Laptops of the World

In inner-city Philadelphia, a pilot program is arming its high schoolers with laptops. But in countries like Norway-and increasingly in the developing world-that's the norm. Why is the United States so behind? And is it worth it to play catch-up? "You can learn so much from the bathrooms," muses Bing..

In inner-city Philadelphia, a pilot program is arming its high schoolers with laptops. But in countries like Norway-and increasingly in the developing world-that's the norm. Why is the United States so behind? And is it worth it to play catch-up?

"You can learn so much from the bathrooms," muses Bing Howell, a London-based education consultant who joined my tour around Philadelphia's School of the Future. While I am here to understand the school's one-laptop-per-child program, and our tour guide is keen to show off the SmartCard-operated lockers and electronic blackboards, Howell just wants to go the bathroom. "They speak volumes about whether the kids feel valued," he explains.By that standard, the students at the School of the Future are being prepared for lives in the executive suites. The men's room, with floor-to-ceiling tiles, pristine white sinks and urinals, and not a hint of the smoke-and-piss smell typical of most high school latrines, was even more impressive than the combination-lock-less lockers.My August tour of the School of the Future (and its bathrooms) is a relatively low-key affair. A partnership between Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia that cost $62 million to build and opened in 2006, the high school has received far more official visits, like a delegation of Hong Kong high school principals and the education minister of Greece. Tony Franklin, the warmly competent face of Microsoft at the school, walks us through the building on a friendly auto-pilot.Built on a small hill at the edge of an enormous city park, next to a giant Gilded Age-era Civil War memorial, the school building sits above its neighborhood. Several buildings directly across the street are boarded up and others-like Philly Discounts Clothing, Golden Dragon Chinese and American Food, and Dollar Plus-testify to the neighborhood's poverty. By contrast, the blindingly white School of the Future, designed in a modernized classic style reminiscent of Richard Meier's starchitecture, stands out like a beacon. Out front, a pair of black metal sculptures celebrate classical education, depicting little Roman children crowded around toga-clad educators. Inside, the open-plan cafeteria, eerily quiet before the beginning of the school year, looks more like a university student union than a public high school. The ultra-wired conference room with sunny floor-to-ceiling windows and earth tone walls looks more Silicon Valley than stodgy, ragged, East Coast metropolis.
In the world's largest economy and leading technological innovator, the laptops-in-schools concept is still rare.
Of course, the one-laptop-per-child concept is not unique to the School of the Future. The eponymous American nonprofit has famously distributed thousands of low-cost laptops everywhere from Peru to Cambodia. What is notable is that in the world's largest economy and leading technological innovator, the concept is still so rare. America, after all, is the country that invented the computer. (ENIAC, arguably the first true computer, was built just a few miles from the School of the Future, at the University of Pennsylvania.) But while the United States integrates computers on the patchwork, pilot-program model of developing countries like Peru, many of our economic peers-especially in technophilic Scandinavia-are embracing them as universal, an essential part of 21st century education. As an American high school student might ask: What's up with that?

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Welcome to the O.C.

Daniel Brook visits the suburban anomaly of Orange County, China.

A guard wearing a one-size-too-big military uniform salutes my driver through the gate at the grand entrance to Orange County. Suddenly we're transported from China to, well, somewhere else. Where, exactly, is hard to say. It would be strange enough if Orange County, this gated community near the Beijing airport, were the straight-up replica of Southern California it claims to be. But it is stranger than that. The development, 45 minutes up the freeway from Beijing's better-known Forbidden City, has the appearance of a Disney theme park where someone mixed up all the different sections-a smidgen of Epcot's faux Paris intermingled with Main Street U.S.A.'s Americana.At Orange County, California-style ranch houses sit alongside English Tudors and a French-style formal garden complete with stately fountains (turned off for the winter). The street signs of weathered wood held together with rusty spikes conjure the Old West of Durango while the community clubhouse, called the Rive Gauche Town Center, has a mansard roof typical of a French country estate. The totem poles inside recall the Pacific Northwest and the fireplace mantlepiece is carved in the shape of English-language books, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and the erroneously titled Moby-Dock. So far from the West, the distinctions between France and America, let alone Colorado and California, get lost. (The Chinese would surely have a similar laugh at our expense for the popularity of "pan-Asian" restaurants Stateside.)I requested a Sunday tour, hoping that people would be enjoying the one-day Chinese weekend in their yards. But here in Orange County, China, just days after Christmas, it is not exactly rollerblading weather. The fake lake is frozen solid. A brave, bundled-up grandmother takes a baby carriage out for stroll. But for most, weekend fresh air is what you get when you walk from your home to your SUV.Though distinctly lacking in warm California sun, Orange County's promotional brochures tout it as "flown over fresh to Beijing," and even "pure American." And there is at least some truth in advertising. The project, whose 143-unit first phase opened in 2001 at a ceremony including American diplomats and McDonald's cheeseburgers, was designed by a trio of design firms from California's Orange County, headed by Bassenian Lagoni Architects, a leading designer of McMansions that has been dubbed one of the most influential architects you've never heard of by The Wall Street Journal.

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Union Maid

Sara Horowitz is making the workplace safe for freelancers.

Sara Horowitz's grandmother lived in the Amalgamated Dwellings, a development on Manhattan's Lower East Side built in 1930 by a garment-workers union-the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. To Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancer's Union, the buildings symbolize an inspiring era of social change: "There had been a whole social movement pre–New Deal based on self-organization and mutual aide" she says. "The idea wasn't that the government would come in and fix things." Horowitz's Freelancers Union is an attempt to revive the spirit of that movement.The idea for a union of freelancers came to Horowitz when she inadvertently became one. After law school, Horowitz, now 30, took a job with an ostensibly radical labor law firm whose partners soon reclassified her and her coworkers as independent contractors to save money on their benefits. When she got fed up, quit, and went back to school, her coworkers gave her faux letterhead for the "Transient Workers' Union" with her name listed on top as union president.While completing a master's program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Horowitz decided that the Transient Workers' Union was a so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea. For the one-third of the American workforce that freelances in some form, the traditional union model was no longer applicable. But without some sort of collective voice, freelancers were being over-looked by the government.\n\n\n
When people join together, you can do a lot more cool shit than when people are alone.
"Independent contractors weren't really contemplated as a group when our labor laws were written," Horowitz explains. And the only reason "we haven't adapted that system is because there isn't an organized constituency that's saying this is completely ludicrous." If she could create an institution to get freelancers what American professionals once took for granted-health-care coverage, antidiscrimination protection, pensions-she figured she could have a self-sustaining organization that could take on the status quo.The question was how to recruit members. "You have freelancers that are working all over the place," Horowitz says. "How are you literally going to find them? If you're organizing in a factory, you go to the factory. With freelancers, there's a huge logistics problem: They're everywhere. So you have to find a reason for why they're going to come to you. So we said if we offer health insurance, they'll start telling their friends; they'll start coming to us."And come they did. There are now 60,000 members, of whom more than 16,000 get health insurance through the union. The union uses what Horowitz calls an "à la carte" model-there are no membership fees or dues and members buy the services they want (when they do, a portion of those fees goes back to the union to support its operations). Membership is open to anyone, and health insurance is open to anyone who has earned $10,000 in the past six months or works at least 20 hours a week as a freelancer.The union is now embarking on expanding both the benefits it offers and where it offers them. It is working on a system of unemployment insurance for freelancers and will soon offer retirement accounts that give independent workers the benefits of being part of a larger group rather than being a piddling lone IRA account at a big brokerage house. As Horowitz puts it, "When people join together, you can do a lot more cool shit than when people are alone."

Part of the union's recruitment drive includes posters in the New York subways with witty lines like, "Echinacea is not an acceptable form of health insurance."The Freelancers Union is focusing on expanding nationally by recruiting in freelancer-heavy cities from coast to coast, including Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. In these new cities, it hopes to take on the kinds of local issues it has in New York, where it successfully lobbied to roll back the unincorporated business tax, which hit freelancers hard. As the union has grown, politicians have begun to take notice. Both John Edwards and John McCain have explicitly focused on how to make the U.S. economy and government programs work better for independent workers.So can we expect Freelancers Union Dwellings to rise in cities across the country? The challenge of taking on the urban housing crunch may be too daunting, even for Horowitz. Still, she says, "We've looked into it."LEARN MORE

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