Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

Hop in a packed car at 7:30 and the fab four head off to the Ikhwezi school. On the way there Alan tells us it’s a sad little farm school. They only have six machines. They have no security or furniture and so they’ve never been able to set up a proper lab. They just keep the machines in a locked cabinet, and take them out when they want to use them. He doubts the computers are being used at all. He estimates we’ll be there for just a brief time, and almost seems to question the point of going.

But today is a day of little surprises.

We get to the school and it is a pretty sad little site. Just a couple of grungy buildings that don’t look like a school at all. The principal greets us and Alan asks him if he uses the machines and if they’re useful. He says “yes, very useful” and I immediately think “yeah, sure”.

“Well, let’s take a look” Alan says wearily. The principal leads us through a classroom where the students are sitting on the floor because they don’t have enough chairs. In the back he opens a cabinet with six little Macs stacked in tight on their side.

I wonder to myself why some of the schools don’t make use of the computers but then act like they do. Is it really that important to keep those machines around if they’re not being used? The principal calls over some kids and hands a machine to each one. He mutters something to them in Zulu.

We follow the kids to another room where they have a few school desks. The room is a mess and the desks are all haphazard. The kids start putting the machines down and moving the desks around. They chatter in Zulu. Another kid brings in a box of cables. I watch, shaking my head, wondering what they are going to do. Alan and I observe and smile at each other. “An experiment in self-organization” he says. I wonder if they are really going to try setting all this stuff up. How far are they going to take the charade?

It’s worth mentioning that my skepticism is based on the fact that the schools are often unable to address even simple problems. People don’t even clean the gunk out of the mice when they’re not working. It can be a bit frustrating sometimes, but the upshot is that I would absolutely not expect the kids to be able to wire all this stuff up, despite even how simple the little macs are.

We could step in and help them, but I want to see what happens. Alan has to leave as they start plugging in cables… too often people are not careful connecting them and pins get broken. It is hurting him just to watch the kids do it.

But I notice that even though there are certainly too many little cooks in the kitchen, and even though there’s no central plan, things are actually starting to take shape. It looks like they’re plugging things in correctly, and they’re moving desks around bit by bit. Kids bring in extra chairs, and over the course of 10 or so minutes they actually transform the setup into a little three computer lab.

Four or five kids gather around each computer, and they all start up the game “Number Maze” and start playing. They know exactly what they are doing. Alan and I are amazed. It is especially surprising that if they’ve been building and tearing down the lab like this so much that the cables didn’t get wrecked. So not only are they doing it, they’re doing it carefully and correctly.

They left three of the computers off to the side. So we power them up. Interestingly, two of them are broken and the third is set up as the staff machine. Either they knew what they were doing or they were very lucky.

They play Number Maze and Donna sits down with the principal at the staff machine. After a few minutes with him she comes over and tells Alan that there are hundreds of files on the machine. They’ve been using it a lot. And he’s asking her how to use the spreadsheet to make graphs and other advanced stuff. Somehow, this school has really started moving forward.

Alan gets ambitious and shows the kids a cool little game called “Factory”. It’s hard to describe, but basically you set up little machines on an assembly line, hole punchers, line painters, and rotators, and then the “factory” you’ve created spits out little designs. The challenge is they show you a design to start with and you have to figure out what sequence and settings for each machine will result in that design. It’s a neat mental exercise, but I’ve not seen any of the kids here play with it much.

Again; I find myself surprised when the kids take to it. And not just aimlessly poking at it like I’ve seen kids do with other games. They’re actually problem solving. I notice that the kids are discussing and working together, even competing, to figure each little puzzle out.

One of the things you can do in the factory game is to skip to the next design if you don’t want to try making the current one. Each one is like a little puzzle and you can keep skipping to get to ones that look easy if you want.

At one of the tables where it’s all girls, I notice that there is one girl who is definitely the leader. She takes the mouse from the other girls over their protests if she doesn’t like what they’re doing. Not in a terribly bad way, but a little bossy. And I notice that she just wants to skip to the next design whenever it seems difficult.

After a few rounds of that, I intervene and say “no, it’s too easy if you do that. Just try to do the next one that comes up.” A reasonably hard one appears, and the girls discuss for a moment. One of the other girls wants to take the mouse and try something. Here they are by the way. The leader is the girl in the middle with the mouse. She doesn’t always look that angry. The girl who wanted to take the mouse is the on the far right; the one looking at the camera.

After a little more discussion the leader girl is about to skip the current design again, and so I step in again politely and say “how about someone else tries to do it?” I look at the girl on the end, who seemed to have some ideas, “do you want to try it?” She nods and takes the mouse, and immediately adjusts the little on-screen machines in several ways that I think are correct. She’s about to hit the start button to run the factory, but the leader girl says something to stop her and there is some more discussion. I say “go ahead and try it.” And so she does, and it works perfectly: the puzzle is solved.

I found all this interesting because it reminded me of stuff I read in “The Wisdom of Crowds”. This particular game, unlike many other games, actually works better in a group environment than a individual environment. More than once I saw different kids figure out different parts of the puzzle, and so certainly the group was smarter than any individual. However I also saw a case (also covered in the book) where an incorrect power balance can eliminate the advantages of the group — there was a girl who brought the right skills, but another member of the group was overbearing. There’s so much to learn about these kinds of interactions, and so much we could benefit if we knew how to apply the mind and groups of minds to problems better.

Seeing all these positive signs; the staff usage and the childrens’ familiarity and excitement, we feel we need to raise the bar on our side of things too. However at first we don’t see what we can do without a lab. Then I poke around the building a bit, and I find a storage room that’s actually large enough to make a small lab. Better yet, it’s got only one window, which means it won’t take much welding to secure the room. I show Alan and he agrees it could make a decent little lab. We look elsewhere and find a couple of smaller storage areas where we could move all the stuff that was in the room. Alan brings in the principal and talks to him about it. He says that if they can weld the window, they should be able to order the standard gray tables, and we’ll set everything up and get stools and bring a few more computers for the kids and also a bigger computer for the staff to use. The principal seems excited and thankful, and says he’ll see what he can do. Here’s the room as we found it. I’ll post pictures after we set it up.

One thing we came across in the room was a wire truck like those I’ve mentioned in a previous post. I had not seen one close up before, so I checked it out. The front wheels of this one are made from nesting two halves of a soda can inside each other. A bottle cap is used as a washer. It’s all twisted wire of different gauges and string holding it together. The coolest part is the steering armature, which really works. A lot of the young boys have these. The art of making them is just passed down.

After things wind down, we realize we’ve spent a lot more time here than we expected. It was, contrary to our thoughts as we approached, an inspiring experience. Outside I take a picture of three younger girls eating their lunchtime snacks. A tractor rolls by as I look around. I ask Alan to take a picture of Zenzo, myself, and the kids. He takes two. Zenzo takes a picture of Donna and Alan as they sing a Zulu song for the kids. With a little encouragement, many of the children sing along with them. We leave on a decidedly high note.

We stop by another rural school and while the others work on a small lab of maybe 10 SE’s, I try to help the teacher with a PC that has been provided by the department of education. It is a fancy Windows XP machine; new, with a nice monitor and laser printer. However the printer is not working. Also, she shows me that in MS Word the “File” menu has somehow disappeared. I play with it for a bit to try to find out how that happened, and in the process inadvertently delete the “Edit” menu as well.

A quick digression on user interfaces: not everything needs to be configurable. If you’re designing an app for general public consumption, make some decisions about how the program is going to look and work. You don’t need to allow an option to remove the “File” and “Edit” menus. That’s really kinda dumb.

But if you are going to do that, at least make it reasonably easy to get the menus back. I consider myself a slightly above average computer user, and it took me about ten minutes of poking through sub-sub-submenus to eventually find how to restore the “File” and “Edit” menus. And even when I found it, it wasn’t intuitive or recognizable.

Enough complaining: with that done I worked on the laser printer. It printed out a self-test, but didn’t seem to communicate with the computer at all. Luckily they also had another printer/copy/fax nearby and hooking that up at least showed communication, so I am pretty sure the original laser printer was just broken. I tried to configure the printer/copy/fax and it asked for an administrator password, which neither I nor the teacher had or could guess. So we hit a dead end there.

The teacher says that the education department doesn’t provide any support for the machines. I can’t stress how critical that is: computers are worthless if there’s nobody around who can troubleshoot. Alan tells me how the board made a decision on the required specs for school computers and they are very high. It was surely a good intentioned move, but ironically the machines that meet those specs are not effective because of the lack of support and training, while the machines he brings, which are totally non-compliant, are doing a solid job.

It reminds me of the times I’ve seen at Zappos and other places I’ve worked where a good intentioned move from up top does not have the desired effect down towards the bottom. I have become an evangelist for bottom-up efforts. And for people at the top getting their hands dirty and doing some of the work that they expect the people at the bottom to do. Too often important information is lost in the layers of communication. What an enormous amount of effort and resources are wasted because of poor communication and unbalanced decision making.

Then we go on a very long drive, up to Newcastle. This is a slightly larger city north of Dundee. To get there we drive through some loose rural towns, where there are many people on the road. These areas are very simple living, but they don’t look as run down as some of the places I’ve seen. Sometimes it is hard for me to distinguish between people living at an unfortunate disadvantage and people living a simpler, comfortable life. I think the houses I saw as we drove along fell into the latter. But who really knows.

In the township alongside Newcastle (I forget the name) there is a school called Khaselihle (KA-seh-LEE-hlay) that is technically out of the district where Alan and Donna planned to work. But it was the first school they were invited to after they set up Thalana, and the principal of that school knew the principal of this school, so they went for a visit, way back about nine years ago.

Khaselihle had put in an amazing effort: without any promise of computers, the school had dedicated a large room, built countertops with wiring holes and partitions, keyboard trays, and little office chairs. Seeing all that, Alan and Donna couldn’t refuse, so they agreed to set them up with computers. Being one of the first schools, they also thought that maybe many of the other schools would be as proactive. However that turned out not to be the case, as you’ve probably been able to tell from previous posts.

As we pull into the school I am immediately struck that it is a much larger set of structures than any of the schools we’ve been to yet. It is also very professionally tended, and looks exactly like you’d expect a modern school to look. It is a primary school, and serves the earlier grades.

After a brief walk through of the computer lab, we are invited over to their assembly hall for some kind of teacher’s meeting. Inside are several tables set up lunch-room style, and all the teachers are sitting around. We are invited by the principal and the computer teacher to sit up at the head table; Donna, Alan, Zenzo, and myself. The assembly hall is clean and sharp, the most like an American school of the places I’ve been so far.

They tell us that the talking is over for this assembly, and they will now be serving lunch. Soon a lovely assortment of food comes out; steak, sausage, salad, stiff-pap, and a spicy relish called “chakalaka”. To me, chakalaka and stiff-pap are the Zulu equivalent of Korea’s kim-chi and rice. In any case, I really like it. Ice cold soda and juice are served as well. It is an impressive meal.

As we eat we talk a bit with the administrators. This team is the most professional I’ve seen, and that is reflected in the school grounds and the computer lab. The principal is an older lady and I learn she is planning to retire soon. She has saved up and bought a farm where she plans to raise cattle. She and the other administrators are outspoken about the challenges that their community faces. They trade thoughts with Alan and Donna. I can see that these are the black leaders who are shaping the future here, and I feel they’re doing a good job.

We go to the lab afterwards and replace and fix as many broken machines as we can. We also talk to the tech teacher. This school hired a teacher specifically for the computer room, and it has made a marked difference. Her name is Ms. Nkosi (en-KO-zee).

A few things about how well she runs the lab stand out. First, the mice rollers are clean; she says she does them weekly. As I mentioned earlier, this is a rarity (indeed, it’s the first time I’ve seen it). Second, there were two spare computers at the side of the room: Alan used to leave spares so the schools could swap them in if some of the machines died, but he finds that usually nobody does the swap, and there will be broken computers still in the classroom even when there are working spares. That’s not the case here: she swapped them out, and the spares are in fact dead. Third, she has a binder with a curriculum for each grade which she shows Donna and I: it lists each of the programs that she uses and what courses it applies to. She is very organized and bright.

When we leave she gives us each a hug. It is raining and we are under the awning next to the computer lab. Then somehow we start singing “This little light of mine” — I think it was Alan who started. We all join in and break into harmonies and stuff. It’s only for a minute but it sounds great and is fun. Life needs more singing and dancing.

I’m suddenly reminded of the time Lisa and I got onto a plane going from Las Vegas to Kentucky. Tony and Alfred were already on the plane since it had just come from the Bay Area where they had just had a board meeting. Anyways, we get on and as we approach them, already seated, the two of us sing at full volume the chorus from Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry”. After we stopped and took our seats another passenger in the plane said “hey, it’s American Idol”. Again: life needs more singing and dancing.

The day is over, I head back to the backpackers. I look through my leftovers that I need to use up before they go bad. I’ve got: a few viennas (hot dogs), a small block of cheddar cheese, a tomato, half a red onion, some frozen vegetables. I chop everything up, throw it in a pot with a little water, heat and stir. I end up with a strange cheesy stew that, while looking a bit trashy, tastes quite good.

As I eat, a couple visitors are here talking. They are both South African whites. They are talking, unsurprisingly, about the challenges of the area; the unemployment, the crime. One of the guys says “I love the Zulu people and culture, I speak fluent Zulu.” he then says something that sounds like fluent Zulu to me which I can’t understand. He continues in English, “but because I’m white it sounds like I’m racist when I say that a lot of this upcoming black generation is a mess.” The other fellow agrees that there’s trouble but takes a softer view, “there’s trouble,” he says, “but I think there’s a lot of hope too”.

The first fellow says “Yeah, I guess I’m just getting a little worn out with it. It’s been 15 years since apartheid ended. Now I believe that apartheid was evil, truly terrible, but how long is it going to take to get on track? The ANC is corrupt; they’ve got a lot of blood on their hands now too. And where is the discipline? In the homes? In the schools? Too many people just don’t want to work. They want a handout.”

I mention that I’ve only been here for a few weeks, and so my opinion may not mean much. I tell them that the US dealt with it’s civil rights issues back in the 60′s and even now, 40 years later we’re still struggling with the aftermath of those abuses. “It takes a long, long time,” I say.

I also tell them how I have seen several schools out here, and though many are not that well run, I saw one today that was run exceptionally well over in Newcastle, and that the black administrators there were complaining about some of the same issues: laziness, entitlement, lack of discipline. “Those are the people who are going to lead and change things,” I say, ” It will happen slowly.”

They seem to agree. They talk a little about the murder of David Rattray. I don’t know much about it, but my understanding is that he was a longtime white advocate of the Zulu people. Judging from the way people talk about it, I think his murder is going to be an open sore for a long time. And such damage done by just four foolish men, allegedly to steal some money from his place. Though theories abound that it was in fact politically motivated.

Both of the men are here because of a big 60 store shopping mall that is opening up in the nearby town of Nqutu. The grand opening is tomorrow and they’re both involved in that.

The hopeful fellow takes off to bed. The more flustered fellow sits and has a beer as I finish dinner. “Bah,” he says, “I’m just getting tired is all. As you get older you lose patience with it sometimes.” I tell him about how I have seen a few schools here that were well run, and he correctly offers, “the ones with a strict headmaster, strong leadership at the top”. I agree.

This sounds like it might be in conflict with my “bottom up” comments earlier, but I don’t think it is. I believe great leadership is essential, I don’t want to confuse “bottom up” with anarchy. But to me great leadership doesn’t mean directing every little thing, it means guiding and encouraging people to bring out their best. It also means decisively putting a stop to destructive behaviors that crop up. There are people here doing that, and in the coming decades I think the fruits will start to become visible.

“I love this country and the people,” he says. Soon after, he heads off to bed. So do I.

I chat with Sophie and while we’re talking she gets a call from our real estate agent in Las Vegas. Our house in Las Vegas has been burglarized. Someone broke in last night and stole the washer and dryer set; and they disassembled the bed and brought it down to the garage, but then left it there. They broke in through the back door. What a shame.

My laptop was stolen last April in a smash-and-grab in San Francisco. Though it was a big pain, I didn’t begrudge the perpetrator too much because I figure that it was some desperate street person with a fairly crappy life, and who am I to curse them? But this is a little more bothersome to me because if it was so highly planned, it was organized people with smarts and means. I find that so much more repugnant. Sophie is filing a police report. Maybe someone saw something. Maybe if they watch the house the burglars will come back. I doubt they’re first timers. Quite possibly picked the place out when we did the open house a couple weeks back, otherwise how would they have known that there was anything to steal? Looking through the windows the place seems empty. Bleh.

I don’t regret Vegas: many good times were had there. I met people that I’m glad I met, I did things at work and at leisure that I am glad I did. I felt very much at home. But, despite all that, Vegas was wrong for me. I shouldn’t have moved there. Not so much because of anything about Las Vegas itself, but because I do not move well. I realized this as I packed up and sold things off this time: I despise moving. It takes so much of my energy and knocks almost an entire year of valuable progress off my life.

My move from the east coast to the west coast was needed because I had to get away from the trappings of my youth. But now I just need to settle down. It’s not that I don’t want a nice home like what I had, it’s that I don’t want to lug it around. I want the next place I settle down in to be my last. Is that too much to ask? I don’t want to buy another house or living room set until I know it’ll stay put. That doesn’t mean I can’t travel, or that I can’t have adventures, or anything other than this: that I have a home base that I don’t have to tear down ever again.

Talking with Sophie, it sounds like we’re on the same page. It’s going to be a long year as we figure things out, but I’m sure we will.

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