Douwe Osinga's Blog: August 2003

Sunday, August 31, 2003

How to become a republic

The Netherlands is a kingdom. I'm no fan of that. I'm not dead against it, but like they say, you wouldn't invent it, if it wasn't there. It goes against my liberal principles to put one family in a constitutional different position, just because of their lineage.

But becoming a republic takes a lot of effort and is probably not worth the trouble at the moment. There are bigger problems. The Antilles pose one of those problems. There are some people there calling for independence and I hope they would go for it. Actually, I think that the Netherlands should become independent, that is, withdraw from the Kingdom of The Netherlands, The Antilles and Aruba. The Netherlands could then become a republic, and the Kingdom would just be the Kingdom of the Antilles and Aruba. Two problems solved and the Monarchy remains, it just isn't our Monarchy anymore. The Queen doesn't seem to pay a lot of taxes, so what better place than a tax-haven for her to rule.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Children do not learn languages fast

Yesterday, I got into a little discussion about how fast children learn languages. Lost of people seem to be amazed by the fact that a four year old speaks Chinese. But if you think about it, this isn't very spectacular. I can learn a language pretty well in four years, especially if I don't have to do anything else at the same time. And after four years, children still don't speak very well.

Of course it is amazing that a baby can learn a language, small and helpless as it is and children do in the end learn the language better than I will ever will, but they don't learn very fast.

Friday, August 29, 2003

How much is a billion?

The american deficit might reach a cool 500 billion next year. Sounds like a lot? It is. But I wonder how many people have an idea just how much. How many people could tell me how many times somebody has to donate a 100.000. dollar (which is probable the order of money normal people have any idea about) to the federal government in order to make the guys in Washington brake even? Not a lot, I'm affraid.

A lot of times, the descissions made in politics are about numbers, so this is worrying. There are of course a lot of complicated and important issues, the general public does not understand, while hopefully our representatives do, but numbers are not specific to one issue, they are the language in which the issues are discussed. the 2004-2013 period, reaching a total over the decade of $3.7 trillion it says in the article quoted above. That is a lot! Or is it. If you don't know how much a trillion is, this only scares you because it has a seemingly large number in it and is said in a very drammatic way. (In Europe, of course, a trillion is quite something else, which complicates the problem here).

So, if a politician says that on a yearly basis 400 million euro is lost to crime in the Netherlands and says this in drammatic way, the knee-jerk reaction is to do something about. 400 million sounds like a lot of money, of course. If you don't know about numbers, how are you ever going to see that 400 million isn't that much on total economy? Sure, if there is something easy to do about it, we should, but otherwise sometimes it is better to accept it as 'about what you expect.'

A lot of people find it perfectly acceptable that they have no ideas about numbers. 'I'm just not very good with numbers, how many billion did you say?' Politicians lie and it is the peoples duty to catch them in order to make democracy work. As it is know, there's lies, damn lies and statistics. How are we ever going to catch the worst lies if they are in a language we don't understand?

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Bentham's Panopticon is here

Bentham proposed a panopticon, a building where everybody was visible for some centrally positioned person. In many ways, the panopticon is here and it is called Google. Everything I type on my blog is instantenously (well, it takes a day or so for Google to visit) visible to every Internet user.

I know, this is only in as far as I decide to put things on the Internet, but it is still very powerfull. Discovering something on the Internet has become totally different from discovering something in the real world. There are no real discoveries, everything is already there and indexed daily. There are no distant lands where it takes a lot of effort to get there. This makes the net a rather un-poetic place. No fantasies about what could be, because it is clear to everybody what is.

We're all naked under the eye of Google.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The right to tinker

Recently I have been trying to convince people that the European IP Enforcement directive is bad. There are a lot of things bad about it and if you google a bit, you'll find lots of things. So, find a pen or an e-mail client and write something to your European representative.

The worst thing about it is that the directive infringes on the right to tinker. I believe that if you own a thing, you should be allowed to do with it what you want and use it for whatever purpose you choose. Whether I want to play an audio CD in my computer, DVD player or microwave, should really be no concern of anybody else than me. I want to be allowed to take things I own apart, figure out how they work and put them back together and use the parts that are left over in other projects. These new laws give producers rights over products after they've sold them. It would be illegal to take things apart and find out how they work, or to alter stuff to make it work in different ways. It would also be illegal to write about these kind of projects.

Not only does this take away an important freedom and hands it tools to big companies to block the workings of a free market in a time when the free market is needed more than ever, it also is bad for society at large in that it hinders progress. Tinkering is the father of innovation and the grand dad of economic growth. Many a great business story starts with a geek wondering what would happen if he tried do to something differently.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Why the blackout was no problem

After the recent blackout in North America, there is a lot of talk again about the pro's and contra's of privatisation and deregulation of the electricity industry. Mostly about the contra's, actually. A lot of the rants I read are like: it didn't work in California, it didn't work in Australia and it is not going to work in the Netherlands either. Without a miss a discussion ensues with people saying, but it did work in Pennsylvania and Texas and actually it worked out fine in Australia and it wasn't the deregulation that failed in California. The conclusion probably is that deregulation can work, but that it won't if you don't take care.

The point is, humans fail to see that a lot of small gains can outweigh one big disadvantage. The black out in North America is a point in case. People tend to think that an occurrence like that proves that failure of deregulation. The total costs seem to be around 1 billion dollar. It seems a lot, but the total bill of electricity generation in the US is somewhere around 400 billion dollar. If due to deregulation something like this would happen four times a year extra, it would drive up costs by about 1%. Deregulation typically aims to reduce costs by 20%.

Farm subsidies are another example. The Common Agriculture Policy, which spends (some would say wastes) about 50 billion euros a year on farm subsidies, costs every European a little (well, 150 euros or so). But it brings a lot of money to the farmers. So anytime somebody proposes to cut the subsidies, the farmers get mad and park their tractors on the highway. The general public thinks: it's not fair that they want take money from those farmers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

.ianal top level domain

I think it is time for a .ianal top level domain. This I-am-not-a-lawyer part of Internet should be like the Internet was before the suits showed up. How does it work? Simple. By entering this part of the Internet, you declare that you will not use the information you'll find in any way to undertake legal action against anybody. It's like the shrink-wrapped license agreements. By opening the box you agree to...

I set up an online register that you can sign to support this project. Show the world that having lawyers kicking around on a virtual playground, doesn't make it better for the others.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The unreliability of Internet

Internet is a great medium for knowledge. If you want to know something, Google is a click a way and if you're lucky the answer just one more click. But if you want to know numbers, the Internet is unreliable.

The problem is not so much that you can't find the numbers. It's not hard to find a number for the average cost of electricity generation by nuclear reactors. The problem is that you find a lot of different numbers. The problem is how to find out which number is reliable. It is clearly one of the things that the Google PageRank algorithm fails. Pages that are linked to a lot, don't necessarily contain more reliable numbers.

If a seperate search engine could be constructed to search just for numerical facts, then reliability could be part of features. Numbers more often quoted are more reliable. Sources that quote numbers that are more often quoted are reliable, etc. Such a search engine could focus on <table> tags and try to work out the meaning of cell values by scanning the horizontal and vertical headers. I would like that.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Seinfeld on a telephone

Yesterday I got my new phone to play an episode of Seinfeld. I took the episode and let RealOne prepare it for mobile use. Even if the resolution is only 176x120, it only plays 10 frames/sec and the sound quality isn't too good, I think this is amazn. I have long thought of this as the holy grail of telephone power. The phone has finally become a multi-media computer.

This phone has 500 times as much memory as my first computer and a clockspeed of 50 times as high, but it does a lot more per cycle. I remember wondering when I would own a computer that could actually display a picture in any recognizable form. Now my phone plays movies. Moore's law is amazing.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Big Brother for President

The California recall may seem like a wild circus with actors, porn stars and various lunatics joining the race to become the next govrnor, but all in all California is not a bad place to live and has been governed reasonably well over the past years. California works even if it makes the rest of the world laugh and the rest of the world tends to adopt the stuff from California after they finished laughing.

Big Brother, the television series, was a Dutch invention of course and I feel it is time to merge Big Brother and the political circus. Imagine a TV show where the contestants are filmed day and night, while doing various tasks. The contestants are candidate politicians and the tasks are related with politics. It would be amusing and it would also be a great way to learn more about the politicians. Media training keeps those naste tempers hidden for only so long.

I think you do learn more about people in a Big Brother kind of setting. Don't we need to know as much as possible from our leaders to be? It would also be a nice compromise between the European solution where political parties get some tv time where they make very boring documentaries and the American where political parties buy prime time slots to broadcast sound bites.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

There's something rotten in Brussels

On account of not having a tv, I don't catch the Dutch 8 o'clock news everyday (I do view it on the Internet, just not everyday). And I also admit I don't read my newspaper completely everyday. However, I don't think this can account for the fact that I completely seemed to have missed the national uproar about the upcoming EU Directive about Intellectual Property. Actually, I think there hasn't been an uproar. But there should have been one.

What's going on? The EU IP Enforcement Derictive is document that describes what IP law is going to be in Europe. It is like the dreaded American DMCA, only worse. For an interesting analysis see ZDNet UK or our cynical friends at NTK. In my opinion, IP law has been used to protect vested interest to much in the past. The new EU thing will make it worse. It will extend IP protection to manufactured goods. Manipulating your printer to work with general purpose cartridges would be illegal. Playing DVDs from a different region? same thing. Read the articles and weep.

This is a direct assault on the freedom of consumers. It will allow companies to close their products against tinkering and the use for other purposes. It will allow companies to close markets and overcharge consumers. This can't be what the single market project is for. The EU parlement votes about it on 11 september, so it is not too late. So, visit the website, find your representative and let him/her know what you think.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

How to save the Wizard World

Just like half the planet, I've read the latest in the Harry Potter series. I did like the book, though it is more of the same (and rather a lot more of the same at over 700 pages, compared to just 280 for the first one). What did bother me this time was the arrogance of the wizards towards the muggle (non wizard) world. If I was a wizard, I would be worried.

The whole wizard thing seems to have started somewhere around the beginning of the second millennium. Back then, the power difference between the muggles and wizards was unbelievable large. The muggles didn't know anything about the world, lived uncomfortable lives and died young of avoidable diseases. They were ruled by cruel and often mad dictators, communicated by travelling bards and the horseback was the fastest way to travel and even that was to expensive for most people. Fast forward a thousand years. Not much has changed in the wizard world. They cling to traditions and most these traditions are old. But the muggles. Travelling by plane is faster and more comfortable than by broom. E-mail sure beats sending owls. Medicine has made tremendous strides forwards. Moving paintings are all very nice, but we have webcams and dvd players. The wizards still have some incredible tricks, but the way we're catching up, should worry them. It really should interest them why the muggles are catching up that fast. They should study it and learn something from it.

One of the first things the wizards should copy, is liberal democracy. The wizard world is run like a communist dictatorship. The Ministry of Magic tightly controls the press and is the juridical, executive and legistive branch rolled in one. If you are an enemy of the state, they'll make you disappear into their Gulag, Azkaban for any minor thing.

Economically, the wizard world is a disaster. The Weasleys are poor, even though mr Weasley works for the ministry. Apparently, the productivity of British wizard society per head is about equal that of the Muggles. How can that be, when the first group has magic at its disposal? Its for the same reason as why the Soviet Union couldn't keep up.

The wizard world is governed badly. This is problematic in the battle against Voldemort, but in the long run the competition is the Muggle world. The pas couple of hundred years, the Muggles were so far behind, it didn't matter that much. With the current technological and economical growth in the Muggle world, it will not take long before the Muggles will overtake the wizards in power, wealth and knowledge. This can only be avoided by fundamentally reforming the Wizard world. Press and market should be free. The powers of government should be separated and democracy should be introduced. Only then a new Golden Age with rapid economic and scientific (magic) growth can be attained. The alternative is domination by the Muggles.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Not all deeds are selfish


Yesterday I got into a familiar discussion with a friend of mine about the nature of selfish deeds. Egoism is a valid moral theory. If everybody would act egoistic, than it would obviously be to everybody's advantage to strife for a society where that would work and that of course is pretty much the way our capitalistic world works.

The familiar discussion was not about egoism per se, but more whether there is such thing as an unselfish deed. It is easy to argue that there isn't because if we act rationally, we do what we want and if we do what we want, we're acting selfish in a way. Heroic self-sacrifice made the hero feel good, so really he did it for himself.

The argument is too simple to be useful in a moral discussion and should be sidestepped. If I tell you that you are begin selfish, I'm not pointing out an tautology. To accuse someone of being selfish, means something and therefore not all deeds are selfish.

To argue that all deeds are selfish depends on a logical falacy similar to the slipery slope. We take a term used in daily life, analyse it and then extend it meaning in a seeming logical way until the term is so overstretched that it means nothing and from that we draw a certain conclusion. The falacy is easily spotted. If somebody argues that something doesn't exist, we should ask ourselved, if it doesn't exist, why do we have a word for it? Does the word we have refer to the thing that doesn't exist or does the word means something and have we drifted off in our philosophical reasoning?

Saturday, August 9, 2003

The invention of the Nation.

Germany and Austria have been fighting about whether Mozart was German or Austrian. The whole thing is really silly, of course. Mozart was born in Salzburg, which is currently in Austria, but was sem-independent at the time and part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was in many ways the forebear of Germany. Mozart thought of himself as a German and Austrian.

The point is of course that there was that in the 18th century, there was no contradiction in that. The nation state had not been invented. Being German meant to be from German roots, speaking German etc. Being Austrian meant being a subject to the Austrian emperror.

Only in 19th and 20th century became the idea popular that people of the same nation (i.e. language, culture and ethnicity) should be in the same state. Nationalism as binding ingredient of a political movement proved very effective, of course and shaped the world as we know it. Still, it is interesting to look back at the world before the nation state.

Borders between states used to be bounderies of political influence. One could travel from one country to another, hardly being bothered by the autorities. Before the First World War, passports were letters of recommendation. A passport was the request of a souvereign to treat the bearer with respect. Indeed, before 1858, the British king or queen issued passports to foreigners and British alike. Roma could travel where ever thay liked. If one country was richer and had a shortage of labourers, people would just come there to work.

Maybe the modern societies with their complexities demand the the new restrictions. Operating a social security system without them might be tricky. But the freedom and flexibility lost hurts us and the poor the most.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

Why Linux is mostly good for big companies

Tim O'Reilly of fame, has observed that the true killer app of open source is not an application at all. Rather, it is the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySql, PHP/Perl/Python) platform and the web services build on top of it. Google, Amazon and Yahoo! are the best examples of successful Open Source projects, rather than OpenOffice or the KDE desktop.

I agree with him. And it is not only the obvious Internet companies that use LAMP, any bigger corporation in need of a flexible solution that uses lots of servers in a custom configuration obviously can gain a lot by using an Open Source solution. Knowing how things work internally, being able to mix and match components within an OS and the power to completely rewrite pieces of the OS is going to come in handy if you're trying to set up a computer system to power a international trading platform. Or if you want to mass-produce a computer-like consumer device, it really makes a difference if you don't have to pay a fifty-dollar license fee to MS. On the other hand, if you're a small company, doing some in house development, you'll probably stick with some MS Office/VBScript combination. Linux is hard, Windows is easy. It is sad, but still true, whether your configuring PC's or developing an invoice system.

My point is, only the big corporations have enough resources to profit from free software. In a way, this is only logical. Open Source software means free as in free beer, but more so as in free speech. The license fee is usually only a small part of the cost of deploying software. The freedom that Open Source software offers goes way beyond that, but it doesn't mean a lot if you can't program, just as the freedom of press isn't worth that much if you can't read or write. And only the big companies write their own software. Maybe that is why Big Blue likes Linux so much.

Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Euler, Laplace and Archean

I received a friendly mail from John Hallam about my Archean project:

Off the top of my head, what you have described sounds like an Euler-method integrator for the laplace equation with 6 coupled potentials.  You should be able to get lots of interesting behaviour out of that.  If you make the local kernel even more flexible -- rather than just an average, which I think implements the laplace operator -- you could allow other local operators instead -- then you have a system that approximates the solution of other PDEs, for example the wave equation,

Unfortunately I'm not really sure what this all means. I can see how Archean is like systems that predict the spread of diseases, which I think the Eurler-method is used for. I would be interested if someone could point me towards more local operators.

Monday, August 4, 2003

Third World Aid

Development aid is a rather untractable problem, like education or the punishment of criminals by jail terms. We realize that the current situation where some people are very poor and others very rich, cannot or rather should not go on. But we don't know what to do about it, so we give aid (sometimes). Unfortunately, all statistics tell us that aid doesn't really help and that only 5% or so of the money gets where it should go. Sad but true.

Aid organization spend a lot of money on wages. A major problem is that we send western experts to third world countries, who demand western wages and if not, because they're good people, they'll demand western living conditions. But western experts are usually not as productive in the third world as they would have been in the western world. Paying them as if they were distorts the market.

Maybe it would be more sensible to hire third world experts from different countries. Like Indian engineers to solve African problems. India is of course a third world country, but one that has solved some of the basic problems and is very much developing. Africa seems to struggle with some of the problems that India has solved already. It seems to me that Indians are then in a better position to help the Africans than the western people. The west should of course still provide the money.

Wouldn't this draw away Indian experts from India, thereby starving the subcontinent of knowledge it needs it self? Probably not. India is in a phase where it can make use of extra capital rather effectively. The scheme would help India raise capital in return for expertise. And the cultural exchange would be valuable to all parties involved.

Sunday, August 3, 2003

Rightin Corectli

Some ideas are so simple that nobody wants to take them seriously. Lots of language communities spend enormous amounts of time to decide how to write certain words, always wondering whether tradition or reason should get the upper hand. Meanwhile in the real world, the good people of the International Phonetic Association have developed a way of writing that works for all languages in a consistent way. Why on earth do people write differently?

Writing phonetically might seem strange at first. It seems we're losing contact with an established language tradition, our own past. But people thinking like that don't realise how few of their own actually share that tradition. In western society an amazing amount of people never grasps the complexity of spelling and doesn't write at all, or very flaky. We call those people illiterate, but we don't really know. Maybe it is the complexity of the writing rules that puts these people out of the game. We disregard people that can't spell or can't write.

In the Netherlands we have a national dictee. One night on tv, people try to spell a very difficult piece of text correctly. Though it is maybe 300 words only, most people will make more than ten erros (I know I would). The very best score three errors or so. Give a normal piece of text to spell to the average guy and he'll make lots of errors. So much that it might scare him to write at all.

Learning foreign languages would be helped enormously if we would all write phonetically. It would be easier, because we would recognize the sounds we know and see which sounds we don't know. This last part is very important. A lot of people learning a foreign language see letters and think: I know how to pronounce these and will pronounce those letters the way they are pronounced in their native tongue for the rest of their foreign language speaking days. Maybe if we see that something is written differently, we'll learn to pronounce it differently too. juw jork rools.

Friday, August 1, 2003

RIAA: winning battles, losing wars

So the RIAA is starting to sue individual Kazaa users. And right they are, these people (okay, I'm one of these people) are breaking the law, so they should be stopped. Information wants to be free, sure, but society has to maintain its laws. If you don't like the law, get it changed, you cannot just ignore it.

That doesn't mean it's smart what the RIAA is doing. They are alienating their best customers (screwing, some would say), the people that love music. They're drawing a lot of attention to the fact that they operate as a cartel, stiffling innovation. But most importantly, they're missing business opportunities.

People love playing music and they love playing with music. Creating mixed tapes has been a favourite pass-time for many a geek in love. Playlists for parties is fun. We recently had a dinner party where we would try to gather songs in different languages and compare them. Things like that work great if you have access to music in a free and open way. Like all the mp3s through file sharing.

Internet radio is something that springs to mind. People operating an Internet radio station are like bloggers. They create something (playlists) for everybody to enjoy and are satisfied with a few hundred people dropping by everyday. The RIAA should applaud this. To me, they are a great source for new music (and I had been stuck in the eighties for most of my music).

There is of course Rhapsody, a service from, which is nice, though not available in Europe, with 50 radio channels, but it misses the personal touch. If the music industry could come up with a system where you'd pay a fixed amount per month as a consumer and anybody could start a radio-station.

I think you'd have a million music bloggers in no time, inspring people with their choice of music all over the place. Add a 80ct per track for burning to CD and you have a model.