we left our campsite and headed down a different route headed towards Neves, a city on the northwest side of the island. Walking down was much easier than climbing up however it was still difficult trying to keep your feet from sliding out beneath you, keeping your toes from jamming too hard into the front of your shoe, and trying to keep yourself from moving too fast down the hill.

We passed by new plants and trees and Brice explained them to us; my favorite was the petrol tree. The petrol tree produces a highly flammable sap that will burn for quite a while when lit on fire. He also showed us two holes in the ground with spider webs around the area; with one word he had me on my way, “tarantula.” We continued our path down and eventually met the ruins of an old abandoned plantation circa 1800s. I expected we were close to the coast because there were the remains of a path which had been cleared for a train to travel along the mountain. We started to follow the path and it was much easier than cutting through the dense jungle.

Back and forth we switched down the mountain, it was an easier slope but it slowed our progress. I can’t believe how any colonists found this high place and designed plans to lay this much track while moving huge quantities of earth to create flat land for the tracks.

After another hour or two of walking the tracks we reached an active area of cropland. We rested for a few minutes and Brice asked if we wanted to walk to a waterfall only 5 minutes away. Of course I wanted to walk to a waterfall… until I saw what we had to go through. Much of the area’s natural streams are channeled into aqueducts which carry the water to a hydroelectric plant. We walked on top of an aqueduct and reached a tunnel.

The tunnel was a narrow rounded arch only five feet across at the base. The tunnel had a concrete divider in the middle which allowed for the aqueduct to channel the water on one half while allowing access to the other side of the mountain. We took a few steps and it was sticky three inch deep mud. After twenty feet Brice stopped and said, “Agua, querem ir?” Water, you want to go? I figured water could only clean me at this point and we pressed on. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed infinitely far and it quickly became pitch black in the tunnel. Using my hands on the divider and the arch wall to my left we pressed through; I was thankful I couldn’t see my shoes, socks and jeans and expecting them to be ruined.

When we reached the end I looked left to see a 300 foot high waterfall; it was beautiful. We washed our faces off in the water and took lots of photos before we had to trek back through the tunnel. There are two ways to get to the waterfall, a 300 yard tunnel or a 200 yard tunnel; we took the 200 yard tunnel. After reaching the end I stuck my feet in the aqueduct to let the rushing water rinse my shoes, socks and jeans.

After another five minute journey we reached our rendezvous point and were told our ride would arrive in 20 minutes with some snacks. Lucio and his buddy arrived with some beers, sodas and cookies. It was good to finally be done with the trip and during the 45 minute drive back to the city I passed out, bobbing my head back and forth, intermittently waking up during a big bump. When we arrived at home I already wanted to schedule another trip the following weekend.

Brice and Lucio laughed at how much we loved the Shpaghet and invited us back to Monte Café to have dinner with them in the future. We exchanged numbers and I went into the house to fall asleep.

-XO Mike