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Digital magic for millions: Will cheap laptops create active learners or “green box” slaves?

TUNIS, Tunisia – Justin Mupinda hurried up to the crowded stall at the Tunis World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). “I want to see this device with my own eyes,” he said. He was among the thousands at WSIS who were curious about what was fast emerging as the biggest technology story of the event — a laptop that costs only $100.

The laptop — hailed by its developers as a technological breakthrough — was proudly displayed at the UN Development Program stand, with the slogan “One laptop per child.”

“I like it,” said Mupinda, a Zimbabwean IT expert and country coordinator for WorldLink, an organization campaigning to bring a million personal computers to schools in Africa. “It’s a good start toward getting more youths using ICTs” (individual computer terminals).

Digital magic cheap Laptops

Mupinda’s enthusiasm is shared by many people eager to bridge the digital divide between poor and rich countries. “Our university has 25,000 students and it would be wonderful if all of them could have laptops to access the Internet,” said Alain Capo Chichi, manager of Cerco, an education project in Benin.

In Tunis, journalists covering the launch of the $100 laptop, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), frequently used the word “magic” in their questions about the device. And indeed, to many it seemed nothing short of magical. Not only is the green-cased notebook-size laptop incredibly cheap, it also has wireless connectivity and a hand crank allowing it to operate without electricity.

“We are quick and we have very good relations with MIT,” Thailand’s ambassador to Geneva said with a smile as he inspected the laptop for the first time. Thailand, Brazil, Nigeria, and Egypt are lined up to be the first four recipients early next year.

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of the Media Lab at MIT, and leader of the team that developed the laptop said learning environments have been transformed through the use of laptops, as students become more engaged in class. Nearly three-quarters of students surveyed by a U.S. project said they earned better grades by working on laptops, and a similar number said they enjoyed writing more on laptops than on paper.

“It’s the single most dramatic thing I’ve seen affect the classroom in a very positive way,” a Florida school administrator was quoted as saying in a press release. At the launch, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan added, “These robust, versatile machines will enable children to become more active in their own learning.”

The aim is to provide the machines free of charge to children in poor countries who cannot afford computers of their own, said Negroponte. The laptops will be paid for by governments, private corporations, and donors.

Around the world, there are roughly one billion children of primary and secondary school age. International production of laptops is just below 50 million units. The U.S.-based One Laptop per Child association, a non-profit that will manufacture the laptops, said its mission is to spread learning rather than sales. Profit margins would translate into more research and lower costs.

Reactions in Tunis ranged from the overexcited to the doubtful. “Everybody likes it because it’s cheap,” said Sanjaa Ganbaatar-Ceo, president of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of Mongolia, a country that is trying to build a $250 personal computer. But Ganbaatar-Ceo is disappointed because the minimum order for the laptop is half a million sets. With population of 2.5 million, Mongolia doesn’t have enough children to place an order, he said.

“It has not been mass-produced yet so I don’t know if it will really work,” said Mabrook Chouk, a Tunisian businessman. And Subbiah Arunachalam, a grassroots information scientist from India, noted that there were several problems associated with the laptop. He pointed to hidden costs: “Who will deliver these laptops? How many poor countries have got that kind of extensive distribution network? And who will repair them if something goes wrong?”

Content may prove to be another difficult area. Alan Kay, the man who invented the laptop, said U.S. materials will accompany them, together with homegrown content. This, experts said, could cause concern in some countries. “The laptop is just the first small thing to be done,” said Key. “It is harder to set up content.”

Negroponte remarked that component suppliers will make profits from the project, and it would also be a good marketing opportunity for the project sponsor, Google. For poor children in developing countries, their “first English word will be ‘Google’,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post. On the other hand, Negroponte points out that the laptop can be used in any local language and that countries should start thinking about making textbooks available on the web.

“With this laptop, kids can write their poems or stories and share them on the web,” said Justin Mupinda.

By 2007, five to ten million of these laptops will have been shipped to developing countries. By the year after that, the number is expected to have grown ten-fold. What is not known is whether this project will mark a new phase in the spread of knowledge, or whether hundreds of millions of children will become slaves to their little green boxes instead of playing in the backyard.

Tran Le Thuy is correspondent for the Saigon Times Group (Vietnam). This article was provided by Panos London.

Blocking the net: Corporations help governments shut down the information superhighway

Vietnam’s communist government knows that it is impossible to monitor the country’s 5,000 cyber cafes, so it’s forcing the cafe owners to be its eyes and ears. Last July, a government directive informed cafe owners that they will have to take a six-month course so that they can better monitor their cyber customers. The Vietnamese government is justifying its move for reasons of “national security and defense” — that is, to protect itself against online journalists who, it says, “provide sensationalist news and articles while others even publish reactionary and libelous reports and a depraved culture.”

Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the Paris-based media watchdog group that monitors press freedom worldwide, condemned the Vietnamese government’s directive. “It is individual freedoms that will suffer dramatically as a result of a law like this,” RWB warned in a press release. “These measures are a complete negation of the free enterprise principles espoused by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which Vietnam is trying to join.”

But whether the WTO will consider Vietnam’s censorship move a strong enough reason to deny Vietnam membership remains to be seen. The fact is that many of the WTO’s members are erecting significant barriers to the free flow of information and communication online.

internet

Currently, there are 70 cyber prisoners worldwide who have run afoul of the repressive rules set by certain governments, according to the RWB, and these numbers will surely grow. In one incident last April, Tunisian journalist Mohammed Abbou was sentenced to three-and-half-years in prison by a Tunisian appeals court for publishing an article on a website that compared the torture of political prisoners in Tunisia to abuses committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The Tunisian government offered Abbou a deal: In exchange for your release, give us an apology and request a pardon. Abbou responded by going on a hunger strike.

The culprits involved in censoring the Internet include not only the usual dictatorships but also Western countries that preach the virtues of democracy, an informed citizenry, freedom of speech, and the other platitudes we’ve been hearing lately from George Bush, Tony Blair, and their allies. Moreover, some of the world’s biggest multinationals and high tech companies are complicit in this trend.

First, let’s look at some of the usual dictatorships, or as RWB has labeled them, “the habitual human rights violators.” They include small fry like Cuba, Burma, the Ukraine, and Belarus, but the biggest offenders in this category are China and Iran.

The Internet may seem like a medium that can democratize China, but the Chinese authorities have developed effective ways to sabotage online dissent. In fact, the RWB believes that “the way the Chinese government has stifled online dissent offers a model for dictatorships in all corners of the world.”

Moreover, the Chinese have help from the West to achieve their repressive objectives. Several large multinationals, including Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo!, have been willing to allow China to censor ideas and stifle free expression in exchange for profit. Last June, Microsoft began blocking consumers of its new China-based Internet protocol from using such “dangerous” words and phrases as “freedom,” “democracy,” “human rights,” “demonstration,” and “Taiwan independence.” Users who fail to comply get this message: “This item should not contain forbidden speech, such as profanity.”

In a society as tightly controlled as China, Microsoft has become a willing participant in sustaining one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The newspaper USA Today eulogized about the bitter irony: “What’s actually profane is a company that built its future on the freedom provided by the American system helping a repressive regime censor such ideas.”

Microsoft certainly has company. In 2002, Yahoo! China signed a pledge not to allow the placement of “pernicious information that may jeopardize state security,” while in 2004 Google launched a new search engine in China that omitted sites the Chinese government didn’t like, such as the BBC and Voice of America.

In an ominous sign for Internet users anywhere, Yahoo! seems particularly eager to please the ruling class by providing information about its customers. The RWB reports that Yahoo! supplied information to the Chinese government regarding an IP address, which led to Hong Kong journalist Shi Tao being sentenced to 10 years in prison this April. “We already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically that the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know that it is a Chinese police informant as well,” RWB said in a press release.

U.S.-based companies are also supplying commercial software to help countries “filter” — that is, censor information. Last June, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) released a report titled “Internet Filtering in Iran,” which documents how the Iranian government has used the commercial filtering software SmartFilter to control every aspect of its citizens’ cyber experience, from websites and e-mail to blogs and online discussion forums. Made by the U.S. based company Secure Computing, the software is helping the Iranian government block internationally hosted sites in English, as well as other sites hosted in local languages.

In its report, ONI accused Secure Computing of complicity in helping Iran violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Ronald Deibert, one of the report’s authors and directors of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, charged that the “thriving Internet censorship market — spread like a virus from China to Iran to an increasing number of countries worldwide — calls into question not only the trumpeted slogans of high tech firms that the Internet represents ‘freedom’ and ‘connectivity’ but simplistic divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as well.”

As developments in Western countries show, the line between the “us” and the “them” is blurring when it comes to censorship and the Internet. In what is perhaps a first for a Western country, the British government announced in August that it would outlaw the downloading or viewing of violent sexual images on the Internet. For the British government, offensive material will include “extreme pornographic material which is graphic and sexually explicit and which contains actual scenes or realistic depictions of serious violence, bestiality or necrophilia.” Those convicted could receive three years in prison.

Chris Evans, a spokesman for the group Internet Freedom, summed up the feelings of the opponents of the proposed legislation: “The idea that you can prevent violent action by banning such images is nonsense.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, a series of congressional initiatives threatens freedom of expression and what people will see, hear, and read on the Internet. The strategy of the Internet censors is to apply the FCC’s so-called “decency” standards to cyberspace. David Mason, a republican Federal Election Commissioner, told the Washington Post last March what it means: “We are almost certainly going to move from an environment in which the Internet was per se not regulated to where it is going to be regulated in some part. That shift has huge significance.”

According to reports by CNET and the LA Weekly, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is even considering regulating political bloggers by using the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law as its authority. In response, bloggers have organized a group called the Internet Coalition, which is petitioning the FEC to “grant blogs and online publications the same consideration and protections as broadcast media, newspapers or periodicals by clearly including them under the Federal Election Commission’s media exemption rule.”

Given the current political climate, however, it is doubtful whether anyone on Capitol Hill will listen, let alone act. The days of the free and unfettered Internet may well be numbered.

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The U.S. military build up in Paraguay

to secure Bolivia’s natural gas wealth for U.S. corporations. And the U.S. military buildup in Paraguay in the past month has fueled speculation that U.S. intervention

Mario Abdo Benitez, “Marito”, took over as Paraguay’s new president on Wednesday, replacing a seemingly disgruntled Horacio Cartes, who left the inauguration ceremony before it finished. Abdo Benitez, 46, promised to combat poverty and entrenched corruption and urged Paraguayans to “look toward the future and not remain stuck in the past” as he took the oath of office to start a five-year term

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Deserters flee to Canada to avoid Iraq service

NEW YORK — An estimated 5,500 men and women have deserted from the U.S. Army since the invasion of Iraq, reflecting growing problems with troop morale in the United States. Many people are fleeing to Canada, according to the Sunday Telegraph, a trend that rekindles memories of the draft dodgers who flooded north to avoid service in Vietnam.

Jeremy Hinzman, a 26-year-old from South Dakota who deserted from the 82nd Airborne, is among those who have applied for refugee status in Canada. “This is a criminal war and any act of violence in an unjustified conflict is an atrocity,” Hinzman said. “I signed a contract for four years, and I was totally willing to fulfill it. Just not in combat arms jobs.”

The Army treats deserters as criminals, posting them on “wanted” lists with the FBI, state police forces, and Department of Homeland Security border patrols.

Hinzman, who served as a cook in Afghanistan, was due to join a fighting unit in Iraq after being refused status as a conscientious objector. As he marched with his platoon of recruits, chanting “Train to kill, kill we will,” he said he realized that he had made the “wrong career choice.”

Brandon Hughey, who deserted from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, TX, said that he volunteered because the army offered to pay his college fees. He began training soon after the invasion of Iraq but became disillusioned when no weapons of mass destruction were found.

Ordered to deploy to Iraq, Hughey searched the Internet for an “underground railroad” operation, through which deserting troops are helped to escape to Canada. He was put in touch with a Quaker pacifist couple who had helped Vietnam draft dodgers, and was driven from Texas to Ontario.

The Pentagon says that the level of desertion is no higher than usual and denies that it is having difficulty persuading troops to fight. However, the flight to Canada is an embarrassment for the military, which is suffering from a recruiting shortfall for the National Guard and the Army Reserves.

The penalty for desertion in wartime can be death, but most deserters serve up to five years in a military prison before receiving a dishonorable discharge.

To stay in Canada, legally deserters must convince an immigration board that they would face “persecution,” not just prosecution, if they returned to the United States.

During the Vietnam War, an estimated 55,000 deserters or draft-dodgers fled to Canada. There were amnesties for both groups in the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, but many stayed.

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Electors call for national voting reforms

Breaking with tradition, electors in at least five states have called for a congressional investigation of voting violations during the Nov. 2 election for president. Electors in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, California, and North Carolina registered their concerns as they cast their votes last week.

The following day, the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution “supporting the request that the Government Accountability Office immediately undertake an investigation of voting irregularities in the 2004 elections.” Drafted by Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, the resolution also lists 17 measures to improve elections.

After hearing citizens speak, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said, “Nothing is more fundamental than a free, fair election. When you start tinkering with that, it throws the whole system into disarray. I am pleased that we are taking this stand.”

In Massachusetts, elector Cathleen Ashton of Wayland demanded that “every vote be counted and every vote counts,” while Maine’s electors called for national voting reforms. Their statement pointed to Maine initiatives such as same-day registration, allowing felons to vote, and clean election reforms.

“Our four electoral votes are held meaningless if our sister states cannot hold elections that are fair, accurate, and verifiable,” said elector Lu Bauer after the ceremony at the Maine State House.

Massachusetts electors passed a motion urging members of Congress to object to the vote. It also requested an investigation of “all voting complaints that might have any validity” and remedies for “any voting rights violations or electoral fraud verified by its own agents or through the courts.”

Massachusetts elector Tom Barbera said his life was threatened during get-out-the-vote efforts.

nother elector spoke of being targeted for intimidation. Noting that many whose voting rights were violated were African American, Barbera, who presented the Massachusetts’ motion, said, “we believe that as electors, we have a unique opportunity and obligation to ensure that justice does not again become so delayed as to be denied.”

Vermont electors expressed concerns about a reported 57,000 complaints received by a congressional Judiciary Committee and called on Congress and Vermont’s congressional delegation to investigate.

In California, one elector cast his ballot provisional upon “all votes being counted — provisional, absentee, under- and over-votes, computerized without paper ballots, even getting valid votes from those turned away illegally, intimidated, discouraged by incredibly long waits, etc.”

This is an attempt to get the message read on the floor of Congress prior to certification on Jan. 6, when the ballots are opened.

“Never has such a vote been cast by an elector,” said Grace Ross, an organizer of the national effort to support electors to take action, and a member of Truth in Elections. “And without a parliamentarian to rule it in or out at the Electoral College level, we await whether Congress will acknowledge this type of provisional vote and address the issues this elector sought to raise, or whether they, too, will ignore provisional votes.”

In North Carolina, Democratic electors and activists talked about local problems while Republicans voted inside. Elector Mary Roe mentioned problems she witnessed as an election observer in her own county. State officials admit that 4,500 votes disappeared in a computerized voting machine crash.

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