Over the past two or three days, there has been an interesting discussion at the One Laptop per Child News website. This is a site that is run by two observers of the OLPC project. For those who don't know, OLPC is a project by Nicholas Negroponte to put computers into the hands of children in the developing world. Originally tagged at $100/laptop, the project is moving forward (although currently slated at something like $208/laptop) and is supposed to actually reach children sometime next year.

The OLPC project itself has been an interesting project to me for several reasons: one is that I've had the idea of using technology to do international projects with students and Esperanto. In the developers' project wiki about the OLPC project, a number of people had proposed Esperanto as something the developers might want to consider. (Including me).

I think the folks at OLPC News saw the Esperanto community as an easy target on a slow news day: Esperanto on the Children's Machine. The author included a reasonable description of Esperanto, but used pejorative terms like "crazies" to describe the Esperanto community. This elicited a strong, though relatively restrained, response from the Esperanto Community.

The authors of the site claimed that the responses simply validated their original contention:

I love how all these comments prove my earlier statement: Esperanto "is the cause célèbre of the obscure intellectual set, brought out every few years as a solution to tribalism, warfare, world strife, plagues, droughts, and planetary misalignment."

For all the love I have for geeking out - and Esperanto is language nerds getting their geek on - back in this amazing place I like to call "reality" Esperanto is but a footnote in language.

I did a bit of research about the primary author that had stirred up the controversy and sent him a piece of email:

Dear Wayan,

I was curious, when you didn't answer my question about how many languages you'd learned to fluency, so I surfed around a bit and I see you've learned several languages to some extent, and Russian to fluency. So you have some sense for how difficult it is to always be at a disadvantage when you have to operate in a second language -- for me, it was that experience that was ultimately most persuasive to me regarding the need for Esperanto. Robert Phillipson has written about this a good bit (here's just one book):

He argues that a system that lets some of us (the richest ones) operate in our native language and makes everyone else (the poorer ones) use a second language, will systematically disadvantage them and contribute to their subjugation.

Francois Grin has recently received a lot of attention for an economics study he did in Europe which calculated how much less expensive it would be if Europe adopted Esperanto (as one of several options): http://cisad.adc.education.fr/hcee/documents/rapport_Grin.pdf He concluded that more than 17 billion euros could be saved annually (in terms of wasted effort in language learning, translation, etc) if Esperanto were adopted. (Sorry -- there's no english translation, to my knowledge).

These people are not "crazies". Nor are they part of some "obscure intellectual set". I deplore your use of these pejorative terms.

I also wanted to invite you to participate in Esperanto Day. I'm trying to organize a one-day blogfest for people to post bilingually in their native language and in Esperanto about language problems from their home, region, or country: http://esperanto-usa.org/esperanto-tago/

We have people that could help you translate your posting and would welcome your participation, regardless of what you might choose to say.

I was rather surprised when it turned up in the discussion with one change: he had changed the salutation (where I had used his last name plus honorific) to his first name.

What neither of them was willing to address is the fact that painting a whole community with a broad brush based on personal stereotypes is just a mistake. This is the same kind of mistaken thinking that underlies racism. One of the authors posted that its OK to practice this kind of thinking because esperantists don't represent a race, without recognizing that it is a general problem whether one talks about race or gender or religion -- or language.

In my first comment in the thread, I pointed out that there's probably more support worldwide for Esperanto than there is for OLPC anyway. Atanu Dey an economist who studies India, wrote a series of a good posts, OLPC RIP: part one, OLPC RIP: part two, and OLPC RIP: part three describing the economic realities in India and arguing that the opportunity cost for purchasing laptops is too high: the money that could be spent the OLPC would serve children much better by hiring teachers and making sure that villages have a functioning school (with things like blackboards and toilets). But what's funniest (or maybe saddest) are the comments by enthusiastic OLPC supporters, like this one and this one. And they say that the Esperantists are the crazies. :-)

General Faculty Meeting

Today there was a General Faculty meeting on campus. I think this is the second time it's happened since I arrived at the University. Our University launched a plan two years ago, with the goal of hiring 250 additional new faculty in 5 years. Unfortunately, after the first year, only 12 additional new faculty have been hired and this year the number of searches being conducted appears only barely enough to cover replacements for faculty who will likely leave this year.

I spoke at the meeting. Last week, our state senator took the faculty senate to task, saying it was the inability of the University system to speak with a common voice that has landed us in this predicament. I spoke today about how we need effective leadership if we're to stay on message.

Last year, I was one of many faculty who traveled to the state house to lobby the legislature about the needs of our University. We spoke about our pressing need for more faculty and how, if money was forthcoming, it would be used to hire more faculty, because that had been identified as the number one priority. (I also made a brief pitch that every one of the offices we visited, said that sending faculty to the state house was probably the most persuasive action we could take to underline the importance of our message and that only member's dues to our union can be used toward lobbying -- agency fee payer's dues can't be used that way. So make sure you're an MSP member, if you want to support lobbying!)

This year, however, a large amount of the additional monies received by the campus have been targeted toward "debt service". I don't deny that the buildings are important, but it puts us in an awkward position and it feels like we're working at cross purposes when what we believed was the number one priority of the University was being neglected.

There needs to be a higher-ed advocacy group that can mobilize faculty, students, parents, and the university administration around a common vision -- and that requires effective leadership. Without that leadership, we can't maintain a consistent message, and we'll continue to fail in achieving our goals.

Stopping all motion in webpages

I upgraded to Firefox 2 yesterday first on one machine, to test, and then, once I found it seemingly transparent, on my laptop as well. My perception is that it's faster and a little cleaner -- it has a few new features. Most importantly, my motion-blocking strategies all still work. (I also saw this piece which has a few ideas for making the interface work better on macs -- I used about half of these.

To stop motion in web pages, I have a variety of strategies: I disable animated gifs: image.animation_mode: none. I turn off the "blink" tag: browser.blink_allowed: false. I also use Flashblock, so I can see flash if I want, but it doesn't load unless I ask it too. It makes browsing webpages tranquil, without bouncing, jiggling, wiggling ads trying to get my attention. I've gotten addicted to it and can barely stand to browse the web without these modifications.

I still haven't figure out how to block a few things adequately: the stupid graphics that some sites (like Forbes) send sailing across the screen. I also don't know how to turn off javascript widgets that rotate images without also breaking google maps. If it gets bad enough, I guess I can just use Google Earth instead. :-/


It was a busy weekend. I opened up the intro labs over the weekend and took some cool pictures of the critters we found using a Berlese funnel. The second E-o-day roundup appeared at Global Voices. It turned out a bit less focused than I might have hoped. I need to think more carefully in advance next time. I was also inteviewed by Libera Folio about Esperanto Day. Perhaps best of all, the pledge at Pledgebank was fulfilled! I'd hoped we could get 25 people and we've already hit 27. It's starting to feel like there's actually a growing swell of people and ideas pulling the project along. I also got a copy of the ARE video posted at Farbskatol'. This one preserves the original 16x9 aspect ratio and looks a lot better. Nifty.

Another week in review

I spent most of the morning getting the intro labs set up for an open house for prospective students. I've done this for the past 5 or 6 years (with maybe one exception). I've got it down to an art: I go up to a spot in the Pelham hills that has a little depression that's usually flooded at this time of year, collect some water filled with critters, and set up a bunch of stations around the lab with stuff for people to do. Once people show up, I give a little spiel where I talk about all of the measures we've taken to give students a "small group experience", even in the face of a 700 student enrollment, and then I let them wander around in the lab.

I did a couple of new things this year: I set up a berlese funnel yesterday and had a bunch of cool stuff to show people. When I took entomology, I was amazed by the interesting critters that show up when you do a berlese funnel: collembola, proturans, diplura, psocopturans, mites, pseudoscporpions, and beetles -- lots of beetles.

This morning, I saw that my more recent article at Globl Voices got published: Vojaĝo tra Esperantujo / A Vojage through Esperanto-land. It is a bit unfocused, but doesn't come across too badly, I hope. I finished it a bit quickly with the goal of having it get published on the 15th. We didn't quite manage that, but I'm holding pretty close to my goal.

This week, I succeeded in one of goals of recent months: the 2008 ELNA Landa Kongreso will happen together with the Tut-Amerika Kongreso de Esperanto (TAKE). Jose Antonio Vergara and I talked about trying to make this happen months and have been trying bring it about. Not everyone was as eager as I was for these to happen however, but through hard work at persuading people on both sides, I managed to make it happen.

I filled out my AFR (annual faculty review) this week. I hate doing that -- so many of the things I do don't fit cleanly into the categories of the AFR. This year, however, I assume I don't have to worry too much, since I received the Faculty Outstanding Service Award. It seems like that will count for a lot.

Week that was

I wrote a long blog post yesterday and lost it when my machine crashed. Stupid iPods. I had Charlie's iPod plugged in. I plugged in mine and it asked to update it. So I agreed to update it, but it failed and eventually the whole machine became unresponsive. I eventually had to take it down and lost my unfinished post.

It was a busy week at work, but good and productive. I'm not chair of FSUC&ECC anymore! I got a new committee set up for MSP and recruited someone for a key position. My class seems to be going pretty well. The TAs used my gene expression models and they didn't break. I've been spending a lot of time in the BCRC, which is good. Basically, I'm busy, but things are going well.

The ad at BoingBoing finished up and I wrote a report about it. I was pleased that it bore out my general thesis, which is that investing effort in getting bloggers to say something can amplify your message. I didn't think you had to be a rocket-surgeon to figure that out, but getting the ad to happen sucked up so much of my time that I really began to question whether it was worth it. The ad was such a success, however, that even those who'd been the biggest skeptics were talking about it "kicking a--".

We had parent-teacher conferences for both boys this week. Charlie's successfully made the transition to middle school -- he seems to be having a great year. Daniel's having a rough start with third grade, but only in the sense of missing a good opportunity for fun. He'll come around.


At the library on Saturday I found three books to check out: Seeker by Jack McDevitt and Glasshouse by Charlie Stross. Seeker was OK, but Glasshouse was a really great book -- a real home run.

When I picked up Seeker, I couldn't tell if I'd read it before or not. In fact, I had to read 50 or 100 pages to be sure. It's very much like Polaris, his previous book about the same characters. It's a kind of scifi archeaology story -- I'm a sucker for that stuff. I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it, but it was a bit forgettable.

Glasshouse is set in the Accelerando universe, but doesn't depend of having read any of that stuff before. I found it gripping -- almost impossible to put down. Very clever and well crafted. And then it all comes together on page 317 -- one of the funniest pages I've ever read. I wished I could share it someone, but you need to know too much to appreciate the humor. Really good. Go out and read this book.


TGIF! It's been a tough week. I came down with a cold on Friday, so my last weekend was pretty marginal and the work week seemed endless. Still, I got a few things done.

The big news was that I finally persuaded ELNA to buy an advertisement. We bought a small text ad. It took me weeks of persistant effort to make the case that we should advertise at BoingBoing and that we should advertise Esperanto Day there. But after investing perhaps 20 hours of focused effort over a period of weeks, I was finally able to bring it off. The ad is live at boingboing as I write this. I keep hopeing that Esperanto Day will eventually develop a life of its own and begin to gain momentum without requiring constant effort on my part. It feels like it could be close, as every day, I'm finding new references to it here and there.

Updated unknown gene expression problems

For a couple of months, I've had an idea for updating the Gene Expression Models I started creating a couple of years ago. There are three models: a lac-operon simulation, a model that illustrates the ways that two genes can interact to control the operation of a third gene, and a set of unknown problems for students to explore.

The unknown problems present a system of 5 genes to students. The students need to understand how the genes interact: which ones turn on or turn off the others.

I had figured out that there were three basic types of unknowns, those that: oscillate, run to fixation, or embody a race condition. In discussion with Randy, we had decided that there is also those that are self-initiating versus requiring a stimulus of some kind. In thinking about it, I decided that it was a useful diagnotic technique to be able to add some of each of the gene products independently. So I added a button that lets you squirt a little of each kind into the system. And I created one problem that doesn't do anything until you squirt something into it. I'm very happy -- it works great and adds a nice wrinkle to exploring these systems.

Hypermart internal server errors again

We've been using Hypermart for hosting at Esperanto-USA -- boy do they suck. Repeatedly, over the past 6-8 months, we've had periods of days where 50-80 percent of the connections are rejected with an "internal server error". Because some to half of the connections work fine, it's pretty clear that it's not an actual problem with our site -- I suspect that they have a server farm and a bunch of the machines get compromised or misconfigured resulting in the problem. The worst part is customer service -- if you contact them the nearly always hit reload and say "Oh, it was just a temporary problem -- it's fine now." Of course, all you have to do is hit reload a couple more times and you can see that the problem happens half the time you visit the site. Incredibly, the last time there was a problem they wanted me to tell them my password before they'd escalate the problem. Eventually, we found a way around having me tell them my password (which I am adamant a sysadmin should *never* ask for). When they did escalate the problem, we didn't hear anything for a couple of days (while the problem gradually got better -- I assume as they did reinstalls of screwed up or compromised machines in the server farm -- and then we got a note saying "We can't reproduce your problem". Morons. We really need to get a different hosting service for E-USA. I'm glad I don't use them for my personal site.


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