Douwe Osinga's Blog: September 2003

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:

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 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, 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.

Friday, September 12, 2003

The Next 5 Minutes

The next 5 minutes is a festival that brings together media, art and politics, according to the site. If you visit the site and think 'what the hell are these guys doing?', you're not alone. That is how a lot of people react.

n5m represents the hope that technology somehow will set us free. That the new media will allow the little guy to take up media arms against the big conglomorates. Tactical media, it is called. And it is true, nowadays anybody with a webcam and a relatively fast connection, can set up a broadcast. Indeed, you can follow the proceedings of the next 5 minutes live with real player.

Free software, the amazing power of the Internet when it comes to colaboration and the blog movement give rise to this kind of optimism. With enough bandwidth, anything seems to be possible, and as we all know, bandwidth will drop in price until it is almost free. This is the same gospel that Wired has preached for years.

But a sour note is creeping into the speeches of the new revolutionaries. Big Media is fighting back and it turns out that technology isn't only good. Maybe information wants to be free, but Big Media wants to lock it up and technology gives it possibilities to do so. Revolution isn't an AOL keyword, but Digital Rights Management software is.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

10.000 brothers are watching you

SOS Camera Watch has a database of 10.000. publicly available on-line web cams, observing public places in the US. In the coming years, cameras will shrink and become cheaper, in accordance with Moore's Law. (Wireless) bandwidth will also become cheaper as will storage. There is no way to avoid it, camera's will be everywhere, recording our each and every move. In a few years, the first independent moving tiny robots will appear and these could be carrying cameras too.

It is hard to fight this kind of technological progress, even if you would want to. The general public doesn't care that much about privacy and a world, in which every crime would be recorded, wouldn't sound to bad to the voters who against most statistics always seem to think that crime is on the rise. Physical anonymity the way we're used to, is heading for the dust bin of history.

What will we do? Will accept the change and all live in a glass house and will trying to be anonymous become synonymous with criminal? I don't find that very likely. That would alter out culture deeply and would have to overcome a lot resistance. The other way out might be that people will start to look anonymous by wearing the same clothes or even masks. The Burqa might be in for new popularity in the West.

Seinfeld said that at some point in the future, we'll all be wearing the same outfit. He based that on the fact that that is the case in all movies about the future. Maybe the cameras will be the reason for this.

Monday, September 8, 2003

Why we should leave Google behind

Google has been a good friend for over 5 years now. It has taken the Internet world by storm. They have build a brand purely on the quality of their product, almost no advertising was involved. In many ways, Google brought back the sensibility that had slipped the Internet during the boom. The clear user interface, the seperation between advertising and commercials, even the humor, it was all very much the way Internet was supposed to be. Lately, stories around Google sound like the end of a beautiful friendship.

A year or so ago, the Scientology Church threadened Google with legal actions, if Google would not remove a link to, some Norwegians with an alternate vision on Scientology. Google complied. Since some time, xenu is findable again through Google again, though. However, last month or so, Google removed all references to Kazaa lite from its database, because Kazaa (the irony) had complained about copyright infringements.

Google, of course, is a company and has to think about shareholders value. However, when Google starts to filter its results per requests of governments and removes links that are not to the liking of a certain government, we can no longer trust Google with the central position it currently has in our information eco-system.

It is not only that. Just like we shouldn't depent on one company for something important as an all present OS, we can't really depent on one search engine that decides with secret algorithmes what page is the most relevant. Our freedom would be much enhanced if we would know how search engine results where produced, even more so if we could decide which algorithme to use.

What is needed here, is a seperation of data and algorithmes. The webcrawl programs that scourge the Internet for fresh content and are not that different between search engines. Some are faster maybe, but in the end they build up a catalog of what there is on the Internet. The collecting of all this data could be done by a widely used p2p program (like loomsmart's grub does). This information should be free to use and free to inspect by all - it is after all just another view of the World Wide Web itself.

On top of this distributed database, anybody should be able to build search engine algorithmes. Some will imitate Google and put pages that are linked to on top. Others could do a more intrinsic analysis of the content of the pages. On top of it all a variety of search engines could be build and no doubt a lot of other applications too. Just have a look at the results of the recent Google competition.

Friday, September 5, 2003

A Map is the eye of the beholder

I have always been fascinated by maps. Maps are not only a picture of the world, they also picture out mind. Let somebody  draw a map of the world and you'll get a map of her/his world.  That's why Europe is in the middle of a European map, China in  the middle of a Chinese map and the US is in the middle of a  map from the United States.

I have designed a little weblet that lets visitors collectively draw a world map. The map is drawn in yellow (land) and blue (sea). One small block, however is red. Visitors are then requested to decide whether this small block should be land or sea for the map to look like the world.

By filtering visitors based on their ip numbers, different maps can be drawn, giving a picture of how people from different regions think the world look like. But that's someway off. For now you can help the project by visiting:

Thursday, September 4, 2003

The impact of tech and Moore's law

Somebody reacted on my bit yesterday that cell phones hadn't had that much impact on his life compared to the Internet at large. But on the long run, cell phones will be much bigger than computers. Just look at the numbers. There are half a billion computers in operation and 1.4 billion cell phones in use. Most of the cell phones are simple machines, solely used for well, talking, but that is already changing.

This is where Moore's Law kicks in. Moore predicted in 1965 that the number of number transistors on a chip would double roughly every 18 month. It pretty much has. Doubling the number of transistors you'll get for the same money means that you can either double the capacity of the computer/phone or half the price for the same thing.

In the end it is not the power or the price of a technology that determines the ultimate success. Moores Law will make the thing cheaper and/or more powerful until it is enough for all practical purposes. Inkt-jet printers clearly have reached this point, as have calculators and alarm-clocks, for example. The tech inside doesn't matter. It is powerful and cheap enough. No doubt, both computers and cell phones will get there too.

In the end the cell phone will be the information device of choice for most people. Cell phones will become fully capable internet devices, ready for any form of communication. Already you see that a lot of people that are not very comfortable with their computers, love their phones. In the US and to a lesser extend Europe, people have large houses with enough space for one or more computers. In other countries where people live in tighter quarters, pc usage at home is much lower. One of the reasons why advanced cell phones are doing that much better in Japan and South-Korea.

Internet ready cell phones now cost around 400 euros. That needs to come down a factor 10 or so to make it a feasible option for two billion people. With Moore that will take five years.

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The revolution after the cell phone revolution

Bob Solow lamented that computers where everywhere, except in the economical statistics. He meant that a lot of money was spent on IT without any statistical prove turning up that it actually improved productivity. That was twenty years ago. Nowadays there seem to be some signs that IT actually improves productivity, especially in the US. Maybe it takes a while.

So far, cell phones seem to have made not much of an impression on economical statistics either and that is weird. The fact that so many people are much more often and much more directly available in an economy that for a large part depends on person-to-person communication, should improve efficiency, shouldn't it? But if it would, you'd expect a largish jump in productivity in Europe and Japan, where cell phone penetration is high and less so in the US. In reality, it seems to be the other way around.

Part of this probably can be explained by all the negative effects of cell phones. People talking too long to other people or having private conversations. But mostly I think that we haven't really learned how to use cell phones effectively. I don't mean that necesarily in an economic way. I think that the real impact of cell phones has still to come. The telephone was first thought to be ideal for transmitting music. How society will be transformed in the end by a device that enables something very close to telepathy, we can only guess.

Monday, September 1, 2003

Evolution, Self organization and Democracy

Stuart Kaufman discovered the principle of self-organization. If you have a complex enough system, with lots of subsystems that have random effects on each other, then the more complex the system becomes, the higher the chance is that somewhere in the system hides a positive feedback loop. Start with a huge amount of different chemicals, not unlike the situation before life emerged. Some chemicals will help the production of other chemicals. Some are needed for that production. Others hamper the again other processes. Anything could happen. The greater the diversity of chemicals and therefore rules, the greater the chance that something self sustainable will arise. Chemical A makes chemical B go into chemical C. C has some other effect with somehow a secondary or further removed effect that enhances the production of chemical A. A postive feedback loop is born. Kaufman thinks this is how life happened.

Starting with a random situation and random rules, in the end a system that looks very organized, will emerge. My Archean project is also a good example. You start with random noise, random rules and a minute later a complex mechanism has evolved with a certain logic to it. Run the program again and another system evolves.

It is the same with people. Throw a lot of people together and the way they interact will make them organize themself in a certain way. Usually you'll end up with a dictatorship. But run the simulation long enough and something else starts to happen. Little sub-positive feedback systems develop, like art, science and other parts of the civic society. These subsystems become harder and harder to surpress for the dictatorship, unless it wants to risk destroying the very fabric of the society it rules. In the end democracy happens. The longer you run the simulation, the more stable the democracy grows.

I know that a lot of people think this way to optimistic, but to me this seems to be happening in general. Democracy and the civil society is inevitable in the end, but it takes a lot of subsystems to sustain it. That's why democracy doesn't always work at first, but when it is established, it tends to stay. Hopefully some of these subsystems are available in Iraq.