Archive for November, 2009

//Doha//Monday//WISE2009//Day One

Life in a hotel is simple for conference attendees. You wake up knowing what you will wear, where you will eat (but not what), and what you are doing the rest of the day.

I find serendipity only in the face-to-face encounters with other attendees. I have animated discussions with educators and policy-makers from Camaroon, Bangledesh, South Africa, Australia, Ghana, Mali, Bahrain, France, England, Belgium, Berkeley, Davis, and Washington, DC. Later, during our conversation over dinner we discover that no one at the table has yet met a Qatari citizen.

There are over a million people living in Qatar. Of that, approximately one hundred thousand are Qatari citizens. Citizenship comes with an eighty thousand dollar per year allowance tax-free from the Sheikh. Needless to say, no foreigners are ever granted citizenship. An unknown percentage of the citizens are away collecting degrees at universities around the world, which further reduces the native head count. So it is a common experience for visitors to Qatar to spend a month here on business and never meet a citizen.

Jaded business people describe the Qatari as detached and aloof. I have the romantic notion that this could be a nation of Bruce Waynes, building their bat-caves around the world and springing to action when the time comes.

At breakfast I eavesdrop on a Japanese representative from a shipping company as he interviews a potential captain for a fully loaded oil tanker lying dormant in the Persian Gulf. The shipping company is losing a thousand dollars an hour while the ship sits still. The conversation is formal and reserved until he and the captain, a sun-beaten man with a scar that runs through his left eyebrow, discover that they both were in Burma during the coup, hiding in the same town. By the time I sign my bill, they are laughing and gesturing wildly with their cutlery.

The waters of the Persian Gulf appear to be about as turbulent as a swimming pool, only warmer. Waves lap at the manmade shorelines only when the occasional speedboat passes. Beneath the surface, silver and black fish drift about, looking for morsels of food on the sand covered rocks.

Despite the temperature difference between the shore and sea, no wind comes to stir the palm trees. Doha sits in a pool of it’s own exhaled breath, dirty with construction dust and diesel exhaust. It’s partially constructed skyline of whimsical architecture fades into the murky distance.

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We are flying east, across the top of the Atlantic, racing toward daylight. Our flight-path creates a mechanical compression of time, collapsing 12 hours of night into 5 elapsed hours.

We lose the normal advantages of economy of scale in these long-haul flights. Fourteen hours in the air, requires enormous fuel reserves, and the math begins to erode the efficiency of big airplanes. We will burn more fuel to carry the fuel than to carry the people and the plane. To combat this, we climb to the edge of the stratosphere, cruising at 37,000 feet, sleeking thin air to reduce the friction on the plane.

I find sleep difficult to hold onto, alternating between creative flashes that force me to dig out my notebook in order to catch them, and an empty-headedness that reminds me of misspent hours watching junk on television.

Without dreams, I replay recent memories. Watching the tarmac baggage handlers load cargo boxes into the belly of the plane, suddenly noticing that they are all wearing ties. The toilet in terminal B where someone has written "Don’t Concentrate". Flight attendants wearing sky-caps and winged-oryx lapel pins.

The sleep mask traps heat against my eyelids, and I invent solutions involving overlapping Venetian blinds, working out how they will be sewn. Dim light, rosy with the dawn, leaks under the window shades. I will need my sunglasses soon – my sleep-deprived eyes and addled brain too susceptible to migraine to risk looking out the window.

I work out new ways to describe the point of Tinkering School. Soon, I’ll be talking about education, pedagogies, policy-making – I don’t use the right terms, refer to the proper research, or know the important names of pioneers in this field. I think of Basquiat, madly scribbling away only to end up standing around dumbfounded in galleries where art critics described his work in terms that sounded like nonsense. Looking for a label to put on it, these educated people call it "experiential learning" and I clamp down on my knee jerk reaction to say "yes, but it’s more than that…" and provide an amusing anecdote instead.

According to the live map, we have crossed into France. I will attempt a nap again, in hopes that I can be awake as we cross Afghanistan.


I awaken at 6:15pm, 18:15 according to the flight data on the display built into the back of the seat in front of me.

We are greeted by young women holding WISE2009 signs, and directed to board the bus that everyone else is boarding. The bus ride takes us through a living museum of international war planes and helicopters. A retired Navy colonel, now school administrator, points out interesting details that our untrained eyes do not notice; a helicopter equipped with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, an unmarked C5 troop carrier ("not one of our birds"), a squad of combat-trained men standing at attention under the wing of the C5.

"This was a tough trip for me," he says to another attendee, "I have to clear all of my travel with the State Department, and they weren’t sure it was a good idea for me to come to Doha."
"Well, I know things," he adds cryptically, and turns to look out the window, memories of past "ops" flooding through his mind. All of those meetings with mysterious men under dubious circumstances, and the years spent doing things he can never tell anyone about – not even his wife. It was the not-telling that drove him to school administration. His father had been a principle at the other high school in town – there being a family edict that the kids would never go to the same school that dad worked at. "There can be no hint of impropriety," dad said whenever the subject of why the kids had to go to the school that didn’t have a pool or a jungle gym was raised.

We are herded from one waiting area to another by flocks of young women with signs. A system that seems like it could be very efficient, but isn’t. Our luggage arrives, and we collectively discover that all of the zippers have been opened and the contents rifled. A town-car takes us to the Sheraton, and I, not having exchanged any money yet leave the matter of tipping to my ride-mate, a woman who creates new schools in bombed-out villages in Afghanistan. I feel like a cad. Later, I have dinner with the Dean of the University of Virginia. We talk about how much fun it is to climb trees.

I am awake again at 2am.


Midway through dressing, I discover that my shaver has been partly dismantled and put away on. A practical joke from the team at customs inspection? Needless to say, the rechargeable batteries are completely dead. The front desk sends up the world’s worst twin-blade shaver and I dutifully nick and gouge my face until it is somewhat smooth. Now, to breakfast.

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I had occasion recently, to deconstruct an all-in-one printer/scanner/fax/copier. As the parts came off the machine, I carefully separated them into piles; screws and springs, gears and wheels, optical components, switches and sensors, and e-waste. I stacked up the impressively cost-engineered multi-layer circuit boards, pausing to wonder at the computational power of the custom surface-mount devices, and was struck by the irony that the sensors and switches were now going to be attached to an Arduino – a device with a tiny fraction of the compute power. What a waste…

If manufacturers design their devices for re-use and re-purposing, then we could create a special category for extended life recycling, with a lower recycling tax base. The first step is to define a minimal reprogramming USB protocol, which automatically burns out a read fuse to prevent access to the proprietary ROM data on first use – functionally turning your printer into an Arduino-like object the first time you plug your USB cable directly into the circuit board.

Is there an e-book reader sleeping inside your old printer? How long would these devices last in new incarnations? How many more students around the world could create innovative derivative products based on obsolete down-cycled hardware?

We demand universal access to the compute resources we purchase.
If it lasts forever, let us make it work forever.
Require reprogrammability.

Addendum: Paul Bostwick (in the comments) adds this brilliant idea:

Maybe the original seller could roll out the secondary use ideas as a follow on product: Imagine a page that prints out after 100,000 pages printed or 4 years. “Dear owner of the Bubble Jet 3 series MFP. As your MFP enters its final months of usefulness, please consider the following options: The large molded plastic parts are all #4 so if you’d just like to have some destructive fun and your community recycles #4 plastic, you should be able to, with a phillips #2 screwdriver, render your MFP down to some bits in your recycling bin and just a few less easy to recycle parts. Among the harder to recycle is the controller board, it can (in a non reversible way) be turned into a simple MP3 player with our Remixer kit. Or a more sophisticated one with the Remixer Delux. The following website is dedicated to reemploying the controller boards and keypads on these devices so you can send these parts working or not to them and they’ll either safely dispose of them or integrate them into their projects – at no cost to you.”

In the less fanciful case of items that could not print their own organ donor instructions, I’d be more likely to fill out a warranty card if I knew I’d get at a later date some end of life tips and help on responsibly moving the goods along.

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