Douwe Osinga's Blog: 2003

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Microsoft: the not so evil empire?

Recently I came across this review of different digital music services. The bad news is of course that except for e-music, all services require some kind of digital rights management (DRM) software, which usually is used to minimize the rights of the consumer, i.e. it limits the number of computers you can play your music on and the number of times you can write a song to a CD. My opinion is that we’ll need more and better DRM, so that people will finally see that it is terrible and do the right thing, i.e. vote with their wallets for systems with fewer restrictions.


But there is one aspect of DRM that is often overlooked: interoperability. If I buy a CD, I can play it on pretty much whatever CD supporting device I want, whether it is a stereo or a computer from whatever manufacturer. If I buy a DRM protected song from Apple’s iTunes, it will only play on computers running Operating Systems from Apple or Microsoft and only on iPods as far as non-computer devices go. Transferring music to a device from Dell or Creative is just not possible. You’d have to re-buy the song from a different music store. Even if I bought the song with almost no restrictions, without interoperability, it just won’t play. Maybe this is where the RIAA wants us, but it is hard to explain to the average consumer.


This where Microsoft comes in as the empire. Of the six reviewed services, five were using DRM from Microsoft and guess what, if you buy a song from one of the five, it will play on software from all five. And Microsoft licenses its technology to lots of hardware manufacturers, so problem solved. Microsoft, the evil monopoly to the rescue of Joe Sixpack. The DRM market, like the OS market, is a natural monopoly, so either the government or some company ends up with control over it. Better give it to Microsoft, who we know and watch anyway, then to a new devil, or worse, to the government, whose space shuttles still use 386’s.


Economic theory about natural monopolies was developed to describe mostly network-like markets, such as electricity or railways. It just doesn’t make sense to lay multiple tracks to railway stations from different companies or to install multiple sockets from different companies in houses. In the same sense, but different, is it impractical to have three different desktop operating systems popular, because we’d need all applications developed in three-fold.


The problem with this argument as far as OS’es and DRM goes, is that it doesn’t work like that in practice. Take for example the Office market, where Microsoft enjoys its biggest monopoly. Of course, if every company would use different formats for spreadsheets, documents and databases, it would be chaos and the now centrally dictated structure would be preferable. But we could have multiple providers of Office software using the same document formats. Interoperability through Open Standards is the alternative.


For Operating Systems this argument is clear; we already have a number of companies offering versions of Linux, which interoperate great. For DRM, the problem is of course trust. Microsoft convinced the RIAA that Microsofts DRM is completely safe and impossible to crack (sounds weird). How can the entertainment industry trust the Open Source people, aren’t they the same information-wants-to-be-free hippies who invented Gnutella and Bittorrent?


How can they not. On the long run, only open systems can be trusted. And if the alternative to open standards is a Windows OS for every CD-player, then the choice is clear.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

The Software bots will takeover the Internet.

The robots will not overtake the world anytime soon, but the software robots might. The googlebot of course already rules a big part of our life, but is supposedly still controlled by its masters. Soon enough the Internet and the systems around it, will be developed enough to sustain independently evolving software bots.


What am I talking about? Well, imagine a program that uses Google to determine what is popular content on the Internet and maybe something like AdSense to determine what is content that people will pay for to have their ads appear on. Now our little program downloads this kind of content and fills a website with it. The content will obviously be stolen and the site probably won’t be that readable, but it will do great as a place to advertise.


Now imagine we don’t have one of such a program running, but a dozen or something. They surf the web and do some blog spamming, post to mailing list copies of old mails but with replaced signatures pointing to their own site and maybe even sent mail to webmasters to exchange links. Oh, and they exchange links with each other. Even with the Florida Google Dance, their Google ratings will rise and soon income through it will too.


Now for the clever bit, as Ford would say: the programs are actually scripts running inside web pages in JSP/PHP/ASP or whatever it is that works for you. They are triggered when anybody visits a page. As soon as any of these programs/websites/soft bots has gathered more than a certain amount of money, he’ll opens a new account with a web hosting company and copies his pages and scripts to this new account. It will also open a PayPal account or similar and enroll the new website in an advertising program . Then all links are cut and both soft bots go their own way: money making artificial life.


In a way, the setup is similar to how the MS Blaster worm rampaged over the Internet, but these soft bots are not really parasites. Well, they copy content and try to achieve Google rankings by less that fresh methods (actually quite a few websites do that), but they pay for their own hosting and stuff. They render a, be it dodgy, service to surfers, i.e. people looking for certain content on Google end up at sites who pay for visitors like that. You can call it search engine spamming or Google rebalancing.


If you could make them relatively intelligent and make them evolve, they could become part of the Internet ecosystem. May be they would start out as a rather low life-form, but for a long time that was the only place where the money was (come to think of it, they would probably evolve pretty fast into pornbots.) But on the long run, some of them would find niches that worked better and start rendering useful services, just like the rest of Internet. Who knows, some might learn how to blog.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Google as Url Protocol

After half a year of running this website, I’m finally there. DouweOsinga.Com is the Osinga. Yes, search for Osinga at Google and I’m number one. Search for Douwe and you’ll end up at Douwe Egberts, the coffee maker, but we’ll get them too, someday. Anyway, I was biking home and thinking I could now refer to myself with http://www.google.com/search?q=osinga and realized that you see this kind of references more and more. Google is becoming an url protocol, just like http:// and ftp://


Then I thought, how hard would it be to create an actual Google protocol? In windows programs can open urls without worrying who is doing what, so probably, somewhere in the registry there is an entry saying if the user types in gopher: do this. Searching for gopher with regedit indeed gave me an entry and based on that, I created one that started Internet explorer with http://www.google.com/search?q=%1 whenever somebody typed in google:, %1 being the parameter. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite work as for some reason the google: is also part of the parameter.


So I fired up Delphi and threw a little program together that strips the Google part of the parameter and passes the rest to Google. It also registers the program as handler for the Google: and the lucky: protocol. The first one passes the given parameter to Google, the second  goes directly to the number one hit. So from now on, you can refer to this site as lucky:osinga.


The result you can find as a new Google Hack or directly at http://douweosinga.com/projects/googleprotocol

Monday, December 15, 2003

Surround sound and wireless current

I love watching movies with my wife, preferably on a big screen with surround sound. At home so far that meant that the rear speakers where burried under books and other stuff. No longer. I rewired everything and now they hang from the ceiling.


All very nice and the surround sound emulation for non-surround sound movies isn't so bad either. But you have a lot of wires. There's a optical connection between my computer and the amplifyer and 6 double wires between the amplifyer and the speakers, 30 meters or so in total. It's a mess.


Wireless is the future of course, but it only goes so far. Conceivably, I could connect the speakers wirelessly to my amplifyer and/or computer, but they still would need power. So far, every wireless device I got comes with a little black box that does power converting, which makes the solution sometimes worse than the original problems.


Wireless will only be true wireless if we get wireless electricity. Nikola Telsa, the inventor of AC, the patents for which he sold for a million dollars, died a poor man, still scheming about how to accomplish wireless electricity. At one point he build a 250.000 dollar world broadcasting tower on Long Island which was supposed to broadcast images, messages and electricity, kind of what the whole 3G is about, but without the annoying thing that you have to recharge your telephone all the time.


Is it possible? Apart from the wilder schemes that are still circuated by the Teslastas, I see some options. A low frequency, standing electrical field could probably be setup indoors with devices picking up energy from it, similar to a microwave, but on a less harmfull frequency, but people wouldn't trust it and think it would give them cancer. I would. Small amounts of Methan could be released in the athmosphere and fuelcells could convert it to electricity on the fly. People would be worried about explosions and a lot of the gas would be lost. Also, Methan seems to be causing global warming.


The most obvious choice is devices that convert sunlight into electricity. They wouldn't work in the dark, which is bad if you're trying to watch a movie, but they could store it in batteries maybe. There already is a batteryback for some Nokias with build in solar cells. It takes forever for them to recharge, but it shows the way.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Visited Countries

Visited Countries, my project for this week,  is a little Web App that allows you to enter that countries you've been to and it generates a map of the world with those countries in red, the others in green.


I did the project to demonstrate how to manipulate the appearance of a gif image by just changing the palette on the fly from a web page. I started out with a gif image in which every country has a different color, RGB(160, 245 - Index, 10 + Index), where Index is a number in my country table. Now, when I need a map, the script reads the map and copies everything except for the palette entries (bytes 13 - 13 + 255*3), which it checks for Index values in the selected list, replacing them by red, or not, replacing them by green.


You can copy the image and put it on your homepage if you think that's cool.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Saving the world, plan B

The current plan of saving the world from global warming, called the Kyoto protocol, isn't going so great. The countries that signed, represent less than half of the total emissions and they aren't reducing much so far. New Science has a plan B.


The thinking is that we should keep the global warming below 2°C, above that things get danerous, i.e. storms, huge sealevel rising and other disaster movie stuff. Even with Kyoto, we'll never get there. By 2050, we'll need a reduction of 60% in emissions and by that time India and China might have caught up in wealth, industrial production and emission levels.


Plan B calls for Contraction and Convergence. Now, average CO2 emission is 1 ton per head or around 5 in the US. In 2050 this should be 0.3 in order to avoid disasters. C&C just says that we every country should converge to the 0.3 in 2050. This means big reductions for the big polluters and leaves some room for extra polution in the poorest countries. Trading shall be allowed.


Fair and simple. I like the plan. But it could be more fair and even simpeler. Why converge so that in 2050 everything will be fair? Why not start fair right now? We'll give everybody on the planet a limit of 1 ton CO2 emission. This limit will be reduced year after year until in 2050 we'll hit 0.3 and we're safe. It effectively means that the big polluters (read the rich) are going to have to pay a lot for pollution rights to the non-polluting (read the poor).


The current environmental mess is mostly due to the pollution of the rich countries. Partly this can be forgiven, because we didn't really know. But agreeing now that we'll converge on some target in 2050 is the same as a thief who promises to stop stealing, but only in 50 years. If something is wrong, we should fix it now.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Didn't help us in War, won't help them in Peace

The US seems to have decided that the countries that didn't help with the war effort, shouldn't profit from the reconstruction. 'Why should our taxpayers help German, French or Russian companies.' It sounds logical, but it only means those taxpayers will end up paying more then necesary.


Why? Simple. It might be true that French, German or Russian companies have the better/cheaper solutions. Making American taxpayers pay for inferior or more expensive solutions is bad for the American taxpayers, anyway you turn it. It was the same with the new cell phone system Iraq was going to get. Anybody knew the GSM was the way to go: it is well tested and the hardware is cheap. But it is not American, so some said, let's buy American. That would have been more expensive.


If you really want to reconstruct Iraq in the best way possible, use the best solutions money can buy, not the best solutions money can buy from a selected set of providers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Disco's and blogging

When I grew up, going out meant going to the Disco. I was never good at it. I felt that disco took away the things I was good at. Intelligent talk was my main weapon in the struggle for girl attention (and that is not a very strong one to begin with), which doesn't work so well if you have to shout all your utterances at the top of your lungs. 'AND NIETZSCHE SAYS.' Beer drinking is something else I'm good at and that isn't much fun either at the price/my income ratio back then in these kind of clubs. And then there was disco dancing which I never really got. Now, if you got touch the girl, I could see the point, but moving around for fun?


Later it turned out that drinking in a pub was also a form of going out and the whole dancing/loud music/not talking thing was avoidable. Much later lounging seemed to be a cool thing too and all was well. And now blogging, which is close to my natural way of expression. Okay, it is not going out per se, but still.


Probably if you wait long enough anything can become popular.

Monday, December 8, 2003

Google News Map

I was working on World66, the open content travel portal, and got my hands on a list of coordinates of countries. Why not use them to project the headlines of world news, I thought.

A new project. Google News Map projects the headlines of Google News on a map, so you see where news is happening. Check it out, it is fun.

Sunday, December 7, 2003

China and Job Creation

Populist in the US complain about the growing importance of China. A giant sucking sound of jobs appearing overseas, unfair trade policies, it sounds a lot like a cheap rerun of the eighties, with the bad guys replaced by other yellow people. But China is coming of age rapidly and not just an exporter of cheap stuff. Indeed, China has been the most powerfull growth engine of the World Economy for the last couple of years.


Yes, you've heard it is the good old U.S. of A. Two third of the growth of the World Economy supposedly took place in America during the nineties. But that was measured in dollar terms. If you would measure growth in dollar terms over the last two years, then the European Union is the king. Indeed, over the last two years the EU overtook the US as largest economy in dollars, just because the Euro rose about 40% in value in the same period.


If you measure economies in a currency neutral way called purchase power parity or PPP, China was a bigger contributor economical growth than the US and more importantly, over the last two years, the place to where exports from the EU and Japan grew the most. Given the fact that the dollar looks distinctly wonly while Yuan seems to be undervalued, China is probably a much better bet for exporters than the US too.


It is not so suprising. China was always bound to overtake the US economically, just because it is so much bigger. The surprise is in the fact that the absolute growth of importants into China overtook the growth of importants in the US a long time before these economies became comparible in size.


 

Saturday, December 6, 2003

More on ungoogle numbers

Two days ago I was writing about an idea by Hjalmar Gislason: the smallest number that cannot be found on Google and how hard it is to find it. I've thought about it some more and came up with an algorithm that finds it about 10 times faster than just doing repeated searches.


At face value it seems there is no way around it, you're just going to have to query Google for all the numbers from one up until it comes back with: no search results. You can try tricks with AND and OR and what have you, but that doesn't help you.


But if you start searching for big numbers, you'll notice something. A lot of them are serial number of a kind or telephone numbers and they don't come alone. One guy will put up a page with serial numbers of a software product, another of phone numbers in his area.


So I wrote a little script that does a Google search, retrieves the first hundred hits including the little text Google puts around it and finds all numbers in the text. My script start with searching for 1 and finds about 25 numbers or so. It puts them in a list. Then it searches for the next number not yet in the list and it adds all the new numbers found in this search. After a while the becomes more and more frequent for the program to skip large series of numbers, because they have already appeared in earlier results. Scanning the numbers between 1 000 000 and 1 000 5000 took about 500 searches like this and resulted in quite a list of numbers we also know Google has.


Of course this is not going to cut it if there are indeed a million numbers to scan. 100 000 google searches still take a long time. Maybe we can even come up with smarter things than this.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Infinite numbers

Hilbert's hotel has an infinite number of rooms and they're all full. A guy shows up and the desk clerk says: we're all full, but I'll find a room for you. He moves the guest in room 1 to room 2, the guest from room 2 to 3 etc. The new guest can go to room 1. Infinite + one = Infinite. If an infinite number of guests arrives, there is still room enough: move the guest in room 1 to room2, the guest in room 2 to room 4, the guest in room 3 to room 6 etc. All the uneven rooms are now free, an infinite amount of rooms. See Mark Pilgrims blog for more details.


A couple of days ago I wrote about the ungoogable numbers, numbers that Google doesn't know about and what would be the smallest. Well, I'm still working on this. Meanwhile I'd like to present the class of unknowable numbers.


Somewhere in the argumentation about infinity without a miss, the distinction between countable and not-countable infinite shows up. In Hilbert's hotel, there are an infinite number of rooms, but they're countable. That is, if somebody picks a room and I start counting all the rooms from one up, eventually I'll get to his room. Weirdly enough, this is not true for the real numbers between 0 and 1. You cannot create a list of all those numbers, not even an infinite long list. See for a prove Cantors Diagonals Argument.


Now consider the set of all numbers that can expressed in mathematical language. These numbers can be ordered (for example alphabetically) so they are definitely countable and infinite. Let's say somebody claims that this list actually contains all the numbers from 0 to 1 and is immune against the Cantors Diagonals Argument.


Our guy gives Cantor his list and Cantor starts calculating and then comes up with a number not on the list. 'But how did you calculate?' our guy asks. Cantor shows him. 'Ah. But your calculation is a mathematical expression, so it is on the list by definition', our guy says. It is not according to Cantors definition of his list of course. Who are we to trust?


It is a weird paradox. In the end I think we'll end up with a collection of unknowable numbers, numbers that exists but we can't name, then they would be countable.

Thursday, December 4, 2003

Blog To Build: Business Card reader for my Phone

If you have an idea for a product that you think does not yet exist, you can do two things. You can build the product, market it and then maybe discover it did exist after all or suffer all the other challenges of modern business on the slim hope you'll make your money back. Or you can blog about your idea in the hope that somebody likes the idea and implements it, or that somebody says, nice idea, but this guy did it already.


Somebody gave me a business card today and I thought about the trouble of entering his data into my phone and then I thought: why can't the phone do that directly? It has a camera and enough processing power to do some OCRing. It then file the result in my address book and everything would be good.


It's a nice idea and my first thought was that somebody had probably build this application already. But Googling didn't result into much, so I decided to blog about it in the hope that somebody mails in with an url, either something newly programmed or of an existing program.

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The Sum, The Parts and our consumer society

The whole might be more than the sum of the parts, but the whole is cheaper. At least when it comes to dishwasher and such. Mine broke down. It needed a new clock, the part that tells the machine to play the next part of the program. The dishwasher was something like 250 Euro. A new clock is 165 Euro. Having somebody put it in the machine will about the difference.


I wonder, if all parts of a dishwasher broke, how much would it cost to replace them? i.e. how much do the parts cost more than the whole? It gives an idea how high a percentage shipping, handling, etc of the end product has become. Since the guy also charged 45 Euro just to look at my machine, we're rapidly reaching the point where if something breaks down, you better throw it away directly.


Is this bad? Economically it makes sense, otherwise it would be different. But in terms of the environment it is not so good of course. There was this story about an old guy who had just escaped Eastern Germany, before the wall came down. He had some family and he moved in there. Back home he was a miracle worker, because he could repair all kinds of small broken things. In West-Germany he wasn't. They just threw stuff away.

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

What is the smalles ungoogle number?

What is the smallest number ungoogle number, i.e. number that cannot be found on Google? Hjalmar Gislason came up with this intriguing question. He estimates it is somewhere around 2 million and has a candidate slightly bigger, 9483287. Of course tomorrow, this number will turn up two hits.


How to find this number? Well, a brute force approach is one option, but trying to do 2 million searches at once is going to be noticed at Google and will hardly be within the terms of use of our new overlords and to be kicked by Google and not be able to search again would be bad. Google does 200 million searches a day, so we're talking about 1% of Googles alleged 30 000 servers, i.e. 300 servers running one day.


We probably could estimate the number by first sampling random numbers and put them on a logarithmic scale and then find where a line through these number would hit 0.5. Then search around this point and we might get lucky. But we would never be sure until we tried very single one uptil this number. And then I would publish it and Google would spider it and it would all be in vain. Of course we could then call this number the douweosinga.com number, because it only appears on my blog (until somebody quotes this).


Using a Google key, you can do a 1000 searches a day, so it would take about 6 years to do 2 million searches. Where do these big numbers come from? Most of them are telephone number or part numbers. If you think about it, a lot of telephone numbers are 7 digits and with the enormous amount of area codes in all countries, the chance of a telephone number not existing anywhere is slim. (it is always fun using Google to find out who has the same telephone number as you do).


A distributed approach is probably the only thing that makes sense, but the distributed computation space is already filled with lots of more usefull things like finding aliens or cures for cancer & AIDS. So maybe if somebody at Google is reading this, they could have a look at the index and mail me the number.

Monday, December 1, 2003

Caerfai Chemical Simulation Available

Caerfai is a first attempt at simulating chemical reactions. The model is much too simple to be useful for medical research, but it does produce organical molecules. Source is included and offers a nice starting point for similar endevours.



Metaminine, Two water, amonium and a weird radical


Basically, you see atoms bouncing around rather fast and combining in chemical correct formation, though not always in the most logical way.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

The Geeks should inherited the Earth

Ever since the first humans started to hunt Mammoths together, the question as to how best run an organization has been central in the thinking about human behaviour. One of the first models to become really popular was the dictatorship-model, mainly because it was very good for the dictator and he was the boss, so only his voice counted. The Greeks discovered democracy of sorts and later capitalism experimented with shareholder run companies and many variants of these or rebranded old systems were tried in between or after. Usually these systems are about the balancing of interests: Military vs Civilians, Shareholders vs Managers, Politicians vs the People etc. Why is it that only the geeks came up with a system that does not tries to align interests in the best way, but comes up with the best solution in itself?


Great engineering projects are run like this and there is no better way to get an engineer angry than to modify a decision for political reasons. The early Internet is a great example. The Internet didn’t really have a government; there were projects that addressed some commonly felt problems and standards were drawn up so that different systems could communicate. Normal governments would have taken ages to come up with solutions like this and solutions would have been compromises only suitable for the short term. But the Geeks came up with a network that was designed for a few dozen computers with an eye for future growth and that scaled up to the current 600 million people online. Compare that with the growth of for example hard disk support under Dos/Windows.


The first version of Dos not only supported just 640Kbyte Ram (which really should be enough for everybody, some said), but also only hard disks up to 32 Mbyte. It was not the 32 Mbyte was an unthinkable large number in those days; it was just easier for the short term. Microsoft came up with a solution and now hard disks up to a phenomenal 128 Mbyte were supported and a year later even 512Mbyte. This of course didn’t last either and soon they had a new system which supported 2 Gbyte, which bought us another year of hard disk growth. They never learn. The version of notepad on Windows Millennium Edition only could read files of 64Kbyte.


There are examples of this behaviour of all walks of life. Pension reform is currently sweeping the world and it isn’t a pretty sight. Unworkable compromises if you’re lucky, with the occasional complete disaster thrown in. The evolution of the European Union isn’t a pretty sight, especially from close by (as Bismarck said, you shouldn’t watch when they make laws or sausages), but if you compare it to the African Union and similar disasters, you really want to send in the Geeks. They should inherit the earth.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Why Convergence means we have to rewrite the law

A couple a days ago, I was writing about how I was busted in an Indian museum for bringing my phone, because it had a camera on it. No camera's alowed. A lot of museums everywhere charge extra for a video camera, for the same reason that Indian museums charge foreigners extra: market seperation. Charge people with more money more (also known as screwing your best customers).


These rules are under attack from Convergence of all machines digital. On the long run, the fundamental difference between all kinds of consumer electronics just disapears. There are camera's that also play MP3's, MP3-players you can use for data storage and Memory cards that play MP3's or even take pictures.


Everything is everything and that is indeed why I believe that in the end there can only be one and it will be a cellphone. It the end it doesn't matter how powerfull any device is, because Moore's law will make everything powerfull enough. The only thing that matters is whether you will be willing to carry it around. And of all cadgets, people carry their phone around most, so all cadget functions will migrate there.


Anyway, I'll get off my horse here, because I wanted to talk about rules and convergence. What makes a video camera? I usually carry my laptop in my backpack and it has a lense and is capable of taking video clips. So is my cell phone. The quality isn't too great, but to I have to pay extra when I go into a museum?


On planes you can't use a cellphone, but they don't seem to care people bringing laptops with WiFi (I never bought the whole cellphone can bring down a 747 to begin with; it would make things so easy for Al qaeda) In the Netherlands there used to be a special tax for TVs - but does a computer with a TV card make a TV? What if it streams the TV over Internet?


There are going to be a lot of laws which need revising, when it turns out that everything is everything. In a way this isn't new. An uncle of mine build a huge wheel as a new transport method. You sit inside of it and a motor makes it go around, while you keep at the bottom. He claimed he didn't need a carregistration or anything, because it wasn't in the books.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

The Florida Google Dance

It is that time of year again. The leaves have fallen, there is this cold creeping in the air and Google has changed its algorithm. Somebody coined this seasonal happening the Google dance, because during the brief period when the new algorithm is introduced, everything seems to move and nothing is table. Some other guy decided to name these events, like huricanes. This one is called 'Florida' (the last one was called Esmeralda).


Typical you win some, you loose some situation, some sites go up, some go down. But sometimes it is cruel. If your livelyhood depends on it, there is nothing you can do about it if Google changes it mind about you. Google giveth and Google taketh.


When Google started out, they were just these bunch for very smart kids trying to build the best search engine ever. They still try that, but nowadays they are battling with a few million people trying to get the best score on Google, optimizing there pages and get away with smart hacks. Google discovers these hacks and then punishes sites that try overly aggressively market their website position by dropping their sites from the index, or at least decrease their relevance. The Florida Dance was no difference. Sites that use link farms to increase relevance or concentrate to much on one (commercial) search term were punished.


I'm not complaining. Google has been good to me. Today I found out that I have top-4 position for searching on European Stability Pact. While I think my piece was insightfull, I hardly claim to be an authority on this subject. Like I said, you win some, you lose some.


But the power that Google here is wielding is big. Wielding blindly, but nevertheless it is scary that one company should have that much. About half of the traffic to this site comes from Google and I think that is about average. If I would sell something and live on it and for some reason Google would blacklist me, I would loose half of my income, just like that, with no appeal. Google is God.


It makes you wonder whether Google is getting to big and we really want to depend on another monopoly.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Social Security is broken and you know it

Peter S. Heller has written a book about Long-Term Fiscal Challenges, called Who Will Pay? The basic message is: on the long run we're all broke. Governments in the West have taken up them future obligations varying from 100% of GDP in the United Kingdom to 500% of GDP for Canada. Nothing we don't really know; Our governments have promised us social security, assurance against major natural disasters and a pension system, without being able to pay for it. And they are not going to pay for it.

Everybody knows this who has thought about this. We're thirty thousand billion dollars short and pretend that everything is okay and that a budget deficit just above 3% is a problem. But if we would take ourselves and our future serious, we would say, hey, we cannot afford the way we're living right now. Let's make some adjustments. This will probably mean that the government is not going to keep all their promises, but that is going to happen anyway and better now than when it is later.

Instead we'll wait and hope it goes away. On the long run, we're all broke.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Google Talk syndication

I created a version of GoogleTalk that people can put on their own websites. It is just a few lines of code and should work in most systems:



Copy the code from the box and you're all set.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Technology and traveling

I was dragging quite a bit of technology around, while traveling through India; a digital camera of course, a laptop to store and sort the images from the camera and my cellphone, not so much to call with, but because it contains all the addresses of people who I need to send postcards to.


India is full of tech, but electricity is sometimes a problem. It goes down a lot and the hotels I stayed in, usually had only one free wall socket, so keeping all devices charged was a challenge. Mobile phones are really cheap in India, but using a Dutch sim card isn't, sometimes up to 50 times as expensive. I should have bought a local one probably.


But what a difference 15 years make, the first time I was in India. Back then, plastic money was unheard of and it was traveller checks on the black market, where one bill of hundred was worth more than 100 bills of one. Calling home involved finding the one central phone office with International calling. Now you have GSM coverage in the middle of Kerala's backwaters and ATMs are all over.


Generally India is taking the digital revolution great, except may be for museums where they tend to not like camera's (not particular for India maybe). Flash photography, I can see, that could hurt paitings, but why forbid camera's in museums, in order to shore up picture card sales? I don't know. So I turned in my camera visiting the central palace in Mysore, but was arrested never the less.


A guy in green starting pointing at my pocket, demanding to know what the bulge was. It wasn't that I was happy to see him, it was my phone. My camera-phone. 'Very big problem', he said. 'Police matter', he insisted. 'Okay, let's go to the police', I said. 'Well, maybe that wasn't necesary', he said. 'It would get me in trouble'. 'But I respect Indian law, let's go', I countered.


He was going to return me my phone, if I promised not to use it. There was just one thing. He was a coin collector. Did I have a coin from the Netherlands? If possible, a large one, he already had the smaller ones. I gave him 20 cents and we parted our ways.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

One to one marketing and unclear markets

Naively one would expect the Internet to make markets much clearer and simpler. Everything is open and out there, right? Froogle and friends will dig any deal better than something else up before you can say 'market seperation.' But it won't lead to clear markets on the long run.


In normal markets, sellers are usually forced to sell their stuff for the same price to everybody. They don't like it much; it would be much nicer to extract more money from people that have more money or need the stuff more badly, but this sort of works on the bazar, but it doesn't in modern societies. It makes the whole buying process to costly.


Enters the Internet. If the e-commcerce people get their acts together and start to collect user data in earnest, they suddenly can offer different prices to different customers; The low-cost airlines Ryanair and Easyjet are already doing this in a way. Depending on when you want to fly and when you buy the ticket, the price you pay varies a lot. What if these companies would know much more about you?


In a market where consumers have complete knowledge, it is almost impossible for producers to make a profit. So they will do a lot to disturb this perfect knowledge that seems in reach due to the web. Amazon experimented for a while with charging different prices to different people. The public didn't like it and they had to change it back.


Amazon is the saviest e-retailer and they haven't given up. There is the golden box where you get special offers but you have to accept immediately and they're only for you, which is basically asking less money for stuff people don't really need. Similarily, Amazon offers a lot of combination deals, which also allow for market seperation.


By learning more and more about there customers, Amazon makes it possible to turn the global market place back into a kind of bazar, where the bazar salesman knows what his customer is willing to pay and does its best to get that price. This takes time and effort, but computer time is cheap. It does make life for consumers harder for they will have to hunt for bargains again.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Music on phones

Not that long ago, storing music on a computer was something only for the rich music industry. Hard disks were small and CDs large. Harddisks became bigger and cheaper and computers fast enough for eloborate compression schemes. Then Napster happened and suddenly everybody could have their entire music collection of their computers. How long before we have that on our phones?


I strongly belief in integrating new functions into telephones. The dedicated camera only works if you bring it to where you want to take a picture. People will bring their phone anyway, so the phone wins. The same goes for the walkman. Some people care enough about music to carry a iPod or similar with them all  the time, but I don't. However, if the iPod functionality would be integrated in my phone, I would be all for it.


My 3650 Nokia phone has a 16Mbyte memory card. My current Mp3 collection is about 20 Gigabyte, so their is still some way to go here. Of course, I only use maybe 20% of this music on a regular base. I could upgrade to 512Mbyte card and finally use something like ogg or real to compress my music at an acceptable 64Kbits instead of my current 192+Kbs. I would still need a factor 4, but we're getting there.


Oggplay is an ogg player for Symbian and has just released a player for series 60. After converting some mp3s to ogg, and uploading them to my phone and playing around for some time, I had to conclude that the pre-alphaness was to much for my phone. It kept crashing with an error 101 or something. I converted some mp3s to mono 64kbit real format and played them on the phone. It sounded awfull. Give it two more years.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Bloggin from India

Talk about mob blogging. I'm writing this in the train from magauo to Cochin, both in India on my 3650 hunt-pecking the weird round keyboard helped by t9 to get a respectable 5 words a minute.
3 tier second class is the only way to travel: it looks like the inside of a prison, but you move 40 km/h. If you're lucky. Really it's great. Now if I only would get gprs roaming to work, which would be a miracle given that sending sms doesnt seen to function, so that I could post.
India lags China when it comes to economic development but is doing ok. Much is made from the fact that China is a dictator-run country and India a democracy implying that dictators run economies better (and ignoring 40 years of Chinese economic mismanagement) Here's another explanation: China's population is more coastal. Coastal people are more open and profit therefore more globalisation. The south of India is coastal. And it's booming. But the north is oldfashioned and closed. And economically it lags behind. Those jobs moving to India, all move to the south.
Coastal people cope better with change. That's why the US beat the Soviets. That and the air conditioner.

P.S. Of course the GPRS didn't work out and I ended up mailing the blog to myself and cut pasting it to my blog. The resulting text is much shorter than it felt when I t9'd it.

Saturday, November 1, 2003

The poor and free market thinking

They're called social democrats or socialists in Europe and liberals in the United States. They're no fan of the free market, they want to protect the poor and huddled masses against the sharp edges of capitalism. Then there are the people that are called liberals in Europe and Republicans in America. They want to free the economy from red tape so that entrepreneurs can do their thing and everybody wins, even the poor. Neither group is helping the most vulnerable people in society.


The protections offered by the social democrats don't really help the poorer people. Mostly they create systems that are too complex and only help bureaucrats and smart people. On top of this, they usually treat the people they are supposed to help as too stupid to decide what is good for themselves. The parties that officially support the free market are mostly for free markets as long as it is good for the companies. Real competitions would only erode the possibilities of profits. They'd rather spend as little as possible on social security, so fixing usually means cutting down.


Giving subsidies to the poor so that they can do stuff they cannot affort seems nice, but it means that the government decides that the poor can now spend money on going to the opera instead of on shoes for their kids. Because the government knows what is important and the poor don't. Cutting all subsidies doesn't really help the poor either. Cut the subsidies and give the money to the people. People are smart enough to make this kind of decisions, or at least smarter than the government.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Visual Poetry Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I published Visual Poetry, a Google hack to use image search to translate a sentence or a poem into a series of images. Visual Poetry was a windows program that showed the images in a slide show. I now added an online version which works with the thumb nails of Google and shows a sentence directly as a series of pictures on one screen. Check it out.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

That can't be good

According to the New Scientist, a US government funded scientist developed a extra deadly mouse virus, simlar to small pox, that kill mouse also if they were vaccinated and taking drugs. There might be a medical upside to research like this, but the potential danger in such discoveries is much larger. The next white powder envelopes might take out New York.


In general, I'm all for research. People want to know stuff, you can't stop them. But this is rather specific. It is not like trying to find out what atoms are made of and discover a new and very efficient way of killing a hundred thousand people a shot. Designing a killer virus is something doctor Evil in would do in a bad comic book.


There are enough killer diseases out there already. We don't need new & improved ones.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Nigerian e-mail scams

Ten years ago I received a fax from a Nigerian businessman with a proposal: he had 5 (five) million dollars and if I arranged for a bank account, I could keep 15% or so. It had scam written all over it, so I didn't do anything about it. I did wonder what the deal was, though.


Nowadays, I receive such proposals three times a day. Mostly, they claim to be from family of now dead West-African dictators. One day I got an email from the lawyer of Charles Taylor and then one from Charles him self. For fun I asked the lawyer where this miscommunication came from. He said that Charles had been confused and I only should mail with the lawyer. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere.


What is the plan? I know now how it works. It is called the "advance fee fraud" or "419 fraud". Once you contact them, they'll make up lots of little reasons why you should pay up some money upfront before they'll transfer the loot. Government fees, attorney fees, travel expenses. Then they'll try to get you to come to Nigeria. They'll arrange for the hotel, which is expensive, maybe an airticket. They'll get you in without a visum (not necesary they'll claim) and get you busted for it too. A big bribe will do, thank you very much. Etc, etc. Some people are eventually killed in Africa.


But what is the plan? If I receive one letter in ten years, I might consider it to be genuine. But I get three a day. Most people probably get less spam than I do, but still. It is not very convincing. And why doesn't the Nigerian government do something about this? The scammers might make some money that stays in Nigeria, but on the long run this hurts Africa/Nigeria a lot. The place is corrupt and scammy, is the general impression we get. It might be true, but it is bad advertising.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Iraq as a terrorist trap

When Bush said he was going to attack Iraq as part of his War on Terrorism, this didn't seem very convincing. Sadam did not have a lot to do with Al Qaeda, except for some splinter group in the Philipines. No direct connections have been discovered since the overthrow of the regime.


Iraq has turned into a playground of terrorists on the other hand. 20 minor attacks a day and every week or so a really big one. It seems that this terrorism isn't home grown either: from all over the world Islamic hardliners move to Iraq to fight the Great Satan. So Bush gets to fight terrorism in Iraq after all.


This is probably not the original plan. But it is a way to catch terrorists. Invade a country and make it clear to Terrorism International Inc that this is the place to do business. Then, if you have them all within that country, catch them. It is like a big mouse trap. The bait is set. Now let's hope the mouse doesn't get way.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Two new projects

I put two projects online I had laying around for a bit. ZAmazon is a zope product, allowing you to do Amazon searches from within Zope. SixMovies is a game where you have to find the shortest route between movies by finding actors that played in movies that had actors that played in movies etc. until you get to the target. The games doesn't really work because of the shallowness of Amazon database, but it gives you an idea.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

What are the chances?

This just in. The actor that plays Jezus in a controversial movie was struck by lightning during the shoot. Unlikely, but stastically explainable? It was the second time this happened during the shoot. If this guy is killed the third time he is hit, he can't say God didn't warn him.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Cool Stuff

I have no ambition to be the first blogger to write about this, but some stuff is too cool not to blog.


First a real laser printer. Versa Laser is a printer that connects to your computer through USB and is a normal printer as far as your computer can tell, except for that it doesn't really print, but cuts through all kinds of materials with its laser. Woodworking, paper cutting and plastic modelling are all possible. Engrave your plastic lighter now with 'I am stupid'


The second one is Amazon. They added full text search inside books. They scanned 120.000. books and you can full text search any of 33 million pages. Actually, I wrote about that they should do this a couple of months ago. You type in a word, Amazon finds the books containing it and lets you click through to the page that contains it. Great stuff.


Thirdly for the gadget insane, the USB Air purifyer. You plug it into your computer and you have fresh air all the time. Maybe not that useful, but it shows how far stuff that plugs into the USB port has come. Cell phone loaders, lamps and memory sticks, the USB port has become the cigarette lighter of the computer.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Computers: so fast and yet so slow

My first computer was a BBC Micro (ok, it was my parent's). 2 Mhz, 32KByte. If I recall correctly, wordprocessing wasn't much slower than nowadays on MS Word. I'm pretty sure that WordWise started a lot faster. The 6502 that powered the BBC was per megaherz probably a factor 10 or so slower. That means a middle of the road pentium is about 10.000. times faster. But my computer isn't.


Of course not, you might reply. Word 2000 does a lot more stuff than WordWise ever dreamed about. Sure, but 10.000. times? That's the difference between a snail (11 meters/hour) and a car on a highway.


Starting applications is the worst. Programs like Photoshop or Delphi take forever to get ready. And what do they accomplish? The initial state, which when you think about it, comes down to maybe 20 megabyte of memory initialized in the same way anytime they start. That's got me thinking, why can't the app tell the OS after initializing, ok, I'm ready to be used, this is the my initial state. Please write the image of me to disk and next time you want to start me, just load the image. Ultra DMA100 should do 100Mbyte/sec, so word should start in 0.2 seconds.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Mind World Map progress

Daniel Moore comments on the lack of progress in the Mind World Map project here. If you look at the map, you'll see that a reasonable map is created pretty quickly, but then the progress stops and it seems just random noise is added. I think there is a logical explanation. If 95% of the people click the right pixels and 5% click random pixels, you'll progress really fast towards a map of 90% accuracy, but the progress slows down and you'll never make 95%. 95% sounds good, but it means that 100 pixels or so are wrong. And 95% is probably rather high.


I have been thinking of optimizing the map, i.e. more majority voting and maybe than have the red pixel be chosen from the pixels with the greatest difference of opinion or one that borders on land and water. On the other hand, most of the 16000 clicks I got in two days after metafilter posted something about the project and ever since, progress has been slow. For now, I'm mostly curious whether the maps for different toplevel domains will start to grow apart.

Refactoring the Law

Computer programs tend to start out small and as time goes by, features and new functionality is added. This makes old code more complex as it was never intended for these new tasks. It is normal to say at one point: enough is enough, let's refactor the program. It doesn't mean: throw away the old code and start anew. It just means to take a step back and consider what you have and what is actually needed. Create a new design and rewrite the parts that don't fit. Maybe there is some legacy code that works, but is in another language or uses arcane constructions. Maybe there are some very complex routines that are only used to do execute some relatively simple tasks. These could be cut down and simplified. It might take a while, but the overall program will improve a lot and it will allow new programmers to work on the system with a lot less effort.


Most Western law systems were created somewhere in the 19th century and it shows. The language is arcane (legalese). A lot of laws used for modern phenomena actually talk about things of 80 years ago and can only be matched on the current situation by interpretation. Great fun for the lawyers, but it makes the whole thing rather incomprehensible for the lay man.


The law needs to be refactored. Get the best lawyer, let them make a list of what the law essentially says and have them work out a structure that is most suited for this. Then we can step by step start to transform the existing body of law into that structure. It will take some time and effort, but it will make things clearer and more efficient on the long run. And while we're at it, let's translate the law from legalese into real lanugage. Anything worth saying can be said clearly.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Best Month To Visit by Google

After I wrote about a failed project to use Google to find the best month to visit somewhere, I went back, had a look at the code and tortured it until it gave me reasonable answers. It is here: best time to visit


The code works by searching for the names of months in the returned google descriptions. The two top months are assumed to be the month between which you should visit. One problem is determining which one comes first. For Amsterdam and Australia, the code returns April and October. But you shouldn't go to Amsterdam in februari, if june is an option.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Using Google as Common Sense engine

Hjalmar Gislason has an interesting piece about Google Miner. Basically, Google Minder uses Google to extract common sense from the web, using the ordering feature of Google to get the most relevant information. Is it doable?


When I started with Google History, my aim was actually something broader, a Google application that could answer any type of question. The first results of that were so bad, that I decided to limit myself to questions that have years in the range 1800-2050 as an answer. That did work. Better.


Is it possible to mine the Web for common sense? Another failed Google project of mine tried to work out the best time to visit a location, interesting information for the travel site I help building, world66. I fed Google the name of the location and the sentence "best time to visit" or a synonym. I would then search the returned descriptions of Google for the names of months and choose the mostly named one. It worked pretty well, returning june a lot of the time for European locations. But it also returned june for Australia and februari for Denmark.


Now, I only scanned Googles top-10, so the results might improve if the program would take a top 100. I'll look into that later. But the point is that if a rather trivial piece of information like this is hard to extract from Google results, then the more arcane things will be very hard indeed.


Things might look different for Google self, though. They have 3 billion documents indexed in all kinds of ways. Running some clever algorithm against 3 billion documents in stead of 10 might improve results drastically. Google became self-aware at 2:14 a.m. eastern time, August 29.


One other thing. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled 'how much is a billion', complaining about the number-unawareness that is riding high. Currently the entry has position two at Google for the term "how much is a billion" and there are quite a few people arriving on my site with that very question. Ironic and insulting for the visitors. One guy wrote me to complain that I didn't actually explain how much a billion is, in an easy to understand way. Couldn't I post something about that on Google?


What about: if a thousand people lose a thousand dollar, every day, for three years, they have lost a billion dollar. Still no way to understand the size of the American deficit. Anybody with a better explanation?

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Internet history

The Internet doesn't forget that easy. Especially on Usenet, the original discussion forum of the Internet predating the web, there are some interesting first posts, things that became much bigger later.


Searching a bit around, I found the following monumental posts. Geeks announcing something that was at the time a tiny experiment but would become a revolution:



  • One Richard M. Stalman has a bright idea: free unix. From these humble beginnings GNU grew on which a lot of Linux is based.

  • Talking about which, one Linus Benedict Torvalds posts about a pet project he had, trying an OS for some old hardware he had lying around.

  • Then there is of course that other pet project of Tim Berners-Lee, something he called the WorldWideWeb project, as if the hacking of one guy had a chance of making it world wide.

  • Followed by a post of Marc Andreessen about a browser called Mosaic, which was to be followed by Netscape, which started the Internet boom in earnest.

  • Lawrence Page asks how to set the User-Agent-Field in a java app he wrote. That app later became Google.

Of course there are many more posts, mostly of people who didn't make it (yet). Usenet used to be this big platform bubbling with ideas. People would post, other people would respond and something good would happen. Today blogging has taken over that process. May be in ten years or so, there'll be a page[?] with links to very old blogs who where the beginning of something great.

Open Movements that closed

Nowadays, if you insert a CD in a computer and the CD isn't copyright protected, chances are that the computer will retrieve the titles of the songs on the CD. This happens through the magic of the CDDB. Every CD has a unique id and the CDDB has a list of songs associated with that id. Great application, nice company, you might think. But you'd be wrong. The CDDB started as a collaborative project with lots of volunteers typing in the titles of songs. But then the Internet Boom came and the guys at CDDB realized they could make money on it, so they did. Nowadays, if you want to incorporate the CBDB in a program, you will have to pay. None of the proceeds go to the original volunteers. Luckily enough, there is the FreeDB, which is free and will always be free.


Open Movements that close are not the seldom. The IMDB started as a volunteer project (but we have the YMBD (Your Movie Database)) and is now commercial. TravLang is another example. An I'm sorry to say, that world66.com, a project I helped set up, is guilty of the same crime. The good news is, we're going to open up. World66 will be a truely open source travel guide, with an open content license and probably open source code (if I get it cleaned up enough). In the coming weeks, I'll be reporting from time to time about where we're going.


Here's a first one. The license. Of course we want an open license, some thing similar to the GPL. The thing is, I would like everybody be able to copy everything. But if somebody put it on a website, it would be best if the license required them that anybody could still edit the content.At that website or with a link back to world 66. Is this feasible within Open Content?

Monday, October 13, 2003

Steven Berlin about email

Steven Berlin writes about saving email by better organizing it. All I want is two things: faster search in Outlook (why does it take minutes to scan my 500Mb mail file? Weren't computers supposed to be fast) and rules to categorize my mail a day after I receive mail, so that my inbox contains the most recent entries from which I can work. Then after I have replied, Outlook can move the mails to the correct folder.

Google Hacks

A look at my referer logs showed that quite a few people come here for one of the Google Hacks, so I added a new category with six projects doing something interesting with Google.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Do we need Digital IDs

Kevin Werbag predicts the coming battle whether we'll Digital IDs will become mandatory. A lot industries will be asking for them, with seemingly convincing arguments. But the ability to be anonymous has achieved great things on the Internet. It will be a high price to pay if we loose that.


On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, the old saying goes. But not for long. Their are a lot of powerful parties that want to end anonimity on the Internet and they'll be leaning on our governemnts to require Digital IDs to surf. They'll claim we'll need it to fight illegal copying of music, spam, terrorisme and that old stalward, kiddie porn. It will sound convincing: you need a drivers license to drive on the highway, so why no driver license for the Information Super Highway?


The openness of the Internet makes it vulnerable to misuse. But if you close it, you also close a source of new ideas. Anybody can implement a new protocol on the Internet and start using it. This is why so many good ideas have developed so fast: you don't need a lot of resources to write a blogging system and maybe more importantly, you don't need a license.


Ubiquous Digital IDs will stop this, because it will require all software to be compatible with it. Not a problem for Microsoft or Sun, but it will be for the new Dave Winer or Shawn Fanning. Stopping innovations at the grassroot level will be high price to pay.

The weird European stability pact

Why again do we have the European Stability? The Germans feared the Euro might be a weak currency, weaker than their D-Mark, if other countries would join with less of a tradition when it comes to paying attention to the state finances. Of course Germany is now one of the countries flouting the rules of the pact. The fact that the Euro is rather strong now, when the deficits in Europe are rising above the limit set in the pact, when the Euro was really weak when the pact was functioning, adds to the irony.


The stability pact was a bad idea of course to begin with; The Euro takes away one tool for individual countries to control their economies, setting their interest rates. So why also limit the options for these countries to control economies using the government budget? It seems not to be important anyway, since France is not going to do anything about their budget deficit and who is going to fight France?


The trouble is of course that the whole pact will be incorporated in the new European Constitution. Dead on arrival, but cut in stone.

Thursday, October 9, 2003

Bombing the Vatican

Whether or not Sadam Hussein had the weapons of mass destruction, most opponents of the war agreed that in principle removing a head of state by force should be possible, if he was a great enough thread to world peace. Currently the head of state that is the greatest thread to human welfare on this planet is the Pope. Removing him from power shouldn't take the American army longer then a few minutes. One daisy cutter should do the job.

So far, about twenty million people have died of AIDS. 42 million people are infected. Correct information about how AIDS is transmitted and access to cheap condoms could have saved most of these people. If no action is taken, 70 million people will die in the next 15 years. This is not only a human cathastrophy of an unheard scale, it also threathens the security of the world. Even the Bush administration agrees.

But the Vatican seemingly doesn't. Telling people not to used condoms is really terrible in a situation where 70 million lives are at stake. Telling them that condoms don't protect and might even cause aids, is downright murderous. The Vatican obviously is a greater thread to world peace then Iraq ever was, so the justification of attacking it should be proportional greater. And it doesn't take a large army either. One daisy cutter really should do the trick. Rebuilding the tiny country as a democracy should not be that hard either, though adding it to Italy would be easier.

Seriously though. Where is the difference between Osama bin Laden calling the faithfull to kill people from the West with arms or the Pope calling the faithfull to kill their own with a virus?

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Google Talk

Another Google project online. Google Talk. You type a sentence of three or four words and Google find the fifth based on the first four, and the sixth based on word 2..5 etc. Weird dada like poetry follows.

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Why jobs moving overseas isn't so bad

The same people complaining that economics isn't a science tend to not understand the writings of Ricardo about competive advantages. An article on O'reilly's recently had all the old arguments about computers destroying jobs and jobs going overseas without paying any attention to economic theory.


Simply said, Ricardo argues that if everybody does what he is best at relatively, than everybody will profit the most. Not everybody will profit the same, though. So, if Indians are better in programming than in marketing relative to Americans, then it is best if the Indians program and the Americans do the marketing. But isn't the American economy hurt when the good jobs like programmers move to India? No. Let's consider the American economy as a system. Let's assume it spends 100 on software development. Now, the Indians come and they'll do the same job for 30. That is good for the system, because it is cheaper.


Some programmers become redundant and they'll have to find new jobs. Granted, not nice for them. If they find a job in which they make more than 30, the American economy wins. The programmers in India make more than the otherwise do, so the Indian economy wins too. But what if the programmers can't find a job for more than 30? Well, it that case they can stay programmers and work for the new wage of 30.


So wages are driven down by international competition until everybody earns what they earn in India and we're all poor? Wrong again. The American economy as a system produces a certain amount of wealth. The more people work, the more wealth. The more efficient the system, the more wealth. This is where economic growth comes from. Moving programming jobs to India increases the overall performance of the system and thus the overall wealth production of the system. So, in total people become richer.


This is where it gets tricky. Economic theory doesn't tell us where the extra wealth ends up. Everbody might get richer, or only the people that are already rich. Employment might rise or it might fall. But that is a point where a lot of confusing seems to be about. People tend to reason that employment falls with rising productivity because you need less people to do the same amount of work. This is what the economists call the falacy of the lump of labour.


People are 10x as productive as say a 150 years ago. If the lump of work falacy would hold true, 90% of us would be out of a job. Instead these people moved out of the factories and farms and started to do the things that make our lives so much nicer. So all is well with the moving of jobs overseas? Not really. It would be better to let the people come and work here that are motivated and capable. But the general population doesn't want that for fear of their jobs. Don't get me started on that.

Monday, October 6, 2003

Archean on runme.org

Yesterday my archean project was added to runme.org, a website about software art. Archean is certainly a beautifull project. The patterns are pleasing and always changing. But is it art? Can software be art?


In times now long gone, there was no real distinction between artists and craftsmen. People did there job and if they were really good, they were artists. Painters or sculpturers were no different in that respect than carpenters or bakers. Indeed Socrates was a sculpturer before he became a philosopher. Not as an artist, but just as a way to make a living.


So can you create art in any job? I suppose so. But some jobs have more possibilties to excell, to be creative and to be original, all aspects we have learned to associate with art. Against these criteria, art is to be expected from the best computer programmers. Like Fredericks Brooks wrote in the Mythical Man Month:



The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff.  He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination.  Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.


It is not only the abstraction of the work, although this freedom allows the programmer to use his creativity and to come up with truely new solutions, to build new stuff in new ways. It is also something different.


A good programmer knows how to judge code not by how it works, but by its beauty. A program that is beautifully written, it will probably work a lot better than a program that is not. Indeed, if a novice approaches the master with a programming solution that is uggly, the master will tell the novice first that it is uggly and why it is uggly. Only when the novice starts to protest that it doesn't matter, because it works, will the master will explain why it doesn't work either.


So is Archean art? In a way it is only the implementation of an algorithm I discovered/designed. The code is not very beautifull, more a quick hack actually. But on some level, Rembrandts paintings were also the implementation of a new algorithm he discovered. Great implementations and a nice algorithm, that is what an artist makes an artist. 

Sunday, October 5, 2003

In favour of Digital Rights Management software

The beauty about a society where a lot of the production is actually information production, is that the economies of scale in an information society work even better than in a industrial society. If I write a program, that will take a certain amount of effort. But the total amount of effort hardly increases if the program is distributed millions of times. The same goes for songs, movies and anything digital.


The problem is of course that if anybody can copy my program, how am I going to make money on it. A tricky one, but banning the copying of the program is hardly the answer. Take music for example. The actual musicians get a few cents per sold CD, while the CD costs 20 US dollars (at least here). Where does the rest of the money go? Distribution and promotion, something that could be done for almost free over the Internet, as is demonstrated by the blog phenomenon.


The wide implementation of Digital Rights Management software that will prevent all kinds of copying will therefore be an economic disaster. Digital things will become as expensive as material things and the money will end up in the wrong pockets. But all freedom loving people should strive to have it implemented as soon as possible. Because people are not that stupid. Offer them a system that takes away there freedom and charges them for it and they'll finally start looking for an alternative.


Take Ms Office. If the technology was out there to prohibit all illegal copying of Office, most companies would be forced to get a legal copy of the software for every single one of their workstation, while currently they probably have too few licenses. But people at home wouldn't buy Office. They would start to look around and find OpenOffice, just as good, but free. Or maybe StarOffice, even better and not quite free. And they would love it. And than the companies would say, hey, if this works and our employees use it, let's use it too.


In the realm of music, the same might happen. Let the RIAA prohibit copying and exchange of all music under their control. Let them try to kill the spirit of music lovers. They won't succeed. People willl want to exchange music and just discover bands that distribute their music over the Internet in a more free way. Not as long as it is possible to exchange any kind of music with Kazaa, of course. But give them the choice between mainstream music and freedom, they'll choose freedom in the end.

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Visual Poetry Ready

Poetry is supposed to project images in your mind. VisualPoetry translates any text into a series of images by looking up the words on Google image search and projecting the most relevant results as a slide show.

Friday, September 26, 2003

TV has to get worse before it gets better

When I grew up, we had two TV channels, both run by the state and filled by special foundations with members to cater for. If you didn't like a program, you could always see what was on the other side. Since the choice was so limited, it probably was a good idea to have the government to divide the limited broadcast possibilities evenly over groups thought to be representing major movements in society.


Nowadays we not only have 9 Dutch channels, but also a large amount of foreign channels. There is a lot more to choose from, but is seems that the quality has dropped. This probably has to do with the fact that people no longer watch the same programs and that a sense of togetherness has been lost that way, which hurts the perceived quality of the program. But it might also have to do with the fact that programs are no longer created for the viewers, but for the advertisers, who at the end of the day foot the bill.


With the advent of commercial TV there were of course doomsayers predicting something like this and warning for American situations. Commercial breaks within movies or even on sundays. Have they been right? Well, we got the commercials and sunday is no longer holy, but there seems to be hope on the horizon to the west.


The Americans have so many channels that some have started to experiment with broadcasting quality tv in order to attract viewers. HBO, for example, produces awarded programs like 6 feet under and their recent Carnivale, are quite viewable. Of course, people pay for HBO with money instead of by watching commercials, so it is logical that the channel pays more attention to its viewers.


But it is also part of an evolutionary process. When the choice is limited, the goverment decides what goes and what doesn't. When there are some channels, you only get middle of the road, viewable for everybody content. If the number of channels becomes really big, market opportunities to cater for niche tastes appear and quality programming will be made. That is the good thing about the Internet. With an almost unlimited diversity of information suppliers, there is a niche for almost everything.








Thursday, September 25, 2003

Evil Bill strikes again

If ten 747s packed with young children would crash into the Kilomanjaro every day, you'd think people would notice and try to do something about it. Of course there are no crashing 747s, just Malaria killing 3000 children a day. That's why people don't notice. Still, a million dead children a year, it is a lot.


Bill Gates, an evil man, if you are to believe what you generally read on the Internet, donated 168 million dollar to fight malaria, single handedly doubling the global budget. That's why we call Bill evil. Before anybody says, 'well, but he has a lot of money, so he should', do realize that it is about 3% of his net worth. How many people donate 3% of their net worth to fight malaria?


Malaria is a good cause to give to. Not only because of the dying children, but also because there are good reasons to think a vaccin is within reach, almost all malaria can be cured and most of it can be avoided. Better and cheaper drugs are of course always needed. So why does the world spend less on Malaria research than the cost of one, be it nice, cruise ship?


Because there is no market of course. There are only two parties interested in malaria drugs that can actually pay something for it: tourists and the american army. But tourists only want protection for the duration of their tropical adventure, so Lariam is good enough. The US Army is interested in case a malaria invested country needs a regime change. Without GI Joe and Evil Bill, malaria research would be almost non-existent.


If you take into consideration that third world aid doesn't work, a country like the Netherlands could do worse than to spend a large chunk of its anual aid budget on malaria research. Or put a prize on it. The first company to find a vaccin gets the jackpot (currently our country spend 4.4 billion euro on aid a year, 10% in the jackpot?).

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Buddhism good, Islam bad?


It is common knowledge that Islam is a harsh religion where the hands of thieves are cut off routinely, while Buddhisme is the religion of peace. Holy War is something for the Christians and Muslims, not for the Eastern Saints. This might be common knowledge, but it is wrong. People fight wars, no matter what religion and if religion helps, they'll take religion.


A lot of people are fans of the Dalai Lama and his peacefull struggle for a free Tibet. Any fan should read the article by Swans about Tibet before the Chinese. Tibet was a medieval state with slavery, cutting of hands of thieves, sexual abuse by monks and a very low standard of living for the average person. The slaves and serfs were not so unhappy about the Chinese invasion (at least in the beginning). And the Dalai Lama counted quite some Nazi's under his friends "a weakness for the underdog", he calls it.


It is quite an eye-opener to many, but if you think about it, why would any good come from a theocracy, just because the religion is Tibettan. The Dalai Lama was a religious dictator of a state and claimed on top of that Divine knowledge. Dictatorship is bad. State institutions who claim to be the only source of truth are worth. At least with Khomeini one could discuss whether something was correct in the Islam tradition.


In the West we long for a hidden Eastern philosophy that will point us the way to true happiness. A happiness not depending on our material wealth, but spiritual hapiness. We have to realise, though, that the liberal democratic tradition of the West is the best philosophy of all.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

PhoneCams outsell conventional cameras

It is official. PhoneCams have outsold conventional cameras. According to Mobile Commerce Worldwide, mobile phone makers shipped 25 million camera capable handsets in the first half of this year. Most of them were sold in Japan, but Europe is going places too.


I think that these PhoneCams will almost completely replace conventional camera's. Not now. My PhoneCam does 640x480, which is okay(ish) for blog illustrations and e-mail, but nothing more. But as soon as they hit 2, maybe 3 megapixel, normal camera's (that is including normal, digital camera's) will be in trouble. Bringing a camera takes an active decision. Am I going to use it or not? But people always bring their phones.


The fact that I can immediately e-mail any picture I take, tops it off. This is a feature I already use. You could print them directly from your phone at something like ImageStation. Sure, you could build in network capabilities in camera's too and I'm sure that people will, but once the camera in phones get good enough for holiday pictures, most people are just not going to bother with bringing an extra item of electronics.


If the pixel amount doubles every year or so, as it seems to do, we'll need four years before the camera is obsolete. Of course, by that time, most digital cameras will have 10+megapixels, but that is mostly interesting for the (semi)-profesionals.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Completing the RSS Revolution

RSS is great. Recently we've added a RSS stream to our companies website tracking all changes. So now anytime somebody modifies an article or an outsider posts a comments, it shows up in my News agregator. It is just example how a relative simple XML based protocol with enough support, allows us to build complex, cross-server systems. It allows the consumer of information to postpone the unavoidable moment of information overload by agregating information from different sources. No need to check a website every week for something new.


But it has its limits. Some of these limits stem from the fact that RSS has developed in close relation with the whole blogging thing. Others have more to do with missing components. For some of these problems solutions exists, but they are immature and or not open and therefore not widely adopted. What follows is an overview of what is missing.


RSS amplifyers
If I subscribe to a blog, my agregator will try to retrieve the RSS anything from every 6 hours to every 15 minutes. If a blog becomes popular, this means that the amount of traffic spent on RSS becomes a considerable cost to the owner of the blog. Services like Bloglines help, but it would be good if RSS readers would, like bittorrent for example, automatically rebroadcast what they just read to other readers, this way spreading the load. Otherwise we'll punish the popular broadcasters.


Collaborative Filtering
Even though the RSS system is perfectly suitable for point-to-point distribution of information, in practice, people tend to subscribe mostly to the most popular blogs. This is perfectly normal and indeed the power distribution seems to be universal. But still, people subscribe to blogs they know, not necesarily to blogs that have the best content for them. A relative simple system would allow subscribers to vote on blog-posts and work out based on my votes and other peoples votes, what other posts would be relevant for me. (People who like this post, also liked...)


Feedback systems
RSS is very much a one way street so far. People subscribe to your feed and they receive your posts, but there is not much of a protocol by which they can let you know what they liked and what they didn't. Sure, they could post comments, but every blog system implements comments in a different way. Why not embed in the RSS a series of callbacks, stuff that people can do with the posts, such as quote them, read them, comment on them or forward them for example.


 

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Copying CDs and open standards

Somebody throwing a party had asked us whether we couldn't put some of our music on CDs to play at the party. Should be legal, right? As long as I own the songs and take the CDs back home. We agreed and used Easy CD to create a number of CDs, at least we tried. The actual burning failed. The song blabla is less than four seconds long the program kept saying.


So, there we had 5 CDs worth of songs in an undocumented format. Copying the stuff to a laptop and trying somewhere else wouldn't have worked, unless the absolute paths of the songs would remain the same. Getting a different burning program (if that was the problem) wouldn't help either, because of lacking import features.


You could hack around with a python program, extracting the data and while this would not have been that hard, in the end we settled for copying the mp3s to a laptop and taking a cable to connect to the parties stereo. Worked like a charm and maybe this should have been our primary choice to begin with, but if Easy CD would have stored their playlists in some kind of widely used XML format, this would never have happened.


And that's the thing. Markets take a long time to settle on true standards and if they do, often somekind of cartels are the cause. For things like office documents on the long run the importance of standards might convince companies like Microsoft to settle for a standard, just because the need of the customers is so big (though MS won't go willing). But for the smaller apps, I don't see this happening. Maybe a new version of Easy CD will store playlists as XML, but only because it sounds cool.


What we need is an institute that approves of standards being used in a specific situation, saying, for this application the chosen standard is the best, acceptable or bad and then some widely recognized symbol: Standard approved. Maybe the EU could play a part here.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

The fashion world innovates without copyright protection

NPR has an article about the fashion world. Like in the software world, here things happen fast. Stuff that is new now, is uninteresting tomorrow. Like in the software world, a lot of copying and imitating is going on. But although the designs are trademarked, there are not a lot of lawsuits about who copied wat. Lawsuit take a lot of time, are expensive and you never know who will win. It is better to put you energy in coming up with new ideas, seems to be how the fashion people think.


Both the music and the software industry used to be like that. Copying was a form of flattery that didn't hurt the leaders. The leaders had moved on by the time the copycats had there knock-offs ready. Nowadays, we have patent-, trademark-, trade secret- and copyright laws to stop the copyers in their tracks.


It has been argued that strong Intellectual Property (IP) laws spur innovation, because new inventions are protected from copying and therefore there is a stronger incentive to come up with new inventions. You might just as well argue the other way around: if a company can exploit its IP without competition, because nobody can copy it, why would it innovate before all the possible money has been made from that IP? Keep it the way it was.


Of course there is a big difference between having competitors imitate your fashion item/software program/muscial style and having somebody making an exact copy of your song or computer program. But copyright law usually stops both. Microsoft has to charge something for their programs in order to pay their programmers, so allowing the general public to just copy everything would probaly mean that they would no longer develop MS Office (which would be fine, but that is not the point). But copyright law also grants Microsoft the right to exclude third parties from improving Excel or Windows and making money off that. Microsoft has a monopoly on that. Obviously, this means that less innovation is going on than is possible.


The question is, of course, whether a copyright law could be made that would allow software companies to charge for their products, while making it possible for other software companies to improve on the original product. Any suggestions?

Verisign's self-describing webservice

Verisign succeeded in pissing off a lot of people by redirecting mistyped urls to their own page. Go to this link to see what they say about themselves:


http://our-integrity-so-we-went-for-the-money.com


A self-describing webservice

Monday, September 15, 2003

Making MP3s legal

Music and the Internet make a cool combination. Audiogalaxy, now defunct, got me back interested in music. Before that, I just played the CDs I had, never discovering new stuff. Now I do find new artists and new songs that are interesting. Also, having all your music on a computer is way more convenient than storing it on CDs or tapes. You can play whatever you want, whenever you want it in whatever order. No more, hey why is this CD in that box.


But in the end, there is no way around it. Mostly getting music over the Internet is illegal. Sure, the big record companies are evil, a cartel and when the revolution comes, we'll see, but until then, we either change the law or have to keep to the law. Stealing from thieves doesn't make it right. So, I've decided to make my MP3 collection legal.


I'm no fan of DRM stuff where I loose the option to do with my songs what I want. I want to buy something and then own it. Fortunately, in the Netherlands there are a couple of ways of legally getting your hands on MP3s. IANAL and this is based on information I gathered from tidbits, so please let me know if I'm wrong.


Buying CDs
This is the easiest and most expensive way. You go to the store, buy the CD, rip the tracks and then dispose of the CD or keep it as back up. You can't sell the CD or give it away. In the past I have bought quite some CDs, so that's a start. Some of those where actually stolen, but I figure that I still own the rights to the music, though this might be disputable (can I replace a CD I bought, but that got damaged/stolen by downloading the songs?)


Public library
For some strange reason, it is okay to make copies of stuff you get from the library. The library pays for it. Otherwise it would be kinda weird that the library lends you CDs for three days. Of course, this worked out a lot better for the record companies when people could only copy their music to tape. The Asmterdam public library has a large collection with reasonable fees.


(Internet) radio
Again, this might be specific for the Netherlands, but here it is okay to record something from the radio and then later listen to it. Supposedly, this extends to Internet radio too. Shoutcast stations are perfect. Find a station you like and use something like stream ripper to save the broadcasted MP3s. Note streamcast songs tend to have a relative low bitrate (usually 128kbit or less).


Buy songs online
emusic.com allows you to download an unlimited amount of MP3s. Their selection is rather limited, with a strong accent on less known bands, ie mostly independent music, but that is kind of the point of course. And then there is weblisten.com, allowing unlimited downloads of MP3s of about any artist. The RIAA doesn't think so, but they claim it is legal in Spain and therefore in the Netherlands. In the same league, you'll find allofmp3, making use of the apparently more relaxed russion climate. Download while it lasts.


Any suggestions as to what isn't legal or what I missed, are most welcome.



 

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Micropayments and Free Content

Clay Shirkey's latest essay asks a valid question: why Micropayment schemes don't work. Even if you don't agree with Shirkey's answer, it is an important question. Weren't Micropayments going to allow web-publishers to finally make money on the Internet. The 'old' publishing industry packages a lot of information together in a magazine, newspaper of CD and charges for the whole packages. The realities of the physical world make this necesary, it is undoable to charge per article, but on the Internet this was going to be different. People would pay as they went for content, a quarter for a good article and maybe a dime for a joke. No longer would you pay for content you didn't read. Think about all the newspapers thrown away without being read. A nice future, that somehow didn't happen.


Why not? Why isn't there a generally accepted way to pay for content? Shirkey's argument goes like this: there is an abundancy of content available on the Internet, directly from the authors. These authors do not have great costs getting the content on the Internet and a great need for recognition. Given the choice, they'll choose fame over money. In the totally open information ecosystem of the Internet there will always be a substiture for information, so the cheapest one wins. The most important costs are not the monetary charges, but the fact that any time you make decision whether to spend or not, you're stopped in what you're doing.


There might be some truth in this, but it doesn't always work like that as the success of Apples iTunes proves. In Europe, paying by phone (usually involves receiving or sending a SMS text message) for information works pretty ok. People buy weather information, ring tones and of course porn. iMode also seems to work. But in the end people tend to prefer free over non-free and usually eat-all-you-can over pay-as-you-go. I also doubt whether the Internet will be able to supply free versions of all information subcathegories. Blogs will be free of course, because there are enough people writing blogs. Literature and music might become free for the same reason. But there are a lot of information categories for which you will have to spend money, simply because gathering the information will cost money.


Apart from micropayments and advertising supported media, there is a third model possible for Internet: the walled garden. AOL has content only AOL subscribers can view. A lot of bigger Internet companies have tried this, though most have failed. What these faillures have in common, is that the content was centrally produced, thereby missing an important advantage of the normal Internet. But what if you could have a system where premium content could be protected and only be viewed by members who would pay, say 10 dollars a month and all proceeds of the system would be split according to the number of page views over the content producers? Basically, it would be a eat-as-much-as-you-can model with a micropayment back end for the content produceres.