Douwe Osinga's Blog: December 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 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 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

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 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.