Monday, March 24, 2008

Going to South India

In April I'll be heading for Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state in India. The main reason is to attend the National Seminar on Print Access for All, being held at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Madras is the old name of Chennai.

The seminar has been organized by a steering committee led by N. Krishnaswamy, the Chairman of Vidya Vrikshah. I'm actually on the committee, too. It should be a great day talking about improving access to print for the community of people with disabilities in India. I've pasted in some of the invitation below.

Look forward to blogging more from India next month!

The Steering Committee
of the
National Seminar on Print Access For All
has pleasure in inviting you to participate in the Seminar.

The Seminar to be held on Saturday, the 19th April, 2008 at
the Auditorium, ICSR Building, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.

Shri T.S.Krishnamurthy
Former Chief Election Commissioner of India
has kindly consented to preside and inaugurate the Seminar.

N.Krishnaswamy, Seminar Coordinator,
Members of the Steering Committee
N.Ravi, Editor, The Hindu, Chennai
S.Ramakrishnan, Director-General, C-DAC, Pune
James Fruchterman, CEO, Bookshare, USA
Geeta Dharmarajan, Exec. Director, Katha, New Delhi
N.Krishnaswamy IPS (Retd), Chairman, Vidya Vrikshah

Sunday, March 23, 2008

2008 Tech Museum Awards Global Call for Nominations

Tech Museum Award: a crystal globe atop a silicon ingot cylinder
I wanted to put in a plug for the Tech Museum Awards. We've been a Laureate twice (for and Martus) in the past, and it's a great honor and a great event. If you know someone whose work embodies technology serving humanity, nominate them by tomorrow! [And, no, we're not looking for people to nominate a Benetech project this year: spread the wealth]. Here's the blurb from the nice people at the Tech Museum:

Nomination Deadline: March 24, 2008

Nominations are being accepted for the 2008 Tech Museum Awards, an international Awards Program that honors innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. 25 Laureates will be honored at a Gala event on November 12, 2008 and five Laureates will share a cash prize of $250,000. Self-nominations are accepted and encouraged. Individuals, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit companies are all eligible. Reward those making a difference and nominate today at

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Reflections on Micronesia

Micronesia left quite an impression on me. It's great to go to completely different places, spending time learning about history, politics, issues and culture from new perspectives. I think it's one of the great perks of my job, working in the nonprofit sector. Plus, the people I visit give me the benefit of the doubt that I'm not an ugly American. I try hard to return the favor by being respectful: it's not hard given my high degree of interest and curiosity, and the dedication of the people I met.
Three wrecked ships half-submerged in a harbor bordered by jungle.
Something that made a big impression on me were the wrecks. The first thing I saw from my hotel balcony were wrecked ships in the harbor below. I couldn't find out much about them, other than that they were relatively recently wrecked (don't know if that means ten years ago or thirty).
Close-up of a single wrecked fishing ship
Apparently, typhoons are a big deal in Micronesia. Guam has special building codes for typhoons, kind of like California's earthquake-inspired building codes.

Waste disposal is hard on these tiny islands. On most of the islands, you could see wrecked cars left more or less where they expired. Unlike on the mainland, where there is demand for scrap metal (and the ability to process the metal), I have to assume the economics don't make sense.

Of course, much of the wreckage is left over from World War II and its immediate aftermath. The Marshall Islands are still suffering as a results of atom bomb tests. Pohnpei was a Japanese base, and I got to climb all over wrecked large gun emplacements and ruined bunkers and tunnels. Chuuk Lagoon was the naval base for the Japanese in the region, and has more than fifty sunken ships. On my Saturday morning in Chuuk I got to tour ruins and snorkel over a sunken Zero fighter in 20 feet of clear water, looking like it could have landed there five years ago.

I also learned about traditional drugs that have important cultural overtones. On Pohnpei, they pound the root of a pepper plant with water and create a muddy paste called sakau. It's supposed to totally numb you and make you mellow. There's a whole ceremony around making and sharing the beverage. I was tempted, but Donna let me know she expected me to be functional for all the meetings that had been planned. Mike Terlaje had tried it and hadn't gotten too much effect from it, but the water used seemed to be the likely cause of a couple of unhappy days following.

Betel nut is another mildly stimulating drug: it's actually a palm kernel. I first tried the fresh version, and found it unpalatable (pictures above). But the dried version I had on Guam was better, and gives you a warm feeling. It was kind of tannic and bitter. I don't want to overstate the drug aspect: this is a natural plant analogous to something with a lot of caffeine.

Mobil gas station sign showing $4.90 a gallon

Fuel was very expensive on the islands. There were court battles over fuel deals, and I was told that Chuuk State's financial problems was limiting access to fuel. Donna noted a big decrease in the number of people on Weno island in Chuuk, and this was attributed to the cost of fuel reducing the practicality of coming into the big city by motor-boat.

Beef was three times the price of tuna in the restaurants on Pohnpei. For $8 I had a tuna sashimi appetizer that had nearly a pound of raw tuna in slices three times thicker than I've had before (and it was very tasty!).

Micronesia is hard to sum up in a few words. It's incredibly beautiful. I was impressed with the people I met. It's at the intersection of a traditional society changed by its interaction with the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans (interactions that were not very positive most of the time: actually, sometimes the abuse was totally appalling). The U.S. is committed to financially supporting these states that we dominated following World War II, which affects the political culture significantly. I saw aspects of American and Japanese society overlaid on a societies trying to preserve their traditions and languages. Some of these interactions lead to disabilities, such as the children blind from Vitamin A deficiency, which didn't happen before rice supplanted traditional foods.

The Benetech team and I are excited about helping these students with content in both the local language and English, and hope that we can do worthwhile work in supporting the educators of Micronesia to serve students with disabilities. At least two of us will be back this summer to do training and follow-up. I know I'm looking forward to a chance to go back.

Sunset over lagoon with sailboat in foreground

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Guam and the Consortium

The final stop for my Micronesia trip was Guam, a U.S. territory. Arriving on Guam felt like coming back to the United States, although it's more like Hawaii than the mainland!

Guam has a huge American military presence: the armed forces control about a third of the island. The presence is growing: the U.S. is relocating our units from Okinawa to Guam and this could grow the island's population anywhere from 20% to 40%. The military and tourism are Guam's two big industry. Japan is the biggest source of tourists for Guam, with growing numbers from other Asian nations like South Korea.
Chuck Hitchcock
I enjoyed getting a chance to tour around the the southern part of the island with Mike Terlaje (U of Guam CEDDERS) and Chuck Hitchcock of CAST(pictured above) on my final afternoon there (and even squeezed in half an hour of snorkeling), and seeing Spanish ruins, waterfalls, and bay after spectacular bay. The native people of Guam are called Chamorros, and the language is resurgent. "Hafa Adai" is used frequently, pronounced "half-a-day," it means hello or goodbye, kind of like aloha in Hawaii. I acquired a taste for betel nut (a mildly stimulating palm kernel) and kelaguen(lime cured fish and chicken), among many other terrific foods. It's actually hard to get local cuisine in the restaurants, far easier to get Japanese food. But, Mike Terlaje invited Donna McNear and me over for a potluck party for one of his nephews and we had the chance to sample terrific local dishes made by his family for each other.

The centerpiece of the meeting on Guam was the first leadership meeting of the Pacific Consortium for Instructional Materials Accessibility Project, or Pacific CIMAP for short. The Consortium is made up of six island nations, commonwealths or territories: American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Federated States of Micronesia (including Chuuk and Pohnpei), Guam, Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. The FSM, which is made up of four distinct island states (Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap) sent teams from each of their states as well as the national government. We met with the special education directors and curriculum chiefs of each state. I also got to meet Gregg San Nicolas, with the Department of Defense Education Agency, who provided several of the pictures in this post (thanks, Gregg!).
Jim Fruchterman and Gregg San Nicolas
We spent a day preparing, three days of meeting, and a morning of debriefing. The goal was to bring each of the key leaders from the island states up to speed on the NIMAS and NIMAC: the mandated and recommended elements of a strategy of delivering books to students with disabilities. is a consultant to the Pacific CIMAP: our virtual library suits their geography as long as you can get access to the Internet. Although some of the island states are independent nations, they all implement U.S. education laws as part of receiving extensive funding.

The highlight of the meeting for me was showing off books in the local languages that the team had already scanned or typed in, and which were already on the website in our library. I picked one children's book, Grandma's Love, which is in both English and Chamorro. The voice synthesizer in the Victor Reader software did a good job on the English sentences, but drew many grins and smiles from the audience when it tried to speak the Chamorro. Not quite ready for students, yet! But, we're hoping to tune up the local language synthesis, or supplement our text e-books with human narration, which might be more practical.

By the end of the meeting, all nine entities had signed up for and we're looking forward to getting their students the books they need!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Visiting Eot in the Faichuk islands

Donna’s friend Kathy Mori was able to arrange a boat trip on short notice to Eot, which is an island on the other side of the lagoon in a group of islands called the Faichuks. It was a 45 minute ride in an open motor boat that held about seven of us. We walked around the island along a path that ran near the water. Donna explained to me to watch Kathy and take my lead from her, since we were able to visit here based on her connections and reputation with the community. Kathy would stop and chat with different people as we walked around the island’s circumference, checking in before taking our party further.

six people in a motorboat alongside a concrete dock, with tropical island in background

People eat a combination of imported and local food. The preference for rice has led to deficiencies like the girl with vision problems caused by a lack of Vitamin A. This is the tropics, so bananas grow easily, as do food plants like breadfruit, taro and the like. When our path went by a small shack built on a volcanic rock outcrop, we found a girl diving for sea cucumber, and another woman pounding them on the rocks in preparation. Residents are mainly dressed in western dress, with women wearing island dresses that Donna chooses to wear on visits to respect local norms (skimpy shorts and tops don’t make it). Boy wearing blue soccer jerseyI was surprised to see a teenaged boy wearing an American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) soccer jersey: AYSO is the soccer league where I volunteer as a referee during the fall.

Soon, we reached the home of the blind girl we were visiting. Like Aleckson, Freda Phillip had been born without eyes and was about 4 years old. She was lying on a platform in the family house, looked over by her mother, Menty, and great-grandmother, Dorothy. Donna went to work, checking to see if the little girl could stand and walk. The girl’s face totally lit up with a giant grin: she loved playing with Donna. Kathy Mori translated as Donna compared notes with the mother, Menty. I didn’t follow all of the advice, but it seemed to net to one thing: that the girl should be encouraged to meet the same expectations of other children her age. Her development was lagging compared to other children, but it didn’t seem to be an intrinsic problem, but more environmental.

Donna's visit reminded me both of the limitations and the potential of technology. Freda's life challenges right now have a lot more to do with issues that technology can't help. She needs encouragement and challenge. But, I could sit there and imagine completely changing her access to information as she grows up, and maybe that little extra piece will make a difference to Freda. It's pretty realistic for Freda's family to be able to use a cell phone in the next few years: I saw a cell phone on another island in Chuuk and the guy assured me it was working. Harvey, the tech guy at the Chuuk special ed office, was talking about using Green WiFi (solar powered WiFi) to link the schools on the islands.

The difference is that I'm not working on cell phone talking book access to help some theoretical kid: I've got a face and a name to go with it: Freda from Eot and her big smile!