On the XO Laptop

Opportunity knocks, but you have to open the door

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If you are fortunate then opportunity will come knocking at your door.

Some knocks are so loud there is no question you will open the door and take advantage of them . For example, as I was nearing the end of my senior year in high school, I knew I would attend either the University of New Mexico or Caltech, and that I would only be going to Caltech if they provided some financial assistance.

Thus, aside from my personal life [1], the greatest opportunity I was ever given was being awarded a four-year full-tuition-plus scholarship at Caltech. It had the name “Superior Scholar,” as the funds for it were donated by William Myron Keck, the founder of the Superior Oil Company. (The Keck Observatory and the Keck Laboratories are named after him, and I take the occasion of this post to thank his family for their support of Caltech in general, and my education in particular.)

Obvious opportunities come with a loud knock. To paraphrase the words of Buck “Buckeroo” Owens, author of one of my favorite songs, Hello Trouble:

Hello trouble opportunity, come on in
You talk about heartaches same-old same-old
Where’n the world ya been?
I ain’t had the miseries jollies
Since you been gone
Hello trouble, trouble, trouble fortune, fortune, fortune,
Welcome home in

On rare occasions you will be presented with what, in retrospect, will prove to have been a major opportunity. Not only that, you will have to make a choice: whether to stay put, or to open the door. And even more rarely, two opportunities may come your way at the same time, and you then have to make a choice. This is theme of the famous short story, “The Lady and the Tiger.”

As I have written earlier, as a professional you can consider yourself lucky if just one opportunity that offers the potential to have a real impact, and that comes your way when the project is just starting up, so you will be able to say were present at its creation. Your will be more than twiced blessed if you ever get another.

The first such opportunity that came my way was the SETL Project. It was started by Jacob “Jack” Schwartz. I had to decide whether to pursre another opportunity, the offer of a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LASL), about ninety miles from the town in which I grew up.

I decided to take Jack’s advice and go with SETL. [2] I think it fair to say I was the first to join him, so I was present at the creation of the project, as well as the next fifteen years that were the most satisfying years in my professional career to date.

I didn’t think another opportunity like this would come my way again.

Yet it has, in the form of the OLPC/XO project, and I thank my good fortune that I had the sense to recognize this is one of those all to rare opportunities.

It also came with a decision. I have been working for well over a year to promote the use of open technologies such as open-source in assisting the educators and librarians of our country in our vital mission. I came away with enough real opportunities from my attendance at the recent K12OpenMinds conference in Indianapolis that I could have spent years working on them.

However, I have decided to cast my lot with the OLPC/XO project, though I will continue to do what I can on these other opportunities as time permits.

If you have an interest in improving education on a global scale, and working on related efforts such as deploying the XO for use by the Sahana project, an effort that will undoubtedly save many lives, and particularly if you have the technical skills that the project so desperately needs, then an opportunity like this will most likely not come your way again. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, particularly to me, since I am over 60 and know to a certainly I won’t see another one like this.

So if you have any technical and educational skills that might help move this project forward, then I strongly encourage you to do the following.

First, ignore most of the recent press articles about it, as for the large part they are written by people who don’t know enough about the underlying technology to make a proper assessment. They are just giving you the same-old same-old.

Second, take the time to make a realistic appraisal of the hardware platform and the current software environment.

It will be then be up to you to make your call. Until you decide to make the call I will provide as much writing as I can on this blog to give you reasons why you should consider engaging in this project.

If you do decide to join then I am confident that three things will happen.

You will have fun. Moreover, this project is just starting up on a global scale, so you will be able to say were present at its creation.

You will help make the world a better place.

You won’t have to look back in hindsight a few years from now and say to yourself, “Damn. Dave was right. I should have joined this project.”


1. The greatest personal opportunity came in the form of my cutie-pie. We will celebrate our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary in a few weeks.

2. Another deciding factor was that, though my job would have been to do research in a project related to SETL, I would also have as my colleagues experts in designing thermonuclear weapons.

However, I did come away with a few good stories.

I spent my college summers working at the Air Force Weapons Lab (AFWL). As part of that I had to get a Secret clearance each summer. In those days you had to have a higher-level clearance, “Q,” to even enter Los Alamos. So even though I just went to LASL for a job interview, I had to get Q clearance.

My wife and I traveled to Russia as private individuals in late 1973, just days after the end of the Yom Kippur War. Since my Q clearance was still in effect I had to check in at the American Embassy in Moscow and let them know I had it. During that trip we visited Novosibirsk, which was then the closest thing Russia had to Los Alamos. We went there to visit Academician Andre P. Ershov, one of the pioneers in Russian computing and also one of the founders of Novosibirsk. As a result I spent an hour or so after my return to New York discussing my visit with an agent of the CIA.

By the way, it was clear even then that the Soviet Union was doomed. We took pocket calculators as gifts to our relatives, some of whom we knew to be engineers, as the calculators were worth more than their weight in gold. I also saw actual “samizdat” during that visit.

We also made another visit to Russia in 1976, as guests of the Russian Academy of Sciences. While there I met E. W. Dijkstra and A. P. Hoare in Kiev. I also first appreciated during that visit a fatal flaw in the Soviet educational system.

Once you received professional training under the Soviet system you could never change your career, for to do so would be an admission that you were given the wrong education. This led to an extraordinary laziness and lack of ambition from those who found themselves to be in the wrong line of work. On the the other hand, in our country you are free to change your career as you deem fit, and many of the key figures in the SETL project had unusual backgrounds; for example, as chemists, musicians, physicists, mathematicians, and, in the case of one of our best programmers, Art Grand, theatrical lighting.

I learned around that time from Hank Warren, an IBMer who was on leave to work on SETL, that he had been involved in a project to build some sort of system in Russia, but that IBM had backed out when the truly abysmal state of the phone system became clear.

A couple of years later I shared an office for a few months with an emigre from Russia who had once worked in a Soviet military lab. He estimated that over half of the Soviet economy went to the military.

It was thus clear to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of technology and computers who made a serious study of the Soviet Union in those days that the Soviet Union would be unable to keep up. Moore’s Law spelled their doom.

This should put to rest the claims of those who argue that the efforts of the Reagan administration led to the end of the Soviet Union. Perhaps they led to the downfall of communism sooner, but the Soviets didn’t need any help to destroy their country — they were able to do it entirely on their own.


Written by daveshields

December 6, 2007 at 5:50 pm

Posted in xo-laptop

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