Letters from our Readers
The Hundred-Dollar Laptop
I read with great interest your article on the Hundred-Dollar Laptop, or HDL, proposed by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte (“From the Editor,” August 2005). I have been living in Haiti for the last two decades and, as a member of the Haitian Association of Technology Entrepreneurs, I have looked for years to find ways to increase poor people’s access to new technologies.
The success of an HDL will depend on the availability of new third-party software. For example, we are developing a multimedia application that uses the Creole language and a tactile screen to help illiterate people use a computer; we could very well try to integrate such an application in an HDL. Another important factor will be the ability to manufacture such a machine locally, using inexpensive components. I am ready to concretely explore those options here in Haiti.
While an HDL would be a boon to our world, simply making the Internet available to the masses is a far cry from actually educating them. I worked with my children’s local school district through two technology tax levies to help ensure that money wasn’t thrown at a problem without a plan to use it intelligently. Getting information to the children is only a part of the solution. Providing guidance and structure to learning is every bit as important, if not more important. Providing teachers with education on how to use the technology for teaching was and is as important as providing the computers and Internet access. Also, will providing the technology instruction actually prepare these youth for the world that they live in?
Keith L. Breinholt
It’s more important to address the issue of content analysis than of offering inexpensive laptop computers. What good is the Internet for kids who can barely read, and therefore can’t discriminate between authoritative information and trash? Without such discernment, all this effort will be lost to chat rooms, porn, and games. I’m Mexican, and I’ve seen which sites Mexican kids surf in cybercafes – and it’s not ones like Project Gutenberg.
I congratulate Nicholas Negroponte for his Hundred-Dollar Laptop idea and hope he will be able to make a good business case for it. In the end, however, the key factor will not be the computer itself but the software that it runs. How will this software enhance the educational capabilities of the user, reflect local cultural norms, and be integrated into schools?
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The HDL has already been built for much less than a hundred dollars; let’s call it the LTHDM (Less-Than-Hundred-Dollar Machine). Yes – I’m talking about your old desktop computer. There are millions of LTHDM units waiting to be used. Instead of offering poor children new machines that have not been field-tested, let’s ship them our old machines, loaded with a Linux operating system. I just don’t get why we have to build new machines when we already have millions to spare.
Nicholas Negroponte responds:
The reuse of old desktop computers is a fine idea, and one that I encourage, but for three reasons does not obviate the need for laptops for children. First, if a child is to have a seamless learning experience, she needs a device that travels with her. Second, if we assume that there are 100 million desktops available, and that each unit requires only one hour of human attention to be refurbished, getting those desktops to the people who need them will require 45,000 work years. Third, children in the developing world need the newest technology to provide really rugged hardware and innovative software.
Corby Kummer’s article, “Your Genomic Diet” (August 2005), did a superb job of distilling this exciting post-genomic technology into terms that nonspecialists could understand. I wanted to point out, though, that lunasin is a protein component of soybeans and not, as you report, an isoflavone, which is a small-molecule metabolite. Both of these components of soy, however, reduce cancer risks in cell culture, small laboratory animals, and humans. Despite this error, Kummer’s message is a good one: your genetic profile could be the key to knowing what to eat.
Your article on blackjack sensors (“The Digital Pit Boss,” August 2005) neglects to mention a huge advantage that this technology would confer on the casino by enabling it to efficiently spot card counters – players who track expended cards and adjust their bets depending on whether the remaining deck is “rich” or “poor” in critical aces and tens. A good card counter can tip the house’s .45 percent advantage to a player advantage of between .25 and .50 percent. Giving the casino the power to track betting patterns will put the truly skilled player out of business.
I enjoyed “Abused Substances” (August 2005) in defense of the drug Ecstasy. MIT’s Jerome Lettvin should pen a rebuttal! He thrashed Dr. Timothy Leary on the subject of LSD in their famous 1967 debate at MIT. Now that was a trip!
Barney C. Black
Falls Church, VA