Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Day 11: One laptop per camper

I liked the gravel bar location so much I decided to spend all day there, alternately rereading Steinbeck's "Travels with Charlie" and typing up blog posts. I do record a brief summmary of each day in my journal, but these entries often have as much to do with worries about weather, or fears that some farmer will come tell me I have to move. Generally these worries are unfounded and uninteresting, so I find it best to wait a few days before trying to write about what happened in detail. This gives me a little time to forget all the unimportant stuff, and mythologize the memorable things.

To type up my blogs, I use a computer called the "OLPC XO-1". OLPC stands for "One laptop per child". They are an organization which hopes to put one of these little computers in the hands of each child in a developing country. The idea being, I guess, that education brings freedom. The XO doesn't stand, but does look a little like a kid if you look at it sideways.

Since these computers were made for people in rough conditions with limited access to electricity, they are almost ideal for the camper as well. The small form factor packs well, the ruggedized housing is handy, and the keyboard is even covered with a rubber membrane to take spills and light rain. There is even a built-in camera and microphone, so it would be possible to make videos with this machine.

The power input is optimized for 12VDC, the same as a car battery, but it can handle a range of voltages. I have with me a 20W solar cell, which is mounted in the bow of my canoe. Its output is about 18V, but the computer charges quite well off of it. The panel is powerful enough to charge the computer in reasonable time despite not being rotatable to the optimal angle with the sun. Apparently because of the high voltage, the computer buzzes when charging off the solar panel. By moving my hand over the solar panel, I can get the pitch to change, and play the computer like a poor musical instrument.

Unfortunately, the OLPC takes a nonstandard sized plug and so it is a bit of a trick to get a cord going from the panel to the computer. I was able to find a Radio Shack size "M" plug that was the correct diameter on the outside, but too wide on the inside. Fortunately, this plug uses little pins for the inside connection, and using a needle I was able to push these pins in to get a good fit. Unfortunately again, I neglected to completely solder and seal this plug to the wire at home, and I have had some trouble keeping a good connection in the corrosive environment of the river. It seems like every time I want to recharge the computer I first need to repair the plug.

Overall, I'd say the computer hardware is spot on. One of my favorite features is the special screen that is both reflective and transmissive LCD, so you can turn the backlight completely off, saving considerable power, and still read the screen in most lighting conditions.

The software, on the other hand, has some issues. A pet peeve is that the browser seems to have a bug which disables keyboard input after a random period of time, making typical browsing tasks like google and email impossible. More generally, they were going for an ambitious redesign of the operating system in general, which is a mixed success. The graphic design is quite nice. Instead of programs you have "activities", and instead of saving and restoring files you are supposed to stop and resume activities. But this couples the concepts of files and programs too much. It seems, like many before them, they deemed the file system to be too complicated and were looking for a way out of it. But the result is that programs instead have to interact through a complicated cut and paste system, and it is hard to talk to computers in the more traditional ways. So even though there is a "Write Activity" for the OLPC, I tend to use the vi text-mode editor to write all my blogs, just so I know where and in what format my files are so I can easily transfer them to a USB stick.

Day 11 ended: 50*03.087N, 111*15.466W


John said...

Each OLPC computer actually runs each program in a separate virtual machine, for security reasons: if anybody ever writes malware, it's only pissing on itself. The result is: you can only piss on yourself.

Kevin Saff said...

It is odd that I didn't know that.