Bringing Linux to the Kids

by Neptune

I was inspired recently. I read about Nicholas Negroponte's "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) project, and suddenly, I caught a glimpse of his vision. Imagine, millions, no, tens of millions of little kids all over the planet using open source software. All those children introduced to computers, to open software, to the ideals of shared information, instead of the shackles of enforced intellectual property licensing. I saw a dark globe, spinning in the vast blackness of space, shadowed, until a spark appeared - a pinpoint of light in the darkness, then another, then dozens, then thousands, until the whole planet was blazing with the light of young minds connecting, learning, sharing... I got a bit breathless. Without warning, I became a disciple - I had a mission.

The next time the grandkids were over, I remembered my mission. But Lil' Mike is, well, too little. At one, he's just made the fascinating discovery that his nostrils and his fingers fit together rather neatly. So I turned to big sister, Aniah. Don't ask me to explain the name. Aniah's mom, "Mom" says it seemed like a neat name at the time. I say we never saw some of these odd names until we got reeeeallly good labor and delivery drugs. But Aniah was perfect for my mission. Going on three, she's a speaking, reasoning little human. What better time to start introducing computers?

Mom doesn't think Aniah's going to be "into" computers. Mom thinks Aniah is going to be a dancer. Of course, Mom also thinks that "Reality TV" is, well, real. Now, I will admit, Aniah can dance. She can do a startling Paula Abdul when 'Straight Up' comes on the TV. When she was around two, we went to the beach, and had dinner at a restaurant on the pier. There were a couple of musicians about my vintage on a little platform stage, covering the 70's and 80's hits. Aniah went right up to the stage and started dancing. She had a different dance for every style of music, and the musicians were having fun trying her with different songs. The customers were having fun, too, and started filling the tip jar. That doesn't mean she's going to be a dancer, it just means she can dance. She can learn to use a computer, too. Right?

So I fired up KWrite, set the font to a nice green color, and a huge size. I got another chair, and invited Aniah to the computer. Our dog, "Dawg" followed, and sat beside us, watching intently. Dawg is usually not much interested in open source, or computers in general. Dawg has simply figured out that toddlers in the house mean plenty of spilled food. (Dawg is pretty sharp, in his own way.) So I typed Aniah's name, slowly hitting each key and saying each letter as I pointed to the screen - "A"..."N"..."I"..."A"..."H" - Aniah! She thought that was great, and intently watched everything I did through the whole process.

I slid the keyboard over to her and said, "You do it." Aniah pushed it right back and said, "No! You do!" So I did. "A"..."N"..."I"..."A"..."H" - Aniah! We repeated this exercise a few times, until Dawg got bored and laid down. I finally took Aniah's hand, and pushed her finger on the "A" key, and said "A". She started to get it. I pointed at the "N" - she pressed "Q". Okay, I'll follow her lead, so I said "Q". She pushed a few more keys at random, with me saying the letter and pointing to the screen each time. Mom brought us a plate of crackers and peanut butter, and Dawg sat up, suddenly interested in the lesson again.

Aniah decided to pick up the pace a little, and started clicking keys faster and faster, as I tried to keep up, saying the letters and pointing. She escalated to mashing multiple keys, and in about 3.5 seconds managed to hit Ctrl-Alt-Backspace, which shut down the session. I slid the keyboard back, and started logging back in. I glanced over at Aniah, and she was happily eating a peanut butter cracker with one hand while trying to remove one of Dawg's ears with the other. Dawg had a pained expression on his face, but he'll put up with a lot if there's food involved. Dogs are a bit like husbands that way.

Clearly, it was time for a break. I sent Aniah off to watch TV with Mom, Dawg following the cracker crumb trail, while I rethought my strategy. Maybe the keyboard wasn't the right interface. Possibly the mouse would be better. Something graphical. I browsed through the PCLinuxOS software repository looking for the right application. Then I had it. TuxPaint. Just the thing. I use it all the time for web site design. Some folks rave about the GIMP, but I find that all those bells and whistles just get in the way of the creative process. Give me TuxPaint every time. If a customer needs a rainbow-striped snake, or lots of stamped flowers on their page, it is the ideal tool, and one of the trade secrets that a lot of web designers will deny to their last breath.

So I fired up TuxPaint in full-screen, and went looking for Aniah. Mom was in the den, watching a music video channel that was playing oldies. 'U Can't Touch This' was on, and Aniah was in front of the TV, one pair of baggy pants shy of being one of MC's backup dancers, doing a pretty fair Hammer Dance. After the video, we went back to the computer, and I started showing her TuxPaint, clicking on the tools and drawing on the screen. Aniah liked it, and even Dawg seemed interested, although I did still have those peanut butter crackers sitting on the monitor. Aniah took the mouse and started scooting it all over the desk. I spent about twenty minutes trying to teach her to click and slide, but we just weren't getting there. So I thought we'd try the keyboard thing again. I clicked on the text tool and typed a couple of letters.

Aniah got the idea immediately this time. She picked up the mouse and started banging on the keyboard with it, popping half a dozen keycaps loose. Dawg was sniffing hopefully at the keycaps that had hit the floor, and I thought it might be time for another little break. Aniah grabbed another peanut butter cracker and went bouncing off to the den, Dawg trailing faithfully in her wake, while I took a deep breath and began putting the keyboard back together.

I gathered my thoughts, and decided that the problem was the mouse - moving it and clicking it at the same time was too much. What I needed was an interface Aniah was already familiar with. I knew she could handle a crayon, and a graphics tablet works pretty much the same way. So I unplugged the tablet from my PC, and moved it to the family machine. A few minutes to get X-Windows set up for the tablet, and we were ready to go.

That was the magic. Sort of. Since the pen combines clicking as you move it on the tablet, Aniah did a little better. But she also managed to shut down TuxPaint twice, losing forever a couple of masterpieces worthy of Jackson Pollock. While I was digging around in the documentation, trying to find a "noshutdown" option for TuxPaint, I noticed that Aniah had finished her cracker, and was busy trying to put the tablet pen up one of Dawg's nostrils. Dawg's eyes were watering a little, but he was still game. I extracted the pen, gave Dawg the last of the crackers and decided to call it a day.

Later, after I'd had time to crack open a cold brew, I sat on the porch for a while and reflected on the day. I got up and wandered into the den. The music channel was still on the TV, and Aniah was bouncing and twisting. And I had a few revelations.

My first was that we don't pay Dawg nearly enough.

My second was that Aniah's going to be a dancer. Probably. Hopefully, it will involve something a bit more lofty than performing with a couple of beach musicians and a tip jar, but as long as she's happy...

My final revelation? Nick Negroponte has his work cut out for him.