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My hacker daughter

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Yeah, it's a personal update, but there's also some game development related goodness in there.

First off, just took Maggie in for her six-year checkup. She's still over the 97th percentile in height, but she's down to about the 90th percentile in weight. In short, she's becoming the extremely tall gawky kid that we all knew she'd become. Most girls don't see that phase until seventh grade, though. She's got a great self-image so I'm not too worried.

On a related note, her OLPC finally arrived! We ordered it back in December as part of that "donate a laptop to a kid in a third-world country and we'll let you buy one for yourself" program. So there's a kid in Mongolia with one of these now, which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. Here's Maggie getting her first impressions of her favorite new gizmo.



On the whole, it's a pretty impressive little gizmo. It has plenty of USB ports and it's all very well engineered, especially given the low price. The flip-up latch-antenna-port-protectors are very clever. The keyboard's pretty awful for touch-typing but is great for kids who tend to type while eating jelly sandwiches. The screen is much better than I expected. The resolution isn't great, but it's very clear (especially in its little B&W non-backlight outdoor-ebook-mode), and the software all works very well with the small screen.

As for the software, it's definitely more hacker-aimed than other kid-friendly technologies I've seen. Other kid-based computer tools of this ilk seems to be very locked down and kidproof. On this thing, you can open a Linux terminal right from the main menu!

The UI as well as the bundled software takes a little getting used-to. Its little windowing system and main menu is pretty easy once you get your head wrapped around its UI metaphor.

The bundled apps and games and such are not at all what I expected. I expected to see something akin to what you get when you buy a new PC, only kid-friendly -- things like a little word processor and spreadsheet and a couple of cute twitch-games, but things were quite a bit different. The system does come with a rudimentary word-processor, but all of the games and activities were intended to be further explored and extended. Even the bundled flip-the-cards memory game had a mode where you could modify the cards and the gameplay. While the music app comes with a "choose the instruments and bang away at the keyboard to make funny sounds" mode, it also came with an editor with a timeline so you could build your own compositions. The built-in camera and video-recorder dovetails into an animation program so you can make your own presentations.

And there's a logo-esque turtle graphics program that's based on that "build programs out of puzzle pieces" metaphor. Maggie first declared it boring because all you do is move a turtle around with the arrow keys, but I think she'll change her mind when I show her how to make the turtle draw pictures.

All in all, they really did a good job making a little computer that's built around exploration rather than just completing canned tasks. As an example of that, this morning Maggie was playing with "Pippi", which she declared to be a program that helps you learn how to type. Looking at it, it was actually the Python IDE, and she was practicing typing phrases into the editor :)

My only "want" for the curb-appeal of the system would be a little better way of ushering kids into the system. Maybe a little tutorial that takes kids through the simpler non-extensible tasks (like the draw program) so they're not starting out bewildered because they have no idea what to do with Pippi. It's really not clear what's a game and what's not.

Although this is really intended to fit into a classroom setting, so I suppose the teacher could fill that role nicely.


If I had any complaints, it would be the following:

1. The built-in Flash player is pretty sad. In their aim to make everything about the system open-source, they bundled Gnash (Gnu's clean-room Flash player knockoff) with the web-browser. While Gnash does fit in with the open metaphor, it's really not ready for prime-time. I could find very little Flash content that it could actually display. One benchmark I use for Flash players is my own site. It's all based around Flash 7 (aka Flash MX 2004), and it's compatible with just about everything out there. Even rudimentary Flash runtimes like the PocketPC and Nintendo Wii can run my games. But Gnash won't run 'em.

And that also means that a lot of great kids' websites like Noggin and Nick Jr won't work either.

Thankfully the evil-empire closed-source Flash 9 player from Adobe works just fine on it. And the OLPC wiki has exactly the instructions you need to replace the workers-of-the-world-unite player with the evil-empire player.

I'm all for openness, but a browser that can't play Flash games just ain't right :)


2. Their bookmarks/favorites metaphor is weird and I don't think I'll ever like it. The built-in web browser is based on Firefox and displays content very well. But Firefox is just used to render pages. The external UI is based on their metaphor so bookmarks actually live outside the browser. Everything you do with your OLPC is stored in "the journal", and if you see something you like (like a website), you can give it a name and the journal will keep track of it. Then you can go to your journal and launch your named entry.

It's rather neat in that rather than saving your latest turtle graphics creation, you just name it in the journal, it does make the process of web-surfing cumbersome because you need to go to the journal to find your favorite websites. On Maggie's desktop computer I have the little IE bookmark window set to always display as a sidebar pre-populated with kids websites so she can just click on a website when she wants to play. And I'd like to do the same with this, but it's more difficult than it should be.

I noticed that Opera's available for OLPC, and it supports conventional bookmarks. I might give it a try.

Or I might just replace their little canned homepage with a custom Google homepage for Maggie. That way I can just slap up a bunch of Maggie-oriented bookmarks on it.


3. It's slow. I'd heard that the performance wasn't great, and it's not. It's okay for simple stuff, but things like booting and app-launching are pretty slow. Also, they need to tighten up their app-launch metaphor a bit to accomodate this. Things really start to bog down if you're running three or four apps at a time, but it seems like things could be smartened up easily.

For example, Maggie doesn't really grok the whole "running tasks" thing, so sometimes if she wants to go from one website to another she just heads to the main-menu, clicks "browse" and types the website's name into Google. That seems simple enough, but if there's already a browser running with her previous site, it's still running. And once you get 2-3 browsers running kids' websites, your performance drops to zero.

Now then, mom and dad can show her the importance of only running one or two apps at a time and that she should just use the same browser to go to a new site rather than opening a new one, it seems like would've been a simple matter to have a setting that only allows one instance of each app at a time and a certain number of apps to run in total (like two).

That way she could say "oh, the system won't let me run the match-game. I should close the draw program". It's not a great solution, but it's better than "oh, I tried to run the match-game and the system's locked up for a solid minute because I have three browsers running. Time to reboot." And if she goes to the main menu and chooses "browse" and there's a browser already running, focus that browser and send it to the homepage rather than launch a new one.


In closing, I present you with Maggie's first ever email. Rather than an email client, the OLPC folks recommend you get a gmail account, as gmail works great in their browser. They even have an "email app", which is an icon that just launches the browser and sends you to gmail.

So I present you with my six year old's first ever email.



Or should I say, her first flamewar :)
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Your wife must truly have the patience of a saint.

I hear the machine is actually pretty slow; I tried out one of their prerelease VMWare images and liked it quite a bit. I'm really glad Squeak (or at least a Squeak-like) is featured so prominently.

How is the display? I'm still amazed that LCDs have come so far from the Powerbook 140.

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Adorable. You'll have to start beating back the horde of proto-geeks in puppy-love soon [wink]

I've got a couple of nephews in the same age range who'd probably love the things, but they're practically inseparable from their electronics as it is, so I doubt either of my sisters would go for it... which is a bummer, because it means I don't get an excuse to muck about with one [grin]

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Wow, how time flies. It seems like a short time ago you were talking about having a kid.

Great review, by the way.

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Wow, how time flies. It seems like a short time ago you were talking about having a kid.

Great review, by the way.

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