On Lisp, Squeak, OLPC and XO hacking with Ties Stuij

28 Nov

Ties Stuij is a Dutch hacker who currently works at OLE Nepal (an NGO related to OLPC) and (a Sweden-based start-up) hacking his way using Common Lisp and Squeak. We talked about the current situation of One Laptop Per Child project, how it goes in Nepal and interesting tools of collaboration via Internet. So let’s get started…

Hello Ties, thanks for accepting this interview. As far as I know you’ve been involved with the One Laptop Per Child project at Nepal recently. What’s going on in the OLPC project in general and Nepal in particular? Where is the project headed and do you think it is being successful?

The biggest thing on the radar at the moment is of course the worldwide Give One Get One program. So get one! Orderable through Amazon, and fast shipping this time.

The OLPC project is chugging along slowly but steadily as far as I can see. They never really got the million-laptop orders they hoped for. That was their strategy: talk primarily to governments, and hark in the big contracts. But a lot of countries are hesitant to just shell out millions of ?s without having any proof that these machines will actually be a big step forward. Even if they are very enthusiastic.

Here I should point out that I work for an NGO called OLE Nepal. It’s totally separate from OLPC. We just get their product in one way or the other. And of course there’s a lot of feedback going back and forth.

OLE Nepal started about a year and a half ago. Very small. In April we deployed 135 laptops to two pilot schools with software on them specially tailored for the Nepali curriculum. That software (open source and downloadable of course) is where we put most of our resources into. We don’t believe just dumping laptops on poor children will have a big effect on their education.

At the moment we’re expanding rapidly. We hired lots of developers, sys. admins, etc, and we’re going to deploy, with help of the government, anywhere between 3000 and 7000 laptops, or perhaps more, to public schools all around Nepal. So it’s a stressful and exciting job, and I’d say it’s definitely successful.

And is the OLPC project is successful? I think definitely. Not in the way that Negroponte had envisioned, but I think it’s really taking off at the grassroots. And perhaps the market will produce another small child-friendly laptop, and deployments will start using them instead of XO’s. But then still the project is wildly successful.

Before the XO’s these kind of projects were unheard of, and the market for cheap computers was purposefully starved of hardware because computer-manufacturers didn’t want to let the cheap ones eat into the profit they made from the expensive ones. The XO forced their hand.

How did you decide to go to Nepal for OLPC? What was your primary motivation and how did you get started? What about Squak and Smalltalk hacking and why bother at all?

I was living in Sweden at the time. In a middle-big city called Eskilstuna, close to Stockholm. A few years earlier I got infatuated with programming and with the programming language called Common Lisp. And I mean totally obsessed. I also went to a few Common Lisp meetings. That was great fun, and I learned to know some very interesting people. Amongst others, Luke Gorrie, who told he was going to go to Nepal to program for this NGO. A bit later I got obsessed with the XO, ordered one, waited for months for it to arrive and read everything there was to read about it and the project.

Then I saw they were looking for Squeak hackers and I applied. I just couldn’t let the opportunity slip to go to an exotic county, do very useful stuff and hack in a cool language. Not that I knew Smalltalk when I applied, but it’s not a hard language to learn, and in some ways it’s very like Common Lisp.

Do you work full time for this project at Nepal? Are you being paid for it? How are the conditions for a European hacker working there?

Yes, at the moment I am. And overtime. There’s a lot to do, and with this kind of work, you don’t mind working extra. I get a volunteer-stipend. It’s quite ok for local standards, but very low for western standards. Which suits me just fine. I would be very uncomfortable if I would get paid 10 times what a Nepali makes.

The conditions here rock! We’ve got scheduled power outages every day, the people here drive like maniacs, the people are extremely nice, there are cows walking across the road doing how they please, the food is good and cheap, the scenery is stellar, especially for a Dutch person used to flat land dredged from the sea. Kathmandu is not a boring place.

As far as I know you are one of the programmers working in the start-up company, a Sweden based start-up developing a web based service. Can you tell us a bit about the product you are working on, what kind of problems it solves and what technologies you used for that product. And that you are in Nepal now, do you continue to work for a product who is produced by a company in Sweden? If yes, how does it feel like to work remotely on such a project? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working remotely?

With you can put little post-it notes across the internet, without the sites that you put it on needing to have any particular kind of software installed. You install our plugin, and away you go. And next to notes, you can put up chat-boxes, spoken text, and whatever we think would be cool or handy to use.

The nice thing about is that you can put your info next to the thing you want to comment on, in which way or form that might be. And it’s nice that you can share all your notes with friends or colleagues if you want. If they also use our service, they can see your stuff, or can chat or discuss things in real-time.

We of course use Javascript on the client side, and we use Common Lisp on the server side. And some rather cool and sophisticated software that glues it all together. The notes for example are Common Lisp classes / instances and Javascript classes/instances at the same time. Just about all the Javascript is generated from a lisp like syntax, with a library called Parenscript which offers a bit more flexibility and which meshes better with the rest of our code. We use a continuation based web-framework called UnCommon Web, a persistence layer called Elephant, etc… Great fun to develop!

For a while I’ve worked half-time for both and OLE Nepal. At the moment things are so hectic at OLE Nepal that now I feel like I need to put all my time into it. I must say it can feel quite schizophrenic working for two organisations at the same time, but it’s also nice to switch gears and work on something totally different.

As for working remotely, it’s so cool it’s possible in our time. Both that you just don’t need to be in a particular physical spot anymore for these ephemeral lines of work, and that company-culture in general seems to loosen up to allow for this kind of arrangement. I know a number of guys that work on the OLPC software that work in totally different timezones and sync their agenda through IRC or other communication channels. So now you can do your work naked in your bed or naked on the beach, if you so prefer. As long as you do the stuff that’s expected of course.

As for disadvantages; it’s hard to compensate for the direct kind of contact you have sitting in the same room. Through the internet you just miss out on a whole range of communication-means. You miss out on subtle visual hints and cues. And they add up. Also you can’t go for lunch and talk stuff over. You miss out on a lot of the emotional and social dimension. So there’s really also a lot to say for working in an office I think.

Thanks for your time and patience Ties.

Thanks for the interest. It was fun.

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Posted by on November 28, 2008 in General, Lisp, Programlama


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