Douwe Osinga's Blog: November 2003

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.