Sunday morning started with a very unhappy surprise.  My MacBook Pro failed to start, likely due to a failed hard drive.  After trying a half dozen times, I resigned myself to the Haiti fates and did a damage assessment in my mind.  Time Machine had run just before I left, so most of it was okay.  The Waveplace website work I had done on the plane was gone.  The photos . . . ah!   I had transferred all photos from my Nikon card the night before, including the names and addresses of the hundred laptop donors.  Damn!    Okay, so from now on I’ll follow the rule of threes.  All important data must be on three different storage mediums at all time, even on trips.  No exceptions.

After one laptop mess, I turned to the next:  prepping enough laptops for the kids on Monday. Prepping laptops is more time consuming than difficult.  You plug in power strips, arrange them in rows of five, turn them all on, and hope for the best.  If you’re lucky enough to see the screen light up, followed by the XO boot sound, you power down immediately, pop in a USB stick, press the four game keys, and let go when it tells you.  It’ll then reflash the laptop, which erases everything and replaces it with a fresh install of Sugar and the rest.  Once that’s done, we run our custom “prep” script that changes some Sugar settings and copies other things we need.

More often than not, you’re greeted with a dark screen and no sound.  This indicates the infamous “give one, get one” clock problem, which happens with many of the XO laptops shipped to North America in 2008.  Apparently, with the firmware version from back then, if the clock battery goes dead (which it does when not used for long stretches), it’ll forget the real time and cause the machine to “brick”, i.e. become as useful as a brick.  This has to do with the Bitfrost security mechanism, which acts as a theft deterrent.  To “debrick” these laptops, you need to open them up and perform a little magic with a custom made “debricker cable” (serial cable), setting the clock correctly so you can install new firmware.

After starting thirty laptops it became clear that I would need more if I wanted twenty by the next day.  I called Sarita to arrange to get the remaining laptops at the AMURT office.  Ysmaille got me and Beth and we brought them all to my hotel room so we’d have ample time to work on them.  Hours later, we’d gone through all of them.  The good news, we had enough for the children’s class.  The bad news, sixty laptops needed to be debricked.  At ten minutes apiece, that’s 10 hours, or 5 if we double up.  Yikes.

Given that I didn’t have a Mac anymore, I started work trying to get the debricking working with Beth’s Windows machine.  After several attempts, I finally gave up.  A mystery.

From my experience in Haiti, nothing is ever really the same twice.

Tim and I are sitting in his hotel room, fixing some bricked laptops. The last time I was doing this, I was with Bill. We had one night to de-brick I’m not sure how many laptops, maybe 50? 100? We had just learned what was wrong with the computers and how to fix them. We were at John Engle’s house, of Haiti Partners, and we were up all night, having just come from La Gonave, where we lived with families and walked two hours to the market on Thursday mornings.

Now it’s daytime and I’m with Tim at Visa Lodge. We actually know how to fix these things (sort of). It’s Sunday and the hotel is bustling for the weekend; an oasis of music and tanning by the pool with various blan, be them journalists, NGO workers, visitors. A totally different world in the same country, really.

But some things are the same. I brought my collection of nail polish again. It won me over with various girls in Leogane the last time I was here. This morning, I made a handful of new friends with the kids down the street with the help of red, glittery purple and three pinks. Two of them will be participating in our laptop pilot tomorrow. It will also be their first day of school, ever.

It’s a bit of an honor to be part of these girls’ first school day in their lives. It also makes me really respectful of AMURT and the work that they are doing at the Amsai school, where we’ll be having class tomorrow.

We are accompanied by Evens and Elisabeth, mentors from Petite Riviere des Nippes and Leogane (respectfully) who have come to help us train the new group of mentors – quite different from teaching kids. I have faith that they can do it, with a little preparation. Then they’ll be able to go back to their hometowns and teach their fellow mentors a thing or two and inevitably make their teams stronger.

Excited for our first kids’ class tomorrow. Onward and upward!

As I write this, it’s almost three weeks after Saturday, January 29th, the subject of this post, so I’m a little foggy on the details.  I missed four days of blogging due to a computer crash, so this and the next three posts will be sketchier than the rest.

I do remember waking with the wish that I had all of the laptops in my hotel room so that I could start the massive task of reflashing, debricking, and repairing them.  I had about thirty, which I had hoped would be enough to get twenty good ones for the children’s class on Thursday. After starting all of them, I realized I wouldn’t have enough: too many bricks.  I reflashed the rest and did a little research on Jabber, hoping to set up a centralized chat server for the kids.

At AMSAI, we met with the trainers and discussed the upcoming mentors class.  We agreed that we’d split the chairs into groups corresponding to the different schools rather than mix schools together.  We also agreed we’d ask these teams to work together, exploring Sugar on their own and reporting their findings to the larger group.  Beth drew several Sugar activity icons on paper.  During class, we handed these out to each team, asking them to try to figure out what the given activities do without help from us.

The exploration period was pretty cool with the teams working together well, learning a surprising amount of stuff on their own.  The trainers walked from group to group, nudging them when necessary, answering questions when asked.  After about twenty minutes, one person from each group “testified”, or discussed one of the activities they had explored.  As each presented, the rest tried the activity.  It worked really, really well.

The day before, at the very start, I wrote our motto in large letters:  Confusion Is Good.  I told the mentors that these laptops and our training were all about exploration and guided discovery, that feeling a bit lost is a positive thing, since  true and lasting benefit comes from learning things not explicitly taught.  Usually such a comment is met with skepticism.  Teachers generally like to be super prepared.  In Haiti especially, it’s preferred to have the steps outlined exactly.  Such an approach does more harm than good, or so goes the theory.  With computers, if you’re doing anything worthwhile, you’re gonna be a bit confused all the time.  After thirty years as a computer programmer, I’m still confused most of every day, but it’s a good thing.

Today’s class helped show the wisdom of “confusion is good”.  The explorations always started with puzzled looks, but these looks soon gave way to smiles of recognition and accomplishment.   A great class, and all the better for having not taught them much of anything.

Sleeping late for a change, I availed myself of some excellent Haitian coffee before receiving a call from Ysmaille.  “Would you like to me to pick you up?”  While waiting in the lobby, I downgraded my room and told the front desk manager about laptops and kids.

“I would like a laptop for my daughter,” she said.

“Ah, well, we work with schools, not individual children.”

“How many laptops do you have?  You will not miss one.”  She is half-smiling, playing me.

“Sorry, I must tell people where they go.  Maybe you could give me her school’s information.”

“I want one for her, at our home.  Now I am very sad. You are not my friend.”  Half smile.

Ysmaille brought me to AMURT’s headquarters where we found a hundred differently shaped boxes, all from the individual donors.  OLPC had not even opened them, so each had the original shipping labels. I decided to take photos of each label, so we could thank each person.  Opening the boxes we found many personal notes.  Here is one:

Opening the boxes was hard work, but it was also inspirational.  I felt a connection to each of these people, calling out their city and state to the half-dozen Haitians  in the room.  By the time we opened the last box, we were getting late for the first mentor class, so we dashed off to AMSAI.

This being Haiti, most of the new mentors were late as well.  We started at half-past with a get-to-know-you game.  I then addressed the group and read Avery’s letter.  “There are many in the United States who wish to help, but don’t know how.  What we are doing here today may pave the way for others to help in the same way.”

We then handed out the laptops and taught the group of 24 the very basics of Sugar.  We let people explore on their own quite a bit more than we’ve done in the past, believing they should make mistakes and learn from them while we’re there, that the attitude gained from this is as important as the content covered.  It worked out wonderfully.  Our three local trainers felt it was a great improvement.

Back at the hotel, I began reflashing enough laptops for the children’s class on Monday, though quickly reached my limit with more “bricks” than anticipated.  After a few hours of “Family Guy” (left over on my laptop from months earlier), I collapsed to sleep.

As much as I loved the Oloffson, I couldn’t really see making Ysmaille drive me back and forth across town, especially now that I knew RAM was playing its usual Thursday night set, so I checked out and moved a day early to Visa Lodge.  Once in my ridiculously palatial room, I plugged in the thirteen laptops I’d lugged in my luggage, since we were scheduled to hand them out at 3pm to Cité Soleil children at the Restavek Freedom school.  Luckily, my room was absolutely full of plugs.

An unexpected twist was that Joan Conn, director of Restavek Freedom, and Jeanie Haas, our good friend from the Nicaragua pilot, were having lunch at Visa Lodge as we showed up.  More than this, they wouldn’t be able to make it to the partners dinner later that day, so I decided it would be better to reschedule our trip to AMURT to prep the remaining laptops we’d need for Cité Soleil.  Instead, Ysmaille agreed to drive there and pick up ten laptops while I had lunch with Joan, Jeanie, and their friends.

Always a fine balance between talking mission and doing drudge work. The tedious stuff keeps me grounded, no doubt, but sometimes sales is the better choice.  During lunch, we get a call from Caroline, who represents Acacia School, the new partner that replaced JP/HRO.   She had thought the partner meet was a two and was almost at the Visa Lodge.  “Sure, stop by and say hi, though we’re headed to Cité Soleil soon afterwards.”   As lunch goes on, neither Caroline nor Ysmaille have made it back.  Apparently there was an accident or something.  Guess we won’t have enough laptops for the kids in Cité Soleil, but it’s time to go!   We meet Caroline on the way out.  Hello and goodbye!

We’d made it partway into Cité Soleil before I remembered the reality of where we were.  Looking out the window I forgot logistics and took in street scenes, though of course felt awkward taking photos.  Here’s one from the highway:

At the school we find out there’s a church celebration, so there’s no kids!   Guess that solved the laptop problem.  I give a laptop to the Father to try to lure some of them to come back and sure enough he manages to bring a half dozen kids for a short class.  There’s really no reason sweating details in Haiti.  One potential disappointment (not enough laptops) gets squelched by another potential disappointment (not enough kids).  It’s all good.  High acceptance, low exectation.

The kids are bright, and grateful.  This time I let them figure out how to open the laptops themselves, which took pretty long, but when one of them figured it out, they were very pleased with themselves.  Jeanie and Joan had a blast watching the enthusiasm of the children.  I was pretty excited about the two new mentors that I met.

Back at the hotel, I settled into a lonely evening feeling awkward in my impossibly posh hotel room.  Visa Lodge is the place where you stay if you don’t want to experience Haiti.  It was very different from my earlier stays.  I started asking around for a cheaper, less ostentatious place.

Oh, and yeah, the partner dinner was canceled.  Sarita was sick, and with Restavek and Acacia not coming, I told Benaja to stay home.

Walking up the steps of the Hotel Oloffson is walking into another time and place.  I’d been hear before, to dance for hours to RAM, the house band, though I hadn’t really taken in the building itself back then.

I’d heard Graham Greene’s The Comedians had been set here, and I could certainly see why.  The building was a personality, a presence.  I could well imagine relocating my long-stalled novel here instead, taking up the challenge of describing its arches, and corners, and staircases.

After checking in, I was shown to the Charles Addams room.  All the rooms had the names of famous people who had stayed in them.  Addams was the cartoonist who created the Addams family in the New Yorker.  Apparently he based their home on this very hotel.  I secretly hoped there’d be a wooden box with a hand that appeared to shake my hand.  The room was bigger than expected, with balcony over the pool.  I no longer felt like I was in Haiti, or at least the current Haiti.

Wandering a bit, I found that the room next to mine was the Mick Jagger room.  They seemed twins in all things save their patron’s personalities.  My room spoke of morbid non-conformism and the other … well, I guess Mick isn’t morbid.  An interesting juxtaposition to ponder on my balcony… what these two men thought of Haiti as they returned to their rooms, how it influenced their art, their life.

After settling in, we went to AMSAI to meet Sarita.  I had a wonderful talk with her about “leading, not teaching”.  She’s in complete agreement:  it’s more important for a tone of guided discovery to be set than to cover the material.  She’s going to think of some improv theatre type group bonding stuff to do on Friday with the mentors.

Back at the Oloffson, I had a wonderful dinner and spoke with several people.  Seems many come to the Oloffson just to meet interesting people.  I can see why.  Towards the end of the night I had a long talk with Richard Morse himself, leader of RAM and owner of the hotel.  We talked about his mother’s school and his cousin, Mr. Martelly.  Just after he told me about a visit by Ben Stiller, he got a text from Ben, which he showed me.  “He wants me to come to New York for a benefit with Eddie Murphy.”

All just names, all shared experiences.  The trick is to connect the dots so that more and more children are helped.

Pacing with my mobile in a Japanese restaurant lobby, navigating the touchtone maze of State Department options, I glanced at the little Buddha carved into a tabletop and thought, “Sure, smile away bud.  Someone needs to.”   In the next room, my wife Paula and daughter Isabel were having dinner without me.  I’d escaped for some quiet so I could Solve The Problem.  Isabel had also been smiling, and laughing, and doing her best to distract me.  I knew in a distant diffuse way that I’d be desperate for some playful Isabel distraction in about a week, but no matter . . . The Problem.

Just before dinner, we’d spent a frantic hour searching for my passport.  We looked everywhere:  luggage I hadn’t used in years, beneath all the couches and beds, through every page of every loose book.  I finally gave in, ready for a food break, and called the State Department.

After a bit, I finally made it to a real person.  Apparently I’d need to travel to New York City, bringing proof of imminent travel and an old passport.  I made an appointment.  With a morning bus and train, I could make it to the passport office (dragging my two big suitcases), then back to Newark Airport for an afternoon flight to Miami and an overnight.   Probably would cost about $500 after all the fees and such.

Back home after dinner, we put Isabel to bed and resumed our search.  I was certain I’d put my passport on the tall table in our kitchen, but it was gone.  We’d just had some maids clean our place, who had a funny habit of tucking things away in mysterious places.  There was also Isabel, who’s emerging sense of organization never failed to frustrate and delight.  I had a car coming at 2am and it was rapidly approaching the time I’d have to call it off.

While in the basement rifling through ancient history, I hear Paula upstairs, “I found it!”   Someone had put it in a little photo box that we never use.  I ran upstairs and gave her the hug of hugs, letting out a big hearty sigh.   With all of ten seconds of relief, I remembered that I still had to finish packing and I had absolutely no energy left to do it.  Somehow I managed it.

But I couldn’t sleep, for twelve uncomfortable hours.  In the car, trying to squeeze around the armrest.  At the airport, with my head nodding awake every twenty seconds.  On the plane, bouncing our way through the winter storm I’d just missed.  Finally I gave up and resigned myself to six hours sleep in 48 hours.

On the plane from Miami, I sat next to a CNN cameraman.  He’d covered the earthquake, Katrina, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other hairy places.  I asked him which was worst.  “The earthquake, no question,” he said.

Landing in Port-au-Prince, I went through the logistics in a sleepy daze: passport, luggage, customs, new mobile phone, pickup.  Ysmaille, my driver, drove me to the Hotel Olaffson while I looked out the window, taking in the crowds and details of personal life. The city looked cleaner than November.  The sidewalks were all but clear, there was little garbage, with not a tire in sight.

Awake at 5:30, my mind already racing.  In 24 hours my plane takes off.  Beth is traveling to Boston for dinner with OLPC and a Haitian group, so I’m solo today.

My four concerns are packing, printing materials, prepping laptops, and website updates.  At this point, I cannot finish everything on my list, so it’s triage time.

I’m starting with the website work, since frankly the lack of updates are embarrassing.  On the Charlie Rose show, Sean Penn said something like, “If you have time to update your website than you’re not doing your job” or something like that.  I guess I’m doing my job then, since I don’t even have Haiti Partners, American Haitian Foundation, or BETH on the website yet.  Yeah, we’re good with blogging, video, and announcements, but simple website updates have been long neglected.  Never mind that the website looks like it was created in 2007 (which it was).  I won’t have time to fix that today.

As for prepping laptops, I began this process a few days ago, but I’ve got about ten left.  We’re using the bleeding edge OLPC release (10.1.3) from two weeks ago since there’s just too much good stuff in there to ignore.  I haven’t really had time to decide which activities to bundle yet, so we’re gonna do that part on the fly.   I’ve also gotta find my “debricker” cable somewhere in the mess that is my office floor.  Someone remind me I need that debricker cable, okay?

Printing is, as usual, too little, too late.  We’ve got six units of seven in our lesson book, but only four of these are in Haitian Creole.  Special thanks to Christine and Madeleine from Columbus School for Girls for scrambling to get the “Health: Malaria” unit done in time.  As for the rest of the printing, the all important handouts are not yet done, which is pretty much my fault.  I was really hoping for handouts for at least Basic Etoys, lessons seven, eight, and nine.

And packing.  Luckily, I’ve got this one pretty much down.  I haven’t started yet, but I know what to bring.  Aside from changing my mindset from sub-zero temperatures to 89 degrees, I’ll be fine, though there’s always niggling details, like buying more videotape (someone remind me about this too).

Then it’s wait to get picked up at 2:30am for a wintry drive across New Jersey, hopefully without blizzard conditions.  Now they’re saying that snow will start in Philadelphia “early Wed AM” and New York “late Wed AM”, so it looks like I’m just making it under the wire.  They’re calling for as much as a foot in Boston, so Beth may not be so lucky on Thursday.

Okay, enough talk.  Time to accomplish the impossible.

In tonight’s post, I’ll do the equivalent of showing a movie in class so I can get other work done.  The one thing I’ll say is that this paradigm change may either be considerably easier or more difficult in Haiti.  I haven’t decided which, yet.

I’ve been thinking lately about how I can improve the mentor workshop. One thing I felt bad about last March was just how “teachy” everything was. The courseware was recently slimmed down dramatically, though there was still such pressure to Cover The Material. Part of this came from the primary pilot partner, who stressed the step-by-step, which set the tone for the mentor classes. By the end, I was pretty sad about it, vowing to not let things get so rote in the future.

So what do you do instead? Here’s a list of things kids need to know. How do you let the discoveries come from them? How do you guide them to the truth rather than teaching the tricks? One big difficulty is that students and teachers alike are expecting rote. There’s a real pressure to deliver things in a familiar teachy way, just to have everyone feel like they’re getting somewhere. Having a leading-question approach gets old real quick when you have a room full of blank stares waiting for you to answer your own question, over and over.

So how to do it? How do you guide their discoveries, particularly at the beginning? This is real easy in alternative private US schools, by the way. I’m able to slip into inscrutable Socrates mode quite quickly, and it’s a good thing.

But Haiti … It’s Different. The children are just as smart. They just haven’t been taught it’s all up to them.