Short stories

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

* * * * * * * * *

In the motherhood hierarchy, then, women who don’t need welfare support rank highest, followed by mothers who can “prove” that their rape is rape rape. Tough luck for low-income women who were date raped, raped when drugged or simply had a wanted child. Our message to them is that they’re not really mothers. They’re just moochers.

* * * * * * * * *

* * * * * * * * *

We disagree, said those on the steps of St. James Cathedral. “I find (bishops’ claims) perplexing. Nothing about marriage equality in the state of Washington is any infringement on liberty. This is about civil marriage and civil law,” said John Morfield, a longtime parishioner at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

* * * * * * * * *

One story Debra Davis told still haunts me. She was on a trip with her husband, Bob, the last she ever took in his truck. They were heading west on I-10 and stopped somewhere in Arizona at a busy truck stop. By the restaurant door was a young woman with a baby, trying to get a ride. Debra said she looked about 18 or 19 and desperate. Debra wanted to give her money or do something. Her own sister had been on the street, and she was overwhelmed by the woman at the door and didn’t want to just walk away. Rhoades saw what Debra was looking at. He came around behind her and grabbed her shoulders. He turned her slowly toward the girl and pointed. “You see that, Debbie,” he whispered in her ear. “She’s one of the invisible people.”

* * * * * * * * *

“Oh, I see — this is just going to be how it is from here on out,” said New York City resident Brian Marcello, coming to terms with the fact that an immense storm that cripples mass transit systems and knocks out power for millions in the nation’s largest metropolitan area can no longer be regarded as an isolated, freak incident, and will henceforth be just a normal thing that happens. “Hugely destructive weather events are going to keep happening, and they are going to get worse and worse, and living through them is something that will be a part of all our lives from now on, whether we like it or not.”

“I get it now,” Marcello added.

* * * * * * * * *

To me, actually, talk about a “war on women” in the United States seems a bit hyperbolic: in Congo or Darfur or Afghanistan, I’ve seen brutal wars on women, involving policies of rape or denial of girls’ education. But whatever we call it, something real is going on here at home that would mark a major setback for American women — and the men who love them.

* * * * * * * * *

“Shoot! shoot!! shoot!!!” she exclaimed, with a double barrelled pistol in one hand and a long dirk knife in the other, utterly unterrified and fully ready for a death struggle. The male leader of the fugitives by this time had “pulled back the hammers” of his “pistols,” and was about to fire! Their adversaries seeing the weapons, and the unflinching determination on the part of the runaways to stand their ground, “spill blood, kill, or die,” rather than be “taken,” very prudently “sidled over to the other side of the road,” leaving at least four of the victors to travel on their way.

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  • Münchner Kindl

    That OLPC story is so awesome and inspiring – just what’s needed at the start of the week!


    I’m speechless.

    Image is of a school assignment for 8-year olds, with 15 activities listed and 3 rows of boxes to be filled out, grouping said activities for “boys”, “girls”, “both”. Yay for  the girl who filled it out and made her own boxes to put more things under “both”, boo for the teacher’s comment that all existing boxes need to be filled. Also yay for parent who’s proud that she “failed” it.

  • “Rhoades was dressed that night as an airline pilot, and it was months before Davis found out he wasn’t one.”

    Hm, sounds familiar somehow.

  • Guest

    “To me, actually, talk about a “war on women” in the United States seems a bit hyperbolic”

    Of course it seems hyperbolic to him, he’s not the one being attacked.

  • Fusina

     I have a girl who would have done it, but then brought it home and complained about how the teacher was weird. And yes, she does love legos. As do I. Also erector sets, computers, and most of the other things on the list. What I can’t figure out is which of the things are “supposed” to go where.

    I hope the kid gets a giant lego set, if she wants it.

  • I must admit, the OLPC story has especially warmed the cockles of my heart lately, since I’ve made minor contributions to the open-source code that makes it tick.  OK, someone else can have this horn now; I’m done with it.

  • Kirala

     I can’t tell for sure where the difference is supposed to be between boys and both, but I can tell you that girls are supposed to be interested in Barbies, cooking, arts & crafts, jump rope, and playing school. Because Barbies and cooking are obvious, jump rope is always portrayed as being girls on the playground, only girls roleplay realistic scenarios, and only girls are interested in arts & crafts. Wait, for that last, was it the other way around – girls are only interested in arts & crafts? That’s what my Girl Scout troop thought, and that’s why I quit, envious of boys in Boy Scouts.

    Swimming, puzzles, board games, computers, and bikes are probably both; that’d leave Legos, erector sets, war video games, stomp rockets, and match box cars for the boys. The things I went over to my male friends’ houses to play with because my dolls bored me so quickly.

    (Okay, I sound very egalitarian and marginalized on the gender front, but in fairness I should mention that my dad eagerly encouraged and supported my interest in building toys from a very young age, despite his crushing disappointment when I used my first Duplo set to construct dolls to have a tea party with. That may be why my first proper Lego set was a pink and purple array…)

  • Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch.

    And no talking serpent anywhere to be seen.

  • connorboone

    I actually don’t like the way that OLPC article is written.  The story itself is good; the way it is written comes across as ‘Look, these poor primitive Africans pretend like they’re people.  Why, we’re amazed they figured out the box!’

  • Fusina

    I built endless houses with furniture with my childhood legos. I loved planning out the rooms, and where stuff would go–but the only dolls they would have fit were the teensy original Polly Pockets–the ones that were an inch tall.

    My daughter likes stuff from all three columns, as does my son. And both the kids love tea parties.

  • Launcifer

    Yeah, I just saw a report on that for CNN International. They were taking a slightly different tack on it but it still felt incredibly patronising, as though people were somehow surprised that the little foreign kids could apply basic deductive reasoning, learn stuff and then communicate what they’d learned to their friends.

  • CarolynTheRed

    Regarding OLPC – there’s no real acknowledgement here that this “recipe” for education is teaching literacy only in a foreign language, with a curriculum designed by computer science types, with no input about local needs, and no cultural knowledge about the curriculum. And this education experience ends when the laptops break, or when the kids stop being able to advance. It’s got a few unfortunate implications.

    It’s worth considering the criticisms of the project, say in this article:

    There’s no evidence that they give that the tool teaches any learning skills that these children don’t already have. I’d love it if it did, but in the developing world, as everywhere else, tech just isn’t a magic bullet. And the amazement that the children could learn wears a little thin.

  • I thought it showed that young people anywhere are a lot smarter than we older folks usually give them credit for.

  • Münchner Kindl

     Considering that they have never seen an on/off switch or a written word, but learned to hack in 5 months, I don’t see anything else than “Wow, who thought children could learn so quickly so much”.

    In a normal school, you would plan 1 year for teaching the kids to read and write at least, at least 1 year at a later age (after primary school) to teach hacking and so on. That kids with no school background at all did it in 5 months is an incredible achievment. If they had done it in the “normal” timeframe, it still would be an amazement.

    Esp. since learning theory has long known about “windows of opportunity” – if you don’t learn language in a given timeframe, it will be very hard to impossible to learn it later; if you don’t learn logical thinking until a certain age, it will be hard to impossible to learn it later; if you aren’t exposed to enough stimulus as a child, you retard and it’s very hard to get out of that.

    Considering that the article, esp. the second article linked from the first which gives more details, stresses that these children haven’t had the chance to go to school at all, that they can learn reading and writing in English so quickly is very hopeful. It shows that if enough stimulus is there that the children are normal developed, they can teach themselves.

    The article also notes that illiteracy is so bad that they don’t have enough adults to be teachers there – but the way the program is written and structured to get more difficult, each child basically has their own teacher, instead of sitting in a classroom with 40+ children if at all.

  • Münchner Kindl


    Regarding OLPC – there’s no real acknowledgement here that this “recipe”
    for education is teaching literacy only in a foreign language, with a
    curriculum designed by computer science types, with no input about local
    needs, and no cultural knowledge about the curriculum. And this
    education experience ends when the laptops break, or when the kids stop
    being able to advance. It’s got a few unfortunate implications.

    Um, actually, no.

    1. This was  a test. The second article and linked paper says they need to do more tests to get a scholarly footing.

    2. While English might not be their native language, it’s the most international language. Yes, one aim is to teach children in their native language instead of the (ex-colonial) official one.
    But since this isn’t a school with a fixed tempo, but each child can learn at its own pace, this is not a problem. In school, lagging behind because of language problems is de-motivating.
    Playing around with a fun thing isn’t.

    3. Once they can read and write English, local needs can be added. Again, they don’t have enough literate adults to teach there – so of course they need to start with a general outset. Yes, starting a story with a princess sounds quite odd in drought-stricken Africa (although not that odd – Ethiopa does have a long history before colonialism, too).

    PLAN and Unicef and other aid groups go from general to better, too: first you build a bare school. Then you get desks. First you get any teachers. Then you train the teachers in better pedagogy. First, you have classes of 40+ children. Then you make smaller classes. First you teach what the national ministry curriculum demands. Then you talk to the ministry to adapt the curriculum to local needs and native languages.

    First you need any teaching. Then you improve.

    4. Even if one laptop breaks, there are several in the village. If the kid can no longer advance, they can try internet or upload new software. It’s not impossible.

    First the beginners steps: reading and writing for children without any formal training before – and it’s possible!

    Next, let’s see what else they can learn.

  • connorboone

     [quote]Considering that they have never seen an on/off switch or a written word, but learned to hack in 5 months, I don’t see anything else than “Wow, who thought children could learn so quickly so much”.[/quote]
    Right… but that article makes it sound like the kids had never seen a freaking box before.  How patronizing does it have to be before you acknowledge that the article was, in fact, pretty bad?

  • CarolynTheRed

    Did you read the criticism of OLPC’s first rollouts? And what was the level of english _really_ achieved?

    It’s “here’s some tech that will solve all your education problems” from people with a disdain for education. But the problem is what other solutions does this displace?

  • Launcifer

    You’re probably right there, but my comments were more directed towards the fact that watching the report made me intensely uncomfortable because it was just that patronising*. I could have phrased it far better, though, so sorry about that.  

    *I should also acknowledge the fact that I’d probably have come away with a substantially different attitude if I’d been watching with the sound off. The footage was really rather awesome.

  • Münchner Kindl

     I don’t personally know the two villages in Ethiopia where this took place – but I can believe that kids in rural places in third world countries have never seen a box before. This is patronizing why? I should assume that everything looks the same as my country? Or I should not assume, despite reports from many sources I read, that places in 3rd world Africa are yes, indeed, incredibly poor compared to our standards?

  • AnonymousSam

    And I think he hasn’t been paying enough attention if he thinks systematic rape and denial of education are purely third world country problems. I’ve heard plenty of ultraconservatives (who are far from politically powerless in this country) voice how they don’t feel that women need an education, since they shouldn’t be out working to begin with, and I was there for the NYC police coming under investigation for repeatedly sexually assaulting Occupy protestor women.

  • Münchner Kindl


    It’s “here’s some tech that will solve all your education problems” from people with a disdain for education.

    Where in the world do you get “disdain for education” from a bunch of geeks and nerds who realize that the 21st century requires not only reading and writing skills, but computer skills, and want to act against the growing gap between 3rd and 1st world, to unlock the potiental in children with the bad luck to be born in poor countries without access to computers in normal circumstances?

    So they try to distribute the laptops in schools in Peru; it doesn’t work as well for several reasons; they try a different approach in a different area for a different problem. How’s that disdainful of education? It’s not like they gave kids a gameboy with pokemon on it.

    But the problem is what other solutions does this displace?

    How about you tell me? If you honestly believe that a bunch of laptops in a test replaced a bunch of teachers that would have to be trained and paid by a poor state plus a bunch of schools that need to be built by a poor state, I would like some evidence, because the numbers usually run the other way.

    Yes, eating a bread today means I might miss out on magical cake tomorrow. But I prefer to have bread now instead of waiting for magical cake that might or might not come tomorrow.

    Also, as Fred often points out regarding charity, it’s not either-or. This isn’t a competition, where the Ethiopian state or Unicef throw their hands in the air and say “well OLPC got there first, we’ll not do anything else for these villages and their kids ever because we lost”. This is a try that worked. I really don’t understand what bugs you that you hate this so much, because for me, every little thing that helps is better than talking about ideal solutions. Start with imperfect solutions and improve them while you speak instead of hypotheticals that might be better if pigs fly.

    “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” as the Jews put it wisely. This is one candle. You’re cursing it because …?

  • Münchner Kindl

     What report were you watching? Fred’s link goes to an article; the comments there mentioned a more thorough article which gives the names of the villages and some other details. At the end of the first article there’s a link to the PDF about the educational software.

    Where is there a video report?

  • Münchner Kindl


    And what was the level of english _really_ achieved?

    It takes non-natives several years to learn English (or any other second language). They are reporting after 5 months that the children are learning. Obviously they are not at college-level yet.

    Why does this success bug you so much? I don’t understand it.

  • Launcifer

    I said in my first comment that I was watching CNN International. It was a repeat of the most recent edition of GPS, with Fareed Zakaria. I think it’s available at iTunes, though I’m fairly sure that there’s also a free audio-only you can download. Damned if I can remember where to go for that, though.

    Anyway, all I was saying was that I felt that the report that I had seen came across as patronising to me when I saw it right before logging on here. And I only posted that because someone else mentioned that they felt that the article in the link was patronising.

    I wasn’t criticising whatever it is that the OLPC is trying to achieve with this experiment.  I was just uncomfortable with the tone of the report that I saw, not with what was being reported. Other people maybe wouldn’t have been, but c’est la vie. Again, apologies for any confusion caused.

  • Münchner Kindl

    Ah sorry, I didn’t see that you mentioned CNN. I can’t comment on that.

    In searching for german-language articles about it to share with my mother and others, I came across one serious article, which was more cautious (they said about the latin-america project that generally it takes 15-20 years for changes in the education system to be visible and properly evaluated) and of the “let’s wait and see approach” about Ethiopia.

    But another article was full of hate against implications in the English article that …aren’t there at all. E.g. when the guy from OLPC says that initially they expected the kids to play with the boxes only … the anti-article rants about how this regards African children as dumb and this attitude is racist and coloniast.

    Except that the kids are between 4 and 7 years old .. and kids that age love to play with boxes. One Master Card commercial commented on spending several hundred bucks on toys for a kid, but the kid playing with the box it came in instead: priceless. Or Calvin and Hobbs who had one box that was everything, depending on what was written on the side…

    The principle itself – that kids can learn about computers even if illiterate was of course tried before, the “Hole in the Wall” project in India. I guess the results from that were known at OLPC before they decided on this project.

    This shows how much a good software helps compared with an overwhelmed teachers in too-full classrooms or no instructions. Though the earlier reports from latin America also already mentioned the progressing software and how the kids took the laptop home to learn on their own pace.

  • “I went through something very similar a few years ago when I finally
    came to terms with the fact that no one would ever listen to anything I
    said about global warming,” Morales added. “And that it is entirely too
    late to do anything about it.”

    Quote is from the Onion piece linked above – but it sadly rings all too true.

  • CarolynTheRed

     OK, the strongest criticisms I have heard of these “education in a box” solutions come from other computer science for development researchers who work more on infrastructure, community needs and desires, and so on. The choice isn’t necessarily between these laptops and nothing – and comparing them against nothing isn’t the best bet. The technology is interesting, but it over-promises, and ignores a lot of factors. And similar projects keep doing the same thing, over and over, without learning from their weaknesses.

    I don’t hate this project – I think it’s over-hyped, and it misses some important things. Where does this idea come from that criticism equals hate? There may be tech-supported solutions that are a better idea, or more helpful. The most successful OLPC and related projects have involved tech support in remote villages, infrastructure, training, and all sorts of things other than just handing children laptops. They’ve also been more culturally sensitive, with translated materials.

    I wish we could let children just learn at their own pace using laptops, but where the research has been done, giving good automated feedback when even motivated, literate, older children and adults get stuck is hard.

    I’m not cursing the project. I’m criticizing it, with well known criticisms that come from people more involved in the trenches of tech for the developing world than I am. I wish it was better. If you’re involved in this project, or support it, well, make it better. These aren’t my “oh, it isn’t perfect, so why try?” criticisms – these are real problems that need to be solved, not ignored.

  • Suresh kumar

    Thanks for your grateful informations, this blogs will be really help for students blogs.

  • Amaryllis

    Nothing about marriage equality in the state of Washington is any infringement on liberty. This is about civil marriage and civil law.
    Another short story.

    In Baltimore’s St. Vincent de Paul church, Fr. Richard T. Lawrence read a
    nuanced letter from Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori at all the
    weekend’s Masses. It concluded: “Each one of us — as Catholics and
    faithful citizens — must show up on election day and do our part by
    voting against Question 6,” the Civil Marriage Protection Act. ”

    He then stated his own homiletic  [which,  for non-Catholics, means right there in church, in the middle of the Mass, as his sermon] thoughts:

    the federal courts respect the rights of churches not to hire anyone for
    a ministerial position whose marriage does not comply with the laws of
    that church, we do hire and pay spousal benefits, such as medical
    insurance, for employees whose marriages are not valid in the eyes of
    church law. It seems to me, therefore,” Lawrence continued, “that even if we do not
    believe that gay marriage ever could or should be allowed in the
    church, we could live with a provision that allows civil marriage of gay
    and lesbian couples. Personally, however, I would go farther than

    “The church has always been willing to marry couples in the church
    even though their ages suggest strongly that the procreation and
    education of children is no longer a possibility…

    Could we not then say that [same-sex couples’] devotion to and support of each
    other ..could be recognized by the church as a valid sacrament of
    God’s unrelenting faithfulness to us just as much as the union of an
    elderly straight couple?” 

    The St. Vincent parishioners gave Lawrence a standing ovation.

    The Archbishop, of course, was unimpressed.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m tempted to give that priest a standing ovation myself. I’d get some strange looks from my coworkers, though, so I won’t. Yet.

  • AnonymousSam

    Yesterday, I passed by eight people standing in the rain, holding up “Approve Ref-74” signs. I gave them all double thumbs up. I couldn’t help but notice how they were all young, energetic, smiling determinedly despite the nasty conditions (and, I have no doubt, despite the yells and honks from motorists).

    In contrast, just the day before, four people were in the same spot holding “Reject Ref-74” signs. They were all older, better dressed, and each of them was scowling angrily at the cars driving past. Each of them looked disgusted. One was trying to tape up a sign which read “MARRIAGE = 1 MAN + 1 WOMAN”.

    Sometimes the scene itself is enough of an argument for me. The curve of the arc is sometimes just visible enough.

  • David Starner

    All this Sandy = global warming is a little frustrating. So far we don’t know exactly how global warming will affect the Atlantic hurricane season. Yes, the storm seasons in the 2000s have been huge, but only 2005 topped 1933 by number of storms (and 1887 is in a tie for #3) and only 2005 topped 1950 by accumulated cyclonic energy. There’s decade-long cycles in hurricane formation–the 1930s were huge, and the post-global-warming-start 1980s were dead. Given that we don’t have good data before 1900, and we didn’t have hurricane hunters before 1945 and satellites before 1960, it’s hard to tell exactly where the current hurricane seasons fit into large scale of things.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Do you have citations for any of this? In particular I’m interested in what previous hurricane coincided with a noreaster in a year when there wasn’t much ice in Greenland to begin with and therefore not much icemelt in the North Atlantic to calm the hurricane.

  • The atmosphere is like a giant heat engine that circulates heat from the tropics to the poles.

    Increase the average temperature -> increase the average kinetic energy of air molecules -> on average, stronger winds and more extreme weather.

    This is basic science, not even that narsty evolution stuff.

  • banancat

    Wow, I did the exact same thing. I preferred Polly Pockets over lego figures because they are a better fit for a for by two as a single bed. I made giant mansions and tiny apartments, boarding schools, hotels, and even an orphanage, all for my collection of Polly Pockets.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    As a non-English speaking citizen of the first world, I must admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that these children need to be taught in English. I’m Swedish; my language is spoken by roughly 9 million people worldwide. And if anyone implied that Swedish children should learn English instead of their own language, I would be pissed.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Instead of, yeah, absolutely a problem with that. Alongside? You’re speaking English now.

  •  I have to admit that the fact that they were taught in English made me uncomfortable, too.  However, there are so many different languages spoken in Ethiopia.  It looks like the software would have to be written in some form of Oromiffa for the children in Wonchi.  I cannot figure out what language is spoken in Wolonchete, the name may be a mistranscription. Trying to track down people who spoke exactly the same language may have been a close to insurmountable obstacle for the people at OLPC. 

    Swedish, on the other hand, is a much more common language.  I could probably put up a sign on the sales floor at work (a Walmart in South Texas) and find a few speakers of Swedish that way.

    With the success of the program so far, hopefully OLPC will be able to write software in the children’s own language and Amharic as well. 

    Also, the fact that they are intuitively learning English shows that actual learning is taking place, and they aren’t just playing.  If the software were in their native language, to some extent, they would have to take it on faith that learning is taking place.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    I obviously refer to teaching them solely in English. Teaching someone a new language *in addition to their native one* is something entirely different.

  • Fusina

     The Polly Pocket dolls came out, as I recall, long after my lego architect days. On occasion I picked up one or two at yardsales for my daughter (by the time she was born they had gone to the slightly larger dressable doll. She still has some of them, also a largish collection of the others. And yes, she does make them dwelling places out of legos.

    I still play with legos, only now I generally get the Star Wars sets, build them, take them apart and someday, when I have time again, I plan to design my own space vehicles.