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On the XO Laptop

OLPC and the XO Laptop: On Being Present At The Creation Of A Big Project

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[First published as on November 23, 2007.]

Two conversations with Jacob “Jack” Schwartz shaped the course of my professional career.

The first came around September, 1970. I was then living on West 93rd St. in New York City. Jack then lived not far away, at 90th and Riverside. We encountered each other near 90th and Broadway, and Jack mentioned he had been working on a new programming language.

I don’t recall if it had a name. I do recall he said the idea was to make set theory “executable,” which would require limiting the domain to finite sets.

That was the best single idea about programming languages I have ever heard. I sensed it right away then, and believe it to this day, almost forty years later.

I started work on SETL around 1970-1971. Indeed, earlier this evening I happened on a fragment of teletype paper that demonstrates I was working on it by mid-1971. See Back In The Day: Computing in 1959, 1971.

In September, 1972, believing (falsely, as it turns out) that I would be getting my Ph.D. degree by May, 1973, I visited Los Alamos Lab and interviewed about a postdoc position with a small group that was working on a language similar to SETL. I remember the date well as the killing of the Israeli athletes in Munich happened while I was in Los Alamos.

Los Alamos did make an offer. The offer was appealing in that my mother was then alive and well in nearby Albuquerque, though I was not too keen on working in a “company town” where the main business was the design of thermonuclear weapons.

But I did have to make a decision, and so I asked Jack for his advice.

He said that he had applied for five-years of funding to support research and development work on SETL, and was optimistic that the grant would be approved. (It was, and was later extended for another five years, the kind of support that would be unthinkable in this day and age.)

He then said that he felt that over the course of a carer one could hope for at most a handful of opportunities — and perhaps only one — to be present at the creation of a project that would have real impact.

He gave as an example his own postdoctoral days at Yale, when he collaborated with Prof. Nelson Dunford and other members of the Yale Mathematics Dept. to produce a series of volumes on Linear Operators, known to mathematicians just as “Dunford and Schwartz.”

“Dunford and Schwartz” was one of the major mathematical works of the past century. It made his reputation as a world-class mathematician. For the rest of his career he has worked in a variety of fields, including SETL, robotics, ultracomputers, and so forth, becoming a world-class expert and researcher in each.

I decided to heed his advice, and I am damn glad I did so.

He was right. I spent almost sixteen years working on SETL. It the most satisfying period of my professional career, bar none. Though SETL is no longer used as a programming language, the project did have quite an influence. For example, SETL was used to implement the first Ada compiler.

SETL also played a key role in the creation of Python, as I have described in my recent post, xo-laptop: Why Python?

Though I have been aware of the XO Laptop Project for some time, and used one for the first time about a month ago, it is only in the last few days that I have come to fully appreciate what I believe to be its promise and the enormous opportunities it offers.

The XO Laptop is the first computer known to me that was designed to use only open-source software to provide the operating environment and basic applications, and also to have as its principal use the education of the next generation of our children, by which is meant not just a few children, but as many of the children in the world as possible, in countries rich or poor.

I now believe that a few decades down the road people will look back and see the period 2006-2008 or so as a pivotal point in the history of computing.

Computers are roughly half a century old. During those five decades computers have, through the greatest technological feat in human history, shrunk in size from requiring a building the size of a basketball court to the point they can now be held in a child’s hand, all the time growing in performance at a rate matched only by the ongoing reduction in the cost of producing that technology.

Moreover, we now have at hand a complete “stack” of software that extends all the way from the BIOS software that starts the configuration of a computer the moment the power switch is pressed, on up to the software used to drive the world’s largest supercomputers.

Five decades of hardware and software advances have now come together in a single device. It is the XO Laptop, and it relies on free and open-source software for deliver education, community support, empowerment, economic development, as well as many other services to humanity at large that are for now just speculation, though I expect many will be realized.

For example, I have heard on good authority that Sahana has already been run using the XO Laptop. Sahana is the major –if not only — open-source project in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and I expect that within five years, and probably much sooner, delivery of XO laptops to the residents of areas devastated by a natural disaster will be as routine as the delivery of food, water, and medical services.

It is near the end of November as I write this, so let’s look ahead the start of the new year, 2008.

On New Year’s Day in 2008 the world will be divided into two groups: (1)those who possess an XO laptop; (2) those who don’t.

On that day the world of programmers who are also skilled in free and open-source software will be divided into two groups: (1) those who have an XO laptop and are committed to the project’s success or are active developers in the projects used the the XO laptop; for example, the Linux kernel and Python, to name just a few; (2) the others.

I know I will be one of the committed open-source developers, and wonder how many others will have the foresight, or the yen for adventure while having fun, or just the plain dumb luck, to join me in this enterprise.

I also write this note with the hope that it might convince just one person to join this project, for that would be one of the great rewards of my life.

I attended a talk early Sunday at my synagogue, The guest speaker, Rabbi David Foreman, spoke on a topic that, while of interest to me and the others present, is not relevant here.

But he did say one thing that impressed me so much that I wrote it down:

When a parent dies you lose the past. When a child dies you lose the future.

Make no mistake about it:

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to apply your skills in the noblest mission of all: to provide a better education for the world’s children so they will not lose the future they deserve.

See you January 2, 2008. We can then start to work together.

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Written by daveshields

December 12, 2007 at 2:47 pm

Posted in xo-laptop

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