Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Kingdom for A... Laptop?

I know it's hard for most of us under the age of 40, but try to think back to a time before we all had access to the internet. Wait... go even further than that. Go back, in your mind (unless you have a well-equipped Delorean in your garage), to a time before you had constant access to a computer. It took me a minute, but I was able to dredge up memories of junior high and elementary school when we learned using books and flashcards. When we came home from school, we watched TV, read more books, played in mud, and rode our bikes. I guess my point is - we existed as a successful society prior to 1990.

Some would have us forget this. A noble yet poorly conceived project is currently underway to "provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves." Sounds great, right? It's difficult to argue with such a vision, but unfortunately I must. You see, behind this PR minded language is a real goal of providing laptops to children in developing countries who would otherwise have no access to the tools of the modern age - namely word processing and the internet. It makes for a wonderful 60 Minutes story: a well-off technologist devotes his life to providing learning tools to children who still have dirt on the floors of their schoolhouses. Cameras cover every angle as this man, Nicholas Negroponte, sits with a poor child in the dirt school house, starts up a tonka-toy-ish laptop, and voila! Instant improvement in a child's life.

While the tone of this entry may sound sarcastic and accusatory, one cannot fault Mr. Negroponte for having such a dream. It shames most of us for not being able to see beyond our 8-to-5 routine and our triple-shot lattes. I wish that I had half of Mr. Negroponte's vision and drive. Yet while vision and drive married with a good cause is the stuff of Hollywood dreams, practicality and caution are necessary ingredients in the stew of success... or at least a soup low on harm. The overarching problem with the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project is that while laptops and the internet can be amazing tools used to open the eyes of an entire generation to possibility, those eyes and the children attached to them need some very basic things in their lives before they can effectively learn and make lives for themselves. When these children graduate from school, will they have high tech jobs waiting for them in the developing countries in which they live? Can they afford to eat? Will they live to graduate? Malaria, a disease that has been mostly wiped out in the developed world, each year causes disease in approximately 515 million people and kills between one and three million people.

We also must consider the environmental cost associated with such a large transfer of electronic equipment to third world nations with little or no enviromental regulation. The design of the laptops being mass produced for the OLPC program is durable, usable, cute, and will likely outlast most laptops purchased in the US. However, they are bound to be discarded at some point due to obsolescence or breakage. With potentially millions of units being shipped to Africa alone, no mention of proper disposal or recycling is mentioned on the OLPC website. While we have a responsibility to help bring the third world into the first world, we also have a responsibility not to create a massive environmental disaster, considering the fact that discarded computers and screens can be a major source of toxins and carcinogens.

I would urge readers not to hinder the dreams of the OLPC project, but to focus their philanthropic urges toward causes that can help third world societies create the foundation of a stable civilization - health (yes AIDS is still a problem), education (this means teachers and schools), economic investment, and security. I would also urge the OLPC project to develop a reclamation project in parallel with the deployment of these machines. In fact, if OLPC can recycle discarded laptops, they might even be able to make them cheaper.

While the the 60's, 70's, and 80's were weird decades in the US, life was still pretty good here even without laptops.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

As Good As Methadone

After my recent loss of a hard drive to the gremlins in my apartment, I've had to reinstall all of my software. This is a bit of a problem for me because half of what I had was software that I "shared" with friends of mine... meaning they brought their CD over to my computer and installed their programs on my machine. Yes, I know this is immoral and probably illegal (until my lawyers tell me it is, I have no idea), but I have my own issues with paying Microsoft for a piece of software that they engineered us to need. Anyway...

My cheating days are done. My mac is now 100% moral! I have installed no stolen, unlicensed, or communal software and pledge not to from now on. This is less a moral decision than a practical one - stolen software is a pain in the ass to retrieve when you loose your hard drive. Yet, I still refuse to give Microsoft any money for Word, Excel, and the lesser used Powerpoint. What am I to do?

This is where Google comes in. It turns out they've developed word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software applications online! I've used these a few times with no problems but have yet to make it a standard practice to use them So, I am embarking on a bold new crusade to use only Google Documents to edit personal documents. Professionally I'm required to use MS Office on a daily basis, but I think it's fair to say that doesn't count since I'm able to easily separate my professional and personal information. So, I'll let you know how it goes. Check back for a progress report!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Brand Monogomy

With all the choices we Americans are given in our consumer culture, there’s a certain comfort one takes in bounding ones choices to a particular brand. We revel in the fact that our brand is superior to all others, especially since not everyone seems to be as smart as we are in realizing it. However, recently, I’ve begun to realize that my brand loyalties are based on pretty much nothing.

Growing up as a child of the Midwest, I'd gotten used to driving around in Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs. When I busted out on my own and had to choose my own vehicle, I went with the Honda - a well known reliable brand name. I'd been hurt before. I wanted something that would last me years. The community of Honda owners that I knew swore that I would never own another brand of car again. I was also sold on the “perks” that come with owning a Honda – the amazing reliability, the unparalleled resale value, and of course, the best fuel efficiency a V6 engine could give you. Of course, there was also the fact that a Honda was a status symbol - living in the midwest, owning a Honda put you a cut above the rest. You were stylish and worldy, better than the guy next to you driving the domestic car. The only thing better would have been a Volkswagon, but sadly they didn’t suit someone of my stature in 2000.

In 2004 I began to fall in love with Apple, as any good urbanite would. It began with an iPod purchase, and I then aspired for years to replace my common old PC with a shiny sleek Macintosh. When I'd eventually saved enough pennies (a LOT of pennies), I fulfilled my dream and pruchased that Mac. As everyone said I would be, initially I was mesmeried by it's strange ways. Fading menus and rapid icon motion hypnotized me and I was an instant fan. I also had my urban stats symbol. I would never own a PC again, right?

Like all dreams, these two came to abrupt ends. Right around 100,000 miles, my Honda's transmission and alternator "went out". The transmission was 100% covered (by an extended warranty - this had happened to MANY people), but the alternator was not. Strangely they failed ON THE SAME DAY, but Honda ruled that they were separate problems. Curiously, this is the same issue I had with my POS Pontiac Sunbird in 1996. Where's my increase in status!?

The Mac's hard drive died last week. All those friends that told me I had to get a Mac and that it would last forever are now telling me "that's just the hard drive... it could happen to anyone... it's not the Mac." The PC I have owned for nearly three years has never had a hardware failure. Again... I'm missing the increase in status.

My lesson? "Parts is parts." (That's from some SNL skit I can't remember.) While certain expesnive cars and computers may have more features, in the long run they are all made by people and corporations looking to maximize their bottom line. Defects will happen. Accidents will happen. I don't regret purchasing either the Honda or the Mac. What I regret is thinking that somehow owning these things made me smarter than the rest of society. During my next search for a car or a computer, I'll be sure to expand the search radius a bit.