Risks--and rewards--of XO laptop

After reading a BBC reporter's account of what his 9-year-old son could do merely days after getting his hands on the XO laptop, I wondered whether my 8-year-old daughter would fare as well.

Tech Culture

Two weeks I wrote about how the XO laptop endowed a 9-year-old boy with seemingly magical powers (of intellectual curiosity and competence), and I wondered aloud whether my 8-year-old daughter would fare as well. On the one hand, she does like gadget gifts such as The Littlest Petshop. On the other hand, many such gadgets wind up as nothing more than a surface waiting to be decorated with stickers or glitter glue. Would her reaction to the XO validate or repudiate Negroponte's hypothesis that his project is an education project, not a laptop project? It seemed to work pretty well for Rufus.

We decided to open the laptops on Christmas Eve--the two I bought via the Give One Get One program, plus a third I bought from a co-worker who had Given One but did not want to Get One. Go figure. My first happy surprise was that the XO logo was different on all three. This made it possible to identify which was whose without stickers.

After booting them up, we all had to learn the Sugar interface. My second surprise was that it was not quite obvious to me how these XOs would network. Two of them were quite happy to mesh with one another. The third (which I'd opened earlier) was all happy about our Netgear wireless router and could not be bothered with the mesh network. How the heck was I going to get the two that were networked together to network to me?

I confess: I had to go to the Web to read some documentation about the theory and practice of the Sugar interface and network connectivity. This gave me my third (and happy) surprise: it was quite obvious once you grokked it, and it also meant that these laptops are not quite as promiscuous with their connectivity as first I had feared. I knew that the Sugar interface was based around activities, but I didn't understand until reading the documentation that the activity was the thing you shared, not a network connection or hardware resource. When my daughter started a chat, she could go to her neighborhood, and when mousing over her own chat application, she could decide to invite others she had marked as friends. With this two-level acceptance policy (first, she has to find and mark a friend; second, the only activities that are shared are the ones you choose to share with a friend), the XO is far less of a security risk than first I feared. Nevertheless, I wanted to really make sure I understood the features and the limits of XO networking so I hopped on #olpc-help and verified that my network bifurcation was a known limitation (possibly to be fixed with update.1 in mid-January).

But the real fun began after we started to explore the XO's games. I told her to open Pippy and we played the "guess the number" game. In Pippy, the source code appears on the top half of the screen, and the interaction window (where you enter your name and guess the number) appears on the bottom half. She played the game three times, averaging about 7 guesses per try, and then said "I want to play another game." I suggested she try playing a different game by modifying the parameters to guess a number between 1 and 1,000,000, instead of between 1 and 100. She looked at me with wide eyes. I explained that on the top was a program, the program of the game, and that if she changed a single number in two places, she could change the game itself. She went from a look of "no way" to a look of "OK! What are we waiting for!" in about 200 milliseconds. She started to enter a million, decided that was just a little too large, and changed it to 1,000. She hit "run" and sure enough, the prompt asked for a guess between 1 and 1,000. She looked at me excitedly. I told her to guess, and after 11 guesses, she got it. She looked at me again, somewhat amazed. I told her she had just programmed the computer. I might as well have told her we were going to spend a week in Cinderella's castle--she jumped up, shrieked, and yelled "HEY MOMMY! GUESS WHAT!? I JUST PROGRAMMED THE COMPUTER!"

Needless to say there was much excitement. She tried other modifications, including a version of the game she could win every time on the first try. She got her syntax errors, run-time errors, all the other scrapes and bruises one gets on the way to learning how to program, but she was excited, elated, and became confident! The little scorekeeper in me said:

Negraponte: 1, Doubt: 0.

I had to report this success to the #olpc-help newsgroup, which brought forth some cheers and hoopla. A person logged in as cjb asked "Are you the Michael Tiemann?" I explained that while there are a few, yes, I was the guy who wrote GNU C++. He responded that he was the author of Pippy—how cool is that? The author of the very program was reading the mailing list on Christmas Day!

So far, everything, and I mean everything about the XO has exceeded my expectations: the build quality, the software functionality, and most importantly, the positive effect it has had on my daughter's curiosity and confidence about computers. What a great gift!

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