Negroponte’s $100 One Laptop Per Child will include creative music making tools for children. Our friend Nathanael Lecaude writes us:

Just wanted to let you know what I was working on during the summer, we’re doing a sequencer/algorithmic music generator for the OLPC project. We did all the protoyping in Max and are now porting it to Python/GTK using Csound as the sound engine.

TamTam, music app on the OLPC Wiki

TamTam is intended both as an instrument in itself and an environment for learning music. It has basic sequencing and synthesis capabilities, presented in a child-friendly format. It’s also networked so children can play together. The sounds themselves will be influenced by the countries in which the OLPC will be distributed, with instruments of various kinds from Brazil, China, India, Thailand, and Nigeria. (I’m not sure how they’ll deal with tunings, but then, early in the Dutch occupation of what is now Indonesia, Javanese composers experimented with mixing the Pelog- and Slendro-tuned gamelan with Western marching band, an experiment my Javanese teacher later applied to Scottish bagpipes and gamelan. Anything is possible.)

It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves, as I could see it being useful internationally or other efforts being modeled on similar ideas.

For more technical background: Python is a dynamic, object-oriented programming language that’s unusually easy to learn. CSound is the powerful, free sound synthesis platform that’s shown up everywhere from experimental compositions to the guts of at least one karaoke machine (really).

See also:
Brad Fuller’s O’Reilly blog, which has a running commentary on OLPC (as well as insight on why operating systems are meaningless!)

MIT’s OLPC site and (importantly) OLPC wiki, which responds to at least some of the “why” questions discussed in comments on this story. Whether the OLPC initiative itself winds up living up to its goals, it seems to me that a cheap, accessible, open source sequencer for kids should be valuable regardless.

More on this issue: See our follow-up story, TamTam, Music Software for Kids, to be Fully Open Source; One Million OLPCs in Nigeria

  • It's too bad the laptop itself is such a scam for developing countries.

  • Thomas, are you able to comment on that further? (Links to any pertinent articles, perhaps?)

  • I had an op-ed I was shopping around at one point about it: Let Them Eat Cake.

    The basic summary is that countries are expected to pay for these machines, a million at a time, and yet they do shockingly little to develop capacity (educational, technical, or infrastructural) for the population. They may, in fact, destroy some cottage industries there and the incentives to develop them further. Lesser developed countries would be better off with older hardware running Linux.

    I also had some pertinent links (including an NGO head specializing in computer infrastructure) in this earlier post.

  • Sorry, caught a mistake: I do understand that these laptops also run Linux. But they run it on proprietary hardware with untested software underlying much of its functions (such as the mesh network). I just can't see that being a good idea.

  • Thanks for the news item ! Regarding tunings, multiple tunings will be possible. We have a full-blown Gamelan orcherstra at University of Montreal and sampling it will be loads of fun.

    To Thomas :

    All of the OLPC project is 100% open source. The boards aren't that proprietary, we use AMD Geode processors. It will run a modified (stripped down) version of Fedora Core. The mesh network is really nice, I wish normal laptops could do it out of the box.

  • The whole project is really nice, as long as you're in a developed country. That's the problem.

  • while i like the idea of having laptops for the developing world, i think it's kind of funny that this is the issue that the first world has decided to support.

    what about basic humanitarian needs? food, medicine, etc.?

    this is the problem with the current system: a country needs food aid. rather than pay local farmers for their crops, stimulating the local economy, the US *ships* food from US farmers. so the shipping industry and US agriculture gets a huge cut. fine. but then once the crops arrive at their destination, they have the effect of depressing the prices of locally grown crops!

    okay sorry for the tangent people. my next post will be about music, i promise 🙂

  • Damon

    "I gotta walk 4 miles for a jug of water, but my base line totally kicks butt!"

  • Damon


    Better idea. It is a pretty nice looking sequencer. Hows about making it available for purchase, but sending the proceeds to needy places? I am sure lots of people would buy it knowing that the profits are going to a good cause.

  • regarding dave ahl's comment: the "first world" isn't a single entity. or at least a single entity that can't "multitask". i'm not an expert in this field, so i can't say that your thoughts are wrong. but, logically, it doesn't seem like helping in one respect would imply pulling our attention away from other aspects. maybe money spend here is money that won't be spent elsewhere, but i wouldn't think it's that simple. (because of economic issues, and the fact that donations won't necessarily come from a defined donation pot.)

    of course i'm not against additional humanitarian aid or anything. i just think that the mentality in your post could be more simplistic than the reality of things. (just like the point you bring up with exporting our crops. sounds like a nice offer, but the result may not be as expected.)

    as for the article, cool!

  • I agree that there are parts of the world that need better access to resources like food and water. However, there are plenty of places on the planet that do have these resources and want better access to technology and education. Why not share what we've got in these areas, too? I sure don't know jack about irrigation, for instance, but I do know something about music and music technology and education. So people take the gifts they have and try to make them more global. I don't see anything wrong with that, on principle.

    Now as for whether the OLPC initiative is really the best solution, or a panacea, that's another matter. But since this is open-source software, I think it could be really useful in terms of thinking about how to teach kids music. And providing music education can be a battle all over the world, including at home in the US.

    The OLPC has had a lot of rhetoric attached to it, so it's fair to react to that … but looking at the basic principle, why should basic laptop music cost US$2000 and thus deny access for most of the Earth?

  • Adrian Anders

    What I'm wondering is why there isn't too many cheap laptops for the poor in the first world? I'm sure many US families living below the poverty line would love to have a $100 laptop for each of their children. Why has this project got to be limited to the third world? When pleanty in the first world would pay the same if not a little bit more for a similar product.


  • For people concerned about ethical/moral questions, you can have a look at the official wiki which answers some questions :

  • Peter,

    Nobody's saying that we should deny access to music education or even to tools. I think the real argument is whether or not we should be asking the countries themselves to pony up at least $100 million for a tool that doesn't necessarily provide that education in a good, sustainable, reliable fashion.

    I'm not an economist or a learning expert, but I do work for the learning arm of the World Bank. Part of my job is to watch and take notes on almost every single conference sponsored by or held at the Bank. I can assure you, if anyone is calling for cheap laptops, they are far outweighed by those who are just trying to get kids to school in the first place, particularly girls who are often excluded from education in the poor nations. Let's do that before we start trying to buy them a laptop–or more accurately in this case, ask them to buy themselves a laptop.

  • Thanks, Nathanael.

    I'll make another point — computers are tools of communication, which is an essential ingredient in empowerment. It's not just a crazy utopian vision; this is something that is real and productive all over the world for the same reason these technologies serve us here.

    Unfortunately, there's no response on the question of urban U.S. areas. Have you heard anything in regards to that? I also think of rural areas like eastern Kentucky. Then again, with open sourced tools, I can imagine these are ideas that could spread (and might indeed support cottage industries in these locations).


  • Damon

    If you were poverty stricken or living in a very distant place with few resources, would you hope someone would maybe sell a cheap sequencer, using the proceeds to provide you with some basic medical supplies or extra food, or connect you up with some kicking kit?

    These conversations are really easy, unless you are willing to put yourself in someone else's shoes. You give poor people a sequencer (or a unix machine), and the first thing they will try to do is sell it to buy supplies, but will not be able to cause everyone around them is trying to do the same things. People are more interested in what they need than what you think they should have.

    Would i like a sequencer and a unix machine? Yes! Because I am not in need of food and medical supplies. This strikes me as a case of someone giving someone else what THEY would want given to them. And for Christmas, I have plans to purchase my mom a new pipe for my Suzuki.

    And I am all for helping out the disadvantaged. But if you do not give them what they need most, your efforts to help have come up vain.

  • Thomas, thanks for raising these issues; to be honest, I don't know much about OLPC so this is all interesting to me. Would it be possible to devise a more grassroots approach, getting technology where it's desired locally, rather than imposing bulk orders?

    And Damon, my whole point is, of course, you don't need a laptop when you're in need of food and medical supplies. You might want someone with a simple computer who could communicate and organize self-sufficient access to these supplies (that's separate from wanting a music sequencer, yes, I understand).

    I agree there's a danger of fabricating need where it doesn't exist. But I'm sure there are parts of the world — including places in the U.S. — who could use computers, who could take advantage of musical tools, and who are hindered by cost. The flipside of this is, why shouldn't we think about the economy of the technology we use, and how it can scale? I don't think there's any harm in pushing the envelope and using expensive technologies or I wouldn't spend the time I do writing about them, but likewise, I don't think there's anything wrong with looking for innovation in cost, as well. Forcing this down anyone's throats would be a bad idea, but I don't think anyone here is suggesting that (meaning readers here, OLPC project aside). From a technological development standpoint, there is still plenty to be learned.

    And, honestly, I'm more interested in the element of developing inexpensive learning tools for children wanting to experiment with music and sound. I think that's an issue worth exploring and debating. And I think it can probably be done on some level without unraveling global hunger and aid issues, really.

  • Damon, please do your homework, the OLPC is not targeted at countries where people need food, we're talking about China, Brasil, Thailand, Argentina. It could even be useful in the US or Canada. Go read the FAQ on the OLPC Wiki, it's a good place to start.

  • Peter: As far as I know, tech centers are the way to go. They can serve as classrooms, they encourage the growth of infrastructure, they are more secure and cost-efficient, and they are community-centered.

  • I've been following the OLPC a little bit on my blog on O'Reilly Digital Media. A video of the prototype can be seen here, with links to other videos too.

    brad fuller

  • David Wagenbach

    The problem with most of this commentary is that most of you seem to be looking at this as a zero-sum game. What we need are more programs like this where really smart people tackle a small problem rather than something like, I don't know maybe the World Bank, trying to impose giant, top down solutions that ignor local needs and interest. Of course there needs to be changes to food aid and there are huge problems with getting the poorest countries economies to move from dependence on the west to independence, but that's probably a little beyond the scope of MIT's ability. If we all focus on what we were good at, instead of biting off more than we can chew maybe things would get better for everyone. The fact that someone affilated with the WB is critizing anyone on development issues is pretty bold given that group's spotty history. The OLPC program is not perfect, but at least they're trying something. It's open and there is a great deal of room for the individual countries and regions to adapt them to their needs.

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