Douwe Osinga's Blog: 2004

Monday, December 27, 2004

Write your own travel guide

Back when I was still running Oberon Medialab, one of the problems was that I always came up with new ideas, usually losing interest long before they came to fruitation. One of the reasons I started this site was to quickly build these kind of ideas into something real before I found something else. The so called hacks. However, there was one idea that came up a long time ago that actually made it into reality: World66, an open source travel guide.

More than five years ago, I was chatting with my brother in John's Café, the local backpackers joint in Kashgar about how Lonely Planet was starting to miss the point. Yes they had great coverage and reliability, but they could hardly cover everything, nor were they very up-to-date. Couldn't the World Wide Web help? Lonely Planet receives lots of travelers reports, but they print only stuff once they have sent a researcher to check the report out. What if we would have a website with a global travel guide where everybody could just update anything?

So we brainstormed a little while taking a bus over the Turugart pass into Kyrgyzstan. Back home we wrote down some designs, but it never came to anything. Then in 1999 I took the Trans-Siberia Express with my newly wed wife as a honeymoon and this long train ride gave me among other things a lot of time to think about traveling and travel guides.

So back home in typical hubris programmer mood, I took two weeks off and created World66, or at least a first version. The content we imported from a great number of free sources and as it turned out some of the non-free sources. Then we started mailing people with websites that seemed to indicate an interest in travel. Did they want to help us write our new travel guide? Some did, some didn't, but after a while it started to work a little. The content grew and around it something of a community.

These were of course the wild days of the bubble. There was First Wednesday and First Tuesday, two events taking place on the first Wednesday and Tuesday of the months where potential Internet entrepreneurs could meet up with angel investors and venture capitalists. More over, they had free beer. So we went there and usually talked with each other about wild plans. But there was this one evening when everybody I knew had left and I happened to talk to a guy who could make some calls, get us some financing. Bad days had come to World66.

A lot of powerpoint presentations and with exponential graphs filled spreadsheets later and we had a real company, seven people working and my brother as CEO and a few hundred thousand in the bank. The catch? We were no longer truly open. The financer guys, you see, wanted a model and the best we could come up with (this was when banner ads already had gone out of fashion) was content syndication, i.e. other portals could rent our content. But that meant of course that we could no longer give it away for free at the same time.

But things usually get better after a while. The bubble burst, World66 as a company almost went bankrupt and Hans-Peter, my brother and me succeeded in buying out the financer and then slowly converted the company back to the true path of open source.

Right now World66 is operating under a Creative Commons License, which basically says you can use our content for whatever you want, be it personal or commercial. Of course the idea is that you enter your own travel content and pictures under the same license, so everybody profits.

Recently we added two new features, that should make it easier to access and use our information: cell phone guides and PDFs. The cell phone guides are small screen, xhtml versions of our content that can be browsed from most modern cell phones. One cool feature is that they guess based on your ip-number from which country you're surfing and start the guide there. So as soon as you leave the airplane (and soon maybe even before), you can start getting info.

The PDF versions of our travel guide go a little bit against my gut feeling. They allow you to download and print a number of our better travel guides and take them with you on your journey. Of course, I'd prefer a completely electronic version, but you can't deny that people like paper. Hopefully people will annotate the texts and then take the trouble to go online when they're back and update the content.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Foreign Aid is Theft

I'm all for helping the Third World. In fact, I think that if we could solve global inequality, most of the other problems would disolve too. However, there is something weird with foreign aid given out by governments. You could call it theft. To see what I mean, we'll have to visit quickly what government and taxation is all about.

Why do we tax? Well, there are some things that just make more sense to do collectively that individually. Take building dykes in the Netherlands. If only a few people would spend money on it, everybody else would still profit from not drowning. So it is better to share the costs and taxation seems the only solution so far for that.

In general this should hold true for everything the government does. If things could be handled better by individuals, it doesn't make sense to have the government do it. It just makes things more complicated, plus the government doesn't have much of track record when it comes to do things efficient. If the government taxes you and then goes out to spend it on something useful, that seems nice, but in essence it just means that you are forced to buy this useful service, instead of making up your mind whether you want it or not. For a lot of the stuff the government does, you can argue that it actually hold that these activities need to be done centrally. However, for foreign aid, I don't see it.

Foreign Aid is charity, so using the government to dole it out, just means that you force people to give part of their money to the Third World. Admittedly, it sounds nice, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, the government as Robin Hood, but it doesn't strike as very democractic. Their is no real reason to dole out aid centrally; actually it seems that governments in general are pretty bad at it and tend to give aid with strings attached. Why can't the people just give the money directly?

Ah, because they don't want to and probably won't. But if that is the case, why should the government in a democratic regime give when the people really don't want to?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

No Chicken discrimination in Switzerland

It is the little things that are different from country to country. A while ago, I noticed that eggs from free range chickens in the Netherlands are always brown, while the eggs from chickens kept in small boxes are always white. Discrimination! It is not so hard to see why it would work like that. People associate brownish with more environment friendly, non-bleached toilet paper, recycled paper, that kind of thing, while white is too clean to be friendly (same reason that recycled toilet paper isn't very soft. Good for nature can't be nice to your backside).

In Switzerland eggs from free-range chickens are white (or at least the ones we tried). May be the Swiss are too font of clean and white to have a prejudice like this kick in and discriminate against brown eggs.

Friday, December 17, 2004

The end is neigh

I read somewhere that the chances of being killed in an airplane are actually lower than than being killed by an asteroid that takes out the rest of humanity too. That sounds absurd, but it is not so strange really.

A quick Google search yields that the in 2002, slightly less than 1400 people died in air crash. The chances of an asteroid that takes out humanity are harder to guess; the one that took out the dinosaurs was probably rather overkill, considering that it took out 70% of all species at that time and that humans are rather fragile, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect one very million years or so (This tsunami analysis contains some estimates).

There are 6.4 billion people, so if they all get killed every million years, on average 6400 die per year from asteroid disasters, way more than the 1400 from air crashes. Statistics can sometimes be weird and I'm not sure if this should make me feel save when flying or scared for big rocks falling from the sky.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

We Rock!

Google just anounced plans to scan in a couple of libraries, among others the Harvard University Library with 15 million books. Google is not saying anything about how this is done, but it is obviously quite a big task (especially since the books are not to be damaged during the scanning and indexing). The how is a technical issue, the why is much more important. This is the don't be evil, they are always talking about.

Google's misison statement is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. The Internet aside, these are not the best times for that. Copyright, trademarks and patens have all become tools for information 'owners' to exclude others. You want to acces my info, you have to pay. More and more economic activity has to do with creating information and it is of course only logical that people involved in this want some financial rewards for their efforts.

But it is also not very productive. The nice thing about information is that you can freely copy it, without much cost or quality loss. Throw in the Internet and you can access it from everywhere. That's the sad thing. Just when we can finally offer universal access to all information ever created, we're closing the posibilities by passing more copyright laws.

And that's why this is so great. 15 million books accesible from everywhere by anybody who has Internet access (and that's not everybody, I know, but we're working on that). Sure, there are copyright issues (copyrighted works will only be accesible to extend that the copyright owner allows) and it will take a lot of work and money, but after this is done, it is for sure better to search on Google than to search in a library. And at least for the books in public domain, complete access is granted. The rest might follow.

When I was a kid I used to sneak into bookstores and read the books there. After a while I would be caught and the bookstore keeper would send me away, saying, we're not a library. Screwing your best customer, this is called in the trade. I grew up to become quite a book buyer, but I still remember which bookshops were this nasty.

Nowadays bookshops seem to better understand that readers are actually their customers and they make bookshops nice places to be. It helps with the sales. Maybe at some point they'll discover that people that surf for books are also potential customers and letting people know what you have will increase their willingness to buy what you have.

Friday, December 10, 2004


I don't much like tv, but I do like some programs. So, bittorrent is my protocol of choise. But yeah, getting the programs you want is a lot of websites scouting. Luckily enough some of these websites publish an rss stream with the new torrents. So I wrote a little program that scans a series of such rss streams and picks out the ones with titles that match keywords of your choice.

Check it out at: PyTivo

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The Cost of Pessimism

Germany’s economy is in the doldrums. Has been for years and everybody knows why. The Germans work too few hours, the taxes are too high, the labor markets too inflexible. Add an aging population and you have yourself a nice crisis. Everybody knows. Everybody is wrong. Pessimism is the root of all evil in this case.


The other things listed are of course problematic too. But except for the aging, things have been like that in Germany for a long time and mostly they used to be worse. People say that German companies can’t compete in these circumstances, but if that was the case, you’d see expect German companies to struggle when it comes to selling their stuff abroad. Instead Germany is exporting more than ever. German companies are competing great. Economically, the trouble is that the Germans just don’t buy enough and the public consumption is shrinking.


Now in the greater scheme of things, everything of course is connected, but the main cause of it all is a lack of consumer confidence. Compared to the Americans, the Germans see things much bleaker and therefore save more and consume less. This isn’t new either; Germans have always saved more than the Americans. But when markets were less open,  the money they saved was directly invested in the local industry, who had thereby a lackluster home market, but access to cheap and abundant money. Now a lot of those savings are invested in the US, where the predominant optimism suggests that there is an opportunity for profit on every corner.


It’s not just Germany of course. The same thing is true if to a lesser extend for all of Europe. Japan is much like Germany, i.e. low consumer confidence, high savings, lots of exports and low growth. The rest of Asia is not quite there; currency movements are usually restricted, so the low savings don’t all flow away; The central banks of South Korea, China, Taiwan and others, however, buy American treasure bonds on a huge scale to keep the local currencies pegged on the dollar. This effectively means transferring a lot of the savings of their population to the US against a record low level of interest.


Meanwhile, the US economy powers through and advisers in Washington wave away the huge imbalances in the economy, saying that the market just allocates capital the most efficient way possible and that happens to be the US, 6.5% deficit be damned. Analysts are talking up US companies. Meanwhile the US economy is booming on borrowed money. But this Great Game will of course end in tears.


See the Washington advisers are right. But the market is sometimes a little slow and when it is slow it tends to overreact. At some point the whole setup will unwind. Some Asian country will think the dollar might drop even further and they’d better cut their losses by selling the treasure bonds they have now. That of course will make the dollar drop even more, which will trigger sales with by the other countries, who don’t want to be the last to sell. The drop of the dollar will force interest up and pop the housing bubble in the US. Cheap mortgages will suddenly become unaffordable and both consumer confidence and spending will plummet.


The Euro will reach levels where that will kill the export industry, the one sector that kept the economy in Euroland afloat. Cheaper imports and a flood of money looking for saver investment than the US will mean that inflation will drop below zero. This deflation will further undercut consumer spending and force the economy.


Or may be it all turns out well. But somebody should do something about this pessimism before it is too late.

Monday, November 29, 2004

On the dangers of drinking tea

So I'm back from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it used to be called has a certain claim to fame when it comes to tea. The grow a lot of tea and are proud of it. Not that it is that great economically speaking, the average tea picker makes slightly more than a euro a day, which in Zurich would allow her to buy a hot chocalate with cream every week. However, it didn't always be this way. Sri Lanka used to grow coffee instead. If they had stuck to that, a war probably could have been avoided. Tea drinkers everywehere, pay attention.

Originally coffee was grown on the hills of Sri Lanka. They are steep, sunny and high, perfect for growing coffee (and cocaine or tea). However some weird virus arrived at wiped out the coffee plant. So they switched to tea. Doom was sure to follow.

The English, who by that time ran the island, had great trouble getting the Sinhalese (the majority of the Sri Lankians) to work for them on the coffee estates, so they imported workers from the South of India, mostly Tamils. Coffee is picked by man, it being a manly drink. Tea is picked by women (Real Men don't eat quiche, program pascal or pick tea). Also, men hunt, women nest. So during the coffee period of Sri Lanka, migrant workers would come in from India, work for the season and return with the money to their families in India.

After the switch to tea, whole families moved to Sri Lanka from India. The woman would work on the fields and at the end of the day return home to cook for their men (who I'm sure were being usefull by making plans all day they'd never execute while drinking tea). The rest is history. Sri Lanka got a Tamil population that didn't like the Sinhalisation in the seventies and revolted. The Tamil Tigers fought a long a bloody war argainst the central government and the development of the island was thrown back decades.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Illusive reality

This is very weird. Click the link and follow the instructions. It's a simple game, you see a movie and count the number of times the people in white shirts pass the ball to each other. You can reach the movie from the link somewhat down the page. After watching the movies go back to the page and click the second link down there to be amazed.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Off to Sri Lanka

Tonight we're flying to Sri Lanka for a week of relaxing and looking at old temples. Yeah, I know, a week is too short to appreciate a country like that, but then the world is just to big to visit it all within the holidays provided by average employers and still do it justice. So what's a poor guy to do?

From time to time I meet people who insist that if you don't spend 6 month in Nepal you haven't really been to the country, you don't really know it. I don't know. If you really get down to learning the language and study the culture in depths, you probably do take home something quite unique, but that doesn't seem the usual case with the  long time travelers. The longer they travel, the more the cost of accomodation seems to play a role in day to day conversation.

I take a more global view. Our planet has lot's of stuff to see and there is no real reason to limit yourself to one country other than practical stuff like visas and plane connections. Life's a box of chocalates, you never know what you'll get, except for that you do. There are travel guides and lists of monuments. If you have the time and money, you can check out all the best man kind has produced. Nobody has the time to learn all the languages of man kind or to really know all the cultures on the planet.

If you're a regular to this site, you know about my visited countries project where you can check countries you've been to and get a nice map as a reward. My approach to travelling has given me a map with relatively a lot of red. Interesting dilemma for now, I had a look at the prices in Sri Lanka (which seem very reasonable, especially compared to Zurich of course) and then wanted to convert them so I looked up the currency rates. But I wasn't really sure what to convert them to, Swiss Franks, Euro's or Dollars.

Anyway, I got to go. Here's to country #85.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Googles not so secret sauce

People often ask me what it is I do for Google. Hmm, that's secret. Google has a lot of secrecy going on, for good reasons most of the time. One of them is that we don't want to tell people about stuff before we launch it in order to keep rumors down and not play the FUD (fear uncertainty doubt) game (where big companies announace pre-anounce stuff that subsequently never shows up but keeps customers from buying stuff from competitors). There are however some things that give a great insight into how Google works that are out there, which seem like they should have been a secret.

One of them is the Google Filesystem. The paper describes how we store data at Google and goes into some detail here. Basically we run one distributed filesystem over more than a thousand machines using thousands of disks in order to manipulate hundreds of terrabytes at a go. Data is safely duplicated and can be checkpointed. It is really quite astonishing to work on stuff like that from the inside and you'd think that if you're going to keep stuff secret, this would be one thing. But it is not, it is a public paper.

If think the Google File System is pretty cool, keep checking back. There's another paper out there about some of the stuff we're doing here that will really blow your mind.


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The chair for the office

 Since today the Zurich office is a complete Google office. We have our own massage chair. From buying to actually receiving the chair, it must have taken more than six months so we really have something to be happy about. Not just because it is nice to have one, the massage chair is also part of the God given (well, at least Larry & Sergey given) rules that make an office into a Google office.


Googlers should never be further than 30 feet away from food, they should have unlimited access to caffeinated drinks and they should have access to a massage chair were the founding principles of the company (there might have been something about a new way to determine which search results are relevant). Of course we’re not talking about any massage chair here.


There is only one company that makes the right kind of chair and that company is of course based in Japan. Massage chairs are very big in Japan. As it turns out, this company usually sells only to Japanese and they don’t really speak English, which explains to some extend why it took so long to get the chair in the first place. But now it proudly stands in our office, with seven different massage programs to choose from. All labeled in Japanese of course.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

On stupid programs and stupid humans

The multimedia side of our new appartment is shaping up. What previously was our main computer will from now on just serve mp3's and movies. I added an extra hard drive and it sits monitorless next to the stereo. For now you'll need VNC to select music, but at some point a smallish lcd touch screen or a XBox controler should take over. I also switched to iTunes as the main mode of playing songs (from WinAmp). This almost cost me my entire mp3 collection.

I like WinAmp a lot because it has a nice compact mode. It's ideal for playing music while doing something else. However, for a multimedia only PC a more full screen approach would be better, so I decided to try iTunes. Download and install went perfect and I could import my music by just dragging the folder to the library. iTunes doesn't copy the files to its own folder, except when it does conversions.

I realized I had reorganized my music collection in California and added some recent purchases to it, but this was all on an external harddisk, so the stuff I had on the MM PC was old. So, I deleted the MP3s there and copied them over from the external drive. Started up iTunes, but unfortunately it didn't recognize that the files on disk had changed. In order to make iTunes understand, I dragged the collection again to the library icon and iTunes started reimporting all.

Ah, but it still didn't recognize that some of the files had gone. Worse, mp3's I had moved now showed up twice in the list, once playable (from their new location) and once unplayable (from their old location where iTunes no longer could find them). Clearly I had to start from scratch, so I cleared the library of iTunes. That took a surprisingly long time. As it turns out, delete doesn't mean delete it from the library, it means delete it from disk. Grrr. Luckily they had only be moved to the recycle bin.

So I went there and clicked restore all. Strangely enough that operation was almost instantly. Even more strange was that  it didn't help. It had restored some of the files, but not quite all of them, maybe 60%. Well, I didn't make up back ups for nothing, so I deleted the freshly restored files again, this time pressing Shift-Del so that Windows would delete them for real, and not just move them to the recycle bin (and not free up the space).

After the delete I clicked the songs directory again and to my surprise it was filled with directories. Then I realized that the restore from the recycle bin had been instaneous only because it had launched a background restore process; I had deleted the first bunch of 'm, and now the rest had reappeared from the recycle bin. Too bad I had deleted the first bunch, now I had to delete the second bunch too. I did.

Nice theory about the asynchronous file restore, but completely false. What had happened is that I selected the wrong directory. Instead of cleaning the target directory I had deleted all songs from the external drive. Everything gone, no songs on the external drive nor on my music pc. Good thing I keep backups.

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Vote advise for American readers

All bloggers seem to do it, so it here it goes. I think Bush is a man with a plan, who loses no time over executing it. He wanted to cut taxes and invade Iraq and he did that. I think Kerry is often uninspired and mostly lacks vision. He says the country is heading into the wrong direction and then copies most of the ideas of his opponent. But the end this is not so important. Given the state of affairs I don't think the US nor the world can afford four more years (or wars) of this administration.

It's too bad the democrats (or even republicans) couldn't come up with something better than Kerry, but he still has the huge advantage of not being Bush. Bushes Alleingang has not only divided America, but also the world, in a time where we need cooperation. This conservative has destroyed the budget surplus and increases the size of government more than ever. Freedom is under attack daily.

Vote Kerry. It might get better.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Need for Crap

Switzerland is one of the more expensive countries, even if Ikeas Billies are relatively cheap, or at least that is what most foreigners living here would tell you. Ask the Swiss and they tend to relativate it: Switzerland is more expensive may be than other countries but the sutff you get is of higher quality, so it all evens out. Of course they're wrong.

Not so much about the quality of things, quality is probably higher for most things (though not for the falafel, which is worse than usual and way more expensive) but sometimes you don't need higher quality stuff, in some situations crappy stuff will just do the trick and more importantly cheap and crappy things keep the prices of quality in check.

There are a couple of Swiss ADSL providers who are all very reliable, I'm sure, but they are also all a lot more expensive than at home where prices start under 10 euro's a month (here it's more like 40). So the cheap service at home is a lot worse and probably lacks almost all support, if that's all I need, I should be able to order it. And it keeps the better guys on their toes; they realize they have to keep up quality or else people will just settle for the cheaper stuff.

In Hong-Kong and the US (and belately some European countries too), there is a huge variety of suppliers for most things; you can get very cheap food on the street or spend a fortune on haute cuisine (yes, even in the US). Some of my Swiss friends say that it just makes life more complicated and the Swiss system where decisions are made for you is much easier; you pay what's asked and can expect reasonable quality.

Of course it only makes life easier for you if you have the money. If you don't you might have chosen for something of less quality. Europeans sometimes talk about Walmart of a place where only the American poor go and where the poor have to put up with all the cheap crap the huge corporation imports from China. The other side is of course that without Walmart (and say only the Migros, Switzerlands largest supermarket) the poor don't have as much buying power.

Forced quality is yet another tax on the poor. Economist sometimes compensate the income of countries for their price levels; poor countries are often cheaper so their (lower) income buys them relatively more. It makes the poor countries seem less poor. It'd be interesting to do the same exercise with the buying power not of the average person, but of the average poor person; the poor in the US might suddenly appear to be less poor compared to the European poor.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

No Floppy Drive

Today I suddenly realized that my laptop does not have a floppy drive. I needed to create a boot floppy in order to install windows 2000 on a fresh hard disk (if anybody knows a better way of doing this, please le me know), and all I could find was a cd-burner. I suppose we came a long way since Apple came out with the iMac and everybody wondered what you would do with a computer that didn't even have a floppy drive. Now I've been working on this machine for 5 months and I never noticed.

Of food and drinks

Zurich is a lot more easy going and international than most people would think. Bars stay open late, there’s food from every kitchen of the world and some of the streets look distinctly raunchy. But there is some of the traditional Swiss character left and it sometimes shows.


I came back to work after dinner and after some more work, me and two colleagues decided to go for a beer. One of them hadn’t eaten yet and it was kind of late and the kitchen of the place we went to had closed. There was a fast food like place around the corner run by a guy from Pakistan, pizza and sausages, that kind of thing and waiter pointed out we could get something there. So two of us decided to order the beer, while our hungry friend went for pizza. But then the waiter came back and informed us that even though the kitchen was closed, they did not allow outside food. Please eat your pizza outside in the rain. Obviously we left and had the beers at the fast food place.


The reverse happens too. It was less late, but we still wanted a beer. So we went into the Rheinfelder Bierhalle, a place famed for its Jumbo-Jumbo Cordon Blues (they are huge) and their cheap beer. But none for us. It was dinner time and they wouldn’t serve us just beer, which seemed strange for a Bierhalle. The Bierkeller next door however had the same policy: no food, no beer.


The English pub around the corner had no problem with people just ordering beer. I guess that’s where globalization really helps you; providing Pakistani and Brits that undercut the Swiss traditions when they work against you.

Monday, October 25, 2004

My poor inner-Geek

After months of speculation, PalmOne finally anounced the new Treo that I had been lusting for. Unfortunately the phone that should have been the love of geeks all-over turns out to sport only a 640x480 camera, not the 1.3 MPixel rumor had promised. Also it only has 32Mbyte internal memory (it will take an SD card to expand memory to 1GB, but still). Now I don't know what to buy me for christmas/birthday. Maybe an MS Smartphone after all?

Monday, October 18, 2004


The big mac index is a currency index by the economist that tries to calculate which currencies are over and undervalued by looking at the prices of big macs in the respective countries. Countries where big macs are more expensive have overvalued currencies, countries where big macs are cheaper have undervalued currencies.

The economist is only half joking with this. Other approaches usually take a basket of goods and services and add them up. But the big mac can be seen as such a basket and McDonalds has already done the counting. But the big mac is just one universally available product. While shopping for furniture I realized the Billy of Ikea might be perfect example too.

Life in Switzerland is expensive, but is Ikea more expensive too? In which country is Ikea the cheapest? As it turns out, Ikea uses one application for all countries and replacing the countryId in the url with a different number will give you the shop and prices for the different country. Add productId=15559 and you'll see how much a Billy is in that country.

I extracted information from 12 countries and got the following result:

CountryLocal PriceCurrencyprice dollarsPrice Level

Rip-off Brittain anyone? As you see, Switzerland isn't so bad, even a little cheaper than my native Netherlands.

Apart from price differences, I think the chart can be read differently too. Namely, how respected is Ikea in each country. The more respected, the more they can charge for the same thing. As it happens, the same thing is true for burgers too. In some countries Big Macs are thought of something special, which makes them expensive.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Google Lock-Up

I don’t like alarm systems much. Forget to turn them off once and before you know it some pseudo-police guy with a fake (or not) gun will show up and make you prove you are in fact not a burglar. The one at the Google office in Zurich is very strict. Leave the door open for more than 45 seconds or so and you have to go through a complex procedure to avoid the coming of said pseudo-police guy. Last night, however, leaving the door open wasn’t the problem. More the reverse.


The door wouldn’t open at all. We had gotten in fine, worked for a bit, but now we were locked in. We fumbled a bit with the lock, entered codes into the alarm terminal, but nothing helped. Getting in had worked, but holding the badge close to the badge reader through the window didn’t. Called the corporate apartment. A Google-badge carrying colleague answered and was easily persuaded to come rescue us. However, the door would still not open. It did click a bit, but that was all.


More fumbling and the sudden realization that the reason the door didn’t open was in fact that it was locked from the inside! Unlock the door, click, click and the door opened. Sweet freedom. How could we have locked the door and not noticed, how stupid. Well as it turns out we were not that stupid. We had only locked the door during the fumbling with the door face of our escape attempt. By the time we realized this, the colleague was already on the wrong side of the door and also locked in.


Having run out of near by colleagues we called the security people. They didn’t know what to do, but offered to come by. We politely declined, since they usually charge triple overtime plus weekend bonus for things like this. The largish emergency exit button began to look more juicy all the time, so we finally pressed it. No alarm went off, just a dry click and the door was free again. Hooray!


The alarm did go off when we opened the door, however. And the door no longer locked itself. Bit of a pickle. Leaving an the door open with a running alarm was clearly not an option. Calling in the uniforms was all that was left, though they couldn’t do more than stare at the door mumbling something that this was a job a technician. Technicians we have a lot at Google of course, but none that know much about real stuff, more about network protocols and data storage schemes.


Ten minutes later our secretary showed up with knowledge about two important keys. One to reset the emergency exit alarm and one to lock the door from the outside (the same lock we managed to lock from the inside before). Panic struck for a few seconds when we realized that now that we had reset the emergency exit alarm, the door was shut again, this time with everybody on the wrong side, including the secretary and the man in the uniform, but fortunately the emergency exit button worked again, so an exit was still possible.


I leave as a question to the reader what we ended up doing with our collection of alarms, keys and badges, so that people could still have a chance to come into work the next day (Sunday) without being trapped in the same way, nor that the alarm would keep going off or the door being unprotected. Hint: it involves somebody being on call.

Friday, October 8, 2004

Der Untergang

I went to see “Der Untergang”, a movie about the last days of Hitler and the Third Reich. The movie has been a bit controversial in Germany since it shows Hitler as a human being and not just as something utterly evil. The scarier, I’d say; if somebody who looks like a grandfather could do something so terrible, than makes it all just more real. Bad things do happen and you can’t put them in a box labeled “extreme evilness, unlikely to be repeated”. What stroke me most about the movie, though was the military.


The generals were taking orders right till the end and to some extend even after the dictator killed himself. There were soldiers risking their lives to get gasoline to burn the remains of their Führer. Now I know of course it is just a movie, but there is probably something to it. Soldiers are trained to take orders no matter what and so they do. It was really the same in Stalingrad where the Germans should have retreated, but Hitler wouldn’t let him. 1.5 million soldiers died in the Battle for Stalingrad.


Following orders only makes sense because you think the system works and the only way the system works is if all it’s part function in a predictable way. You being one of those parts, you’ll have to behave predictable too. But if you see the system is falling apart to the extend that there is really no way it is all going to work out, the whole reason for following orders disappears. But still the generals followed orders.


Not winning the war was just unthinkable. The lack of alternatives makes people go on after they know there is really no future. Of course it is not so different for most people. You get stuck in a job that goes nowhere, but you’re just scared of the alternative. Of course most people are just stuck and not just heading for Der Untergang

Thursday, October 7, 2004

All Look Same?

I often wonder if all white people look the same to people from other races. I know most white people think they do look more different (with different colored hair and eyes), but that might be because of the fact that you only look different on the things that you pay attention to. Anyway, I came acrross this little quiz which let's you guess the origin of 18 portraits, whether they're Chinese, Japanese or Korean. My result: you might as well throw a coin. Hmm, a three sided coin. Or not of course.

Monday, October 4, 2004

The unbearable lightness of Movies

I was watching a not quite so interesting movie the other day with my wife; my wife expressed her opinion on the movie by falling soundly asleep. There’s this thing about movies you know that are not good but you haven’t finished. I know the movie is not going to get better, but I feel that if the movie does get better, it will save the lost time. Of course on another level I know the time is lost already; that’s were technology comes to the rescue.


WinDVD has this interesting feature that allows you to speed up the movie in steps of 5%. And they have a nice DSP trick that makes the sound, well, sound normal, only faster. So it turns out you can watch a bad movie 40% faster than normal, a normal movie 25% faster and a really good movie still 10% or 15% faster than normal.


It is an interesting experiment in data-compression of movies. As always, the more information something contains, the hardest it is to compress. A completely blue photo compresses better than a detailed picture, better movies are more complex, so they compress less easy.


Compressed movies are strange; I downloaded something to watch on the train. Unfortunately, the download didn’t finish in time, but it did almost. 97% or so. This was with bittorrent. Bittorrent doesn’t download files sequentially, it downloads bits in random order. So the file I had was almost the complete file, with just 3% random bits missing. The funny thing is, it played pretty well. Sure it had some hick-ups and scrambled frames, but it made me think.


What if we had a special BitTorrent for movies. It would use a compression scheme that would play the movie, no matter how little data was actually available. Sort of like progressive gifs, but obviously much more complex. The nice thing about such a scheme would be that a download would never be incomplete and neither would it ever be finished. You could always keep your torrent open, collecting more random bits of the movie and improve the quality of your movie.


Obviously the original source of the movie would have to be of very high quality, but depending on the server architecture, that could actually be the full DVD; clients would start downloading from this source and get there own, very compressed (at least in the beginning) version of this movie; however and this is crucial, each client would get a slightly different version, so that if would take away the original, the clients could improve their quality by just communicating with each other.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Confessions from a Google hacker

When I started with my Google hacks a bit more than a year ago, I had of course no idea I would be working for the search engine relatively soon. I started doing fun things with Google using the Google API, a small program that would try to guess the date of an event in the last two hundred years based on a description. However, the API is relatively limited and soon I wanted more than it could give. The promise of greater power got my of the straight and narrow, I have to admit.


The Google API doesn’t support image search, news or more than 10 results per query. There are ways around it, but those are strictly speaking against the Terms of Use of Google. Of course working for Google and then coming up with smart things that Google can do, doesn’t seem very great either – it’s just not very convincing to come up with smart hacks if you know the stuff from the inside. Anyway, so I stopped doing Google Hacks, they were getting kind of old anyway.


I do get mail from time to time from fellow Google hackers asking for advice. How to do stuff, how does Google think about this. Unfortunately I can’t really answer those questions for the same reasons I stopped doing the hacks to begin with. The best Google hacks are against the terms of use, so I can’t advice that. On the other hand, my hacks are based on things like that. So I just leave stuff like it is and hope people understand.


A couple of months ago I came across a site that was a straight rip-off of from Google. It was the same layout, a very similar logo and name. The search results were stolen too, the only thing added was a PageRank indicator stolen from the toolbar. I posted the url to some internal list and a short discussion followed. Ten minutes later the site no longer worked

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Boring Alps

When I told people we were moving to Switzerland, a common reaction was: Switzerland, isn’t that very boring? The Swiss do have a reputation for being solid and reliable. “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock”, as Harry Lime said in The Third Man. A sentiment still very common when it comes to Switzerland.


The cuckoo clock was actually a Bavarian invention, but that is hardly the point. Switzerland was not always this peaceful, it is actually quite a recent thing; In 1848 Switzerland had a bitter civil war and before that the Swiss were known as fierce warriors, often fighting as mercenaries on both sides of a war. As for contributions to world culture, there were Hermann Hesse, Rousseau and Paul Klee, in itself not a bad score for such a small country and of course federalism and local democracy; a lot of the ideas that seemed new when introduced by the founding fathers in the US had been practiced in the Alps since 1291 when the people from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden decided to go it alone.


Zurich is not the boring banking town ruled by gnomes some people would have it either. On my way to the office, I was approached by two hookers and a drug dealer and that is only a five minute walk. Nightlife here is supposed to one of the best of Europe (but I find things like that hard to judge) and there is for sure no shortage of bars and restaurants. And the vague smell of Marijuana is pretty common; it is Switzerland, not the Netherlands or Nepal where they seriously discuss legalizing the stuff.


Of course things are well organized; trains and trams run on time, streets are safe and the general quality of things is high. Zurich may be a bit like Amsterdam in that it is tolerant, international and small, but it sure is a lot cleaner. But the fact that things work, doesn’t make life boring. Actually the most boring place I’ve ever spent time was in a small village 5 miles walk from Waterloo, Sierra Leone. And there pretty much nothing worked.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Gadget Lust

Rumour now has it that the Treo 650 will come out in the end of November. My birthday is 24 of November. Coincident? I don't think so. I had been looking with quite some wanting at the Treo 600 and when I heard the specs of the 650, the wanting turned into lusting.

Why, you may ask. I ask my self the same question. Do I need a new phone when I still have a quiet nice one? Probably not. My reasons are two fold.

First of all, I promised my inner geek a new toy when I took the job at Google. It had not had anything nice for a long time (I am not counting the digital camera, that was a useful purchase) and thought it had something to do with getting the job in the first place. I settled for a nice laptop, but then it turned out Google would supply me with exactly that model, so I kept my money, which only partly stopped the desire.

The second reason has to do with a deep believe that given the right tools, I could actually be an organized person. I have never been able to keep a calendar. I lose the thing, don't put appointments in them and seem generally better off remembering my appointments (and it usually works). Same with address books and all kind of planning tools. But you see, it is not me, it is the lack of good tools.

So I've bought memo recorders to track my thoughts, paper time planning systems to keep time and whiteboards to think a loud. A lot of that of course ended up not being used, but I still have some faith in my cell phone: I do use the address book of it and might use the calendar if it was better. You see, the thing about cell phones is that you have them always with you. So here's to better living through cell phones.

Of course if you do lose that cell phone containing all of your life, you're in a bit of pickle.


Sunday, September 19, 2004

Skype hype

Yeah, I know, I’m late to the party. But I finally installed Skype, the latest (probably not even anymore) in Internet Telephony. I love it. I played around with Internet Telephony eight years ago or so and back then it wasn’t too great, which much have lingered in my mind and made me skeptical.


Competition in internal markets is not one of Switzerland’s fortes and this explains to some extend why things are relatively more expensive here. Often times there are only two or three suppliers for a product and they usually charge about the same price for about the same product. Calling the Netherlands with Swiss telecom will set you back 25 rappen per minute, about 16.5 euro cent. Calling Switzerland from the Netherlands on the national carrier will cost you 10 cent. The difference might not seem to big, but look at the discounters. Sunrise, the cheapest Swiss company, also charges about 10 euro cents per minute. The cheapest Dutch company charges 3.5 cents per minute. That’s a huge saving.


Skype allows you to make phone calls from a computer to ordinary phones for 1.7 cents, which is far enough from 10 cents to give it a try and like I said it worked like a dream. Which brings met to the question whether I need a land line. So far our land line was mostly used for International calls – cell phone users pay a lot more, usually, but if Skype takes out International of the equation, what is left?


But the whole thing makes you wonder why the Swiss (and people in general) put up with it? Why do people think protecting their own industry is a good thing? I mean, it sounds nice, but it just means letting your own industry overcharging you. Paying more for basic services to keep the local fat cats in a job, it is a concept that is surprisingly popular among left leaning thinkers.


By the way, my skype id is DOsinga.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Living on Swiss Time

One big difference between Google Switzerland and Google Mountain View is that Google Switzerland is in the middle of everything while Google Mountain View was the middle of everything; both of course relatively speaking. In Mountain View you ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at Google, there is a hair dresser and a place to change your oil and you can do laundry, work out and get a massage. In Switzerland we don’t have all those things within Google, but usually within 5 minutes walk from Google, which in all fairness might be even closer than in Mountain View. It also seems to warp time.


One of the drawbacks of working from home they say, is that there is no longer a clear distinction between ‘work-space’ and ‘home-space’ and this lack of distinction leaks into the time division too. Doing a little work becomes an alternative to doing the dishes and vice versa, so you start cleaning the house when you want avoid something nasty at work and work nights because it is there. There is no clear break between work and non-work anymore. I think for some Zurich Googlers something similar is going on.


Most of us are very new to the city, so I suppose that it is only natural that we hang out together; all the locals already have friends and we have each other. Sure some of us, like me, have Significant Others, but these are sort of in the same situation so it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Most of us are in temporary housing (for us at least till the end of the month) so home isn’t really home. No decent Internet connection, no magically filled refrigerator. So you explore the things in the city, you go swimming on Saturday for example (the Züri seem to be very big on swimming in the lake, there are lots of little beaches and open-air-in-the-lake-swimming-pools), but then you pass the office on your way back, so you check your e-mail, see how this thingy you started worked out and before you know it, you are working again.


But then somebody says, hey, there is inline skating, let’s all go, it starts in 10 minutes and everybody goes (well, I didn’t, but quite some people did), which is great fun and then afterwards we go back to the office, then have a drink or two in a pub, listen to music and then go to the office again to make some phone calls to California where the people have just woken up (if only they would start working at 9AM). The fact that we usually go out for lunch only adds to this effect of course.


I’m sure things will change once people get settled down more, acquire fast Internet connections at home, get a proper espresso machine, that kind of thing, but it is interesting to see for now.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Settling in Switzerland

Finding an apartment in Zurich turned out to be easier than predicted by many an insider. The word was that in order to get an apartment you needed good references and as a foreigner that should be very hard. May be the backing of Google helped – people do recognize the name (some bankers here may be more because of the IPO than of the kick ass search engine, but still). Anyway, we found this great place smack down in the middle of town, one minute from the Niederdorfstrasse, two from Google and three from the Central Station. The lake is maybe five. All minutes in walking time, of course.


Google Switzerland is a strange mixture of a European Internet start-up and satellite office of a multinational. There are some new people (Nooglers in Google speak), but a lot are old hands, mostly Europeans who worked in Silicon Valley for quite some time, always contemplating that some day they would return to the old continent and now they have the opportunity to have their cake (Google) and eat it (live in Europe). Maybe the fact that there is no capital gains tax in Switzerland played a role too.


Europeans tend to think that the quality of living in Europe is just the best in the world and therefore if we would open up the borders, everybody would come in here. So far the Zurich office has attracted mostly Europeans (admittedly that was what it was for), which suggest that this thinking is rather chauvinistic – otherwise we would have lot’s of Indians, Chinese and even Americans here. But the truth is that for most talented people outside of the US and Europe, Europe is only second choice; if you can’t get the US to accept you, Germany is a nice alternative.


So while we discuss whether we should keep the borders closed or open them up a little to let in the talented to save us from a dramatic pension crisis, the talented move to America. I talked to one guy at Google from the Ukraine, asking him whether he wouldn’t prefer to work in Switzerland, since it would be closer his family. He said No. In Western Europe everybody thinks if you’re from the Ukraine, you must be Mafia. In the US he was just another talented European engineer.

Monday, September 6, 2004

Let's stop wasting money on Art

I am blogging this from Google Zurich. Got here on Tuesday with the night train from Amsterdam after a hectic day of packing which would have ended in tears if not for the help of some people, especially my parents and my neighbor from down stairs. Hail, hail.


Quite some people warned me that Switzerland or Zurich would be boring. Three days is of course no time to form an opinion about a city, but they’re probably wrong anyway. Ok, the weather is great, which always helps, but the city is also very nice, with a very beautiful old time straddled over the Limat. And it is full of life. Anyway, I’m looking forward to living here. There are also some great apartments if not exactly cheap.


Anyway, this whole art business got me thinking about art and the weird fact that it is subsidized in almost all countries. The whole Denmark thing was of course subsidized which was great for me because it got me free beer and it wasn’t even from my tax money, but is there a good reason for this? I don't think so.


Sure, your average artist creates in poverty things of beauty the world is not yet ready for, but since the world is not ready for them, it is hard to target them with public money. Moreover, the art industry itself is hardly short on money. Art and investing in art is big business. Giving money to artists is like giving money to the shoe industry because the people in the Third World that work for the shoe industry make so little money (of course the money goes to the artists and not directly to the industry, but subsidizing workers in the shoe industry would mostly mean the industry would pay their workers even less.


And the consumers of Art aren’t usually the poor either. The rich go to museums and opera, while the poor go to soccer matches. Subsidizing Art and not soccer is giving tax money to the rich.


In the end the argument to subsidize art must be that without it, some innovative kinds of arts would not be produced and the mere existence of that type of art is a public good. This, however, assumes that the institution that decides who to give money to has any idea about which art might be innovative. Governments and government institutions don’t have a great track record when it comes to spotting the next big thing of course. Just as generals tend to prepare for the previous war, governments tend to subsidize what used to be hot, not what’s going to be hot.


Given half a chance, artist will make art, innovative or not. But if you could predict what would be innovative, it wouldn’t be innovative since innovation is out of the predictability realm.


So is there nothing we can do to make art blossom more? I don’t think there is apart from creating a society where art can be appreciated and people have time to create and consume. And that in itself is probably a good idea.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

A penguin saved my butt

A typical scene from a household in moving. Some stuff is already in boxes, a lot of stuff is not and more and more stuff is just randomly laying around. Switzerland is still more than 48 hours away and the ETBUP (estimated time before utter panic), the moment when you realize you'll never get all that stuff packed before the movers show up was still more than a night rest away, when suddenly mr Murphy made himself present: our main computer froze with that dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death). Rebooting, fitting the drive in another machine or scandisk all failed. ETBUP suddenly minus twelve hours.

Who needs a stupid desktop, you say, don't you have a nice laptop? Yes. As a matter of fact the whole machine was going into storage just before I retrieved one little file - an eFax file containing the immigration papers that would allow for safe and official entry into Switzerland. I should have a copy of the thing on my linux box in the US, but I did not succeed in getting to it.

Finally I decided to try the Linux way. I downloaded Knoppix (50 minutes), burned it on a CD using my laptop (10 minutes), booted (3 minutes) and voila, all my data was there, readable without a problem. Victory I cried. Now to get to the data.

I have this portable hard disk. I plugged it in, Knoppix recognized it perfectly but then refused to write to it. No NTFS write support. Tried the Captive Microsoft Windows Driver Acquite thing where you use native windows drivers to do stuff under Linux, but no points. Downloaded service pack 1 for the same thing, but to no avail.

Then it hit me: writable cd's. Fired up whatever CD writer software Knoppix had and started burning the data. It failed too. I suppose because of the fact that when you put in the writable cd, you take out the Knoppix CD and thus the Operating System, which I imagine can be somewhat of a problem. But there is always Samba, which allows Linux to share hard disks with its Windows peers. Started it, and yes I could finally copy the data.

The fact that the hard disk was still dying meant that any time I copied more than 5 minutes worth of transfer, I got this nasty tick-tick-tick sound from the box and it was alll over, but after 5 attempts or so, I retrieved most of the important data but not the stupid .pst file. Every time I tried to copy that 700 mbyte file, it would freeze on my 5 seconds before completion. Damn.

When all other things fail, there is always Python. Wrote a small script to copy the file bit by bit so that I would at least get the first so many megabytes before the hard disk would fail me. Now I got everything save the last 15 Mbyte or so. Of course Outlook wouldn't read this mailbox, but there is the Inbox Repair Tool which I ran

Knoppix can read but not write NTFS partitions, so getting the data back to my portable harddrive was a bit of a challenge, but the Captive Microsoft Windows Drivers Acquire program should take care of that (it uses windows drivers from Linux).

Thursday, August 26, 2004

People doing strange things with Software

I made it to the conference and the first day was a bit of challenge, with the minimum amount of sleep I had, but after that it got a lot better. The conference is more an art festival and less of an scientific thing than I thought and as far as it is scientific, it is mostly about art critic, not so much about software engineering. Which is all fine and probably to be expected, but it did take me a little by surprise. Still, there are some genuinely interesting things going on here, things I probably should have heard of, but I haven't. Let's see:

On Tuesday there was a concert with live coding, which is not a fixing bugs in a system that runs, but is a way of making music. The artist types in lines of code that produce looping sounds and by changing his code, changes the music. A special programming language has been developed,  based on SmallTalk, SuperCollidor. The resulting music might not be for everybody, but it sure is interesting.

Casey Reas presented some of the stuff they had been doing with Processing, which is basically a preprocessor + library for java that makes art programming much simpler. You'll see something of that here soon. Then there was klippav, a way to do live audiovisual  breakbeat cutting, i.e. live video manipulation based on the sounds.

Popautomate is an interesting webapplication where Jean-Baptiste Bayle and Beatrice Rettig have collected over 3500 words as a number of samples from popsongs. You can enter a sentence and it will translate it into an mp3 of these samples. Aparently is used in some performances.

There is lots more and I'll be sure to blog about it when I have nothing else. One interesting thing is that this is an art-festival and I'm presenting some of my works, which would make me an artist. People ask me whether me joining Google doesn't undermine my integrity as an artist. It probably does to some extend, Google Hacks are somewhat suspicious when you work for Google. But it makes the whole question one does Software become Art a personal one.

May be it is really the other way around. Art == Hacking. Or at least for (post) modern art. You take something out of the context and use it in a different and interesting way, some way it was not meant for, but gives people interesting or disturbing insights.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Something rotten on the way to Denmark

So I changed the perfect weather of California for the more questioniable variant of North-Western Europe to go to the Readme festival in Denmark. The night train seemed to be a good option to get there, even though it involved a change of train in Duisburg with a wait of 2 hours. Or was it Dusseldorf? And there the trouble started.

The ticket said the train should continue at 11:29, but on the time table it said 11:13. Weird. But not weird enough to trigger an alarm. Also the Donnerplace around the corner was missing. Also not weird enough. There are always other Donnerplaces in Germany.

There's not that much exciting stuff to do around the railwaiy station, so we returned just before 11:00 and noted that our train was not posted on the big board, not at 11:13, nor at 11:29. Again not weird enough, but getting closer. We went down to the track and the train was already there. Not only that, the doors where closing and a guy was blowing his whisttle. Now we got to the point where it was weird enough to panick. We ran to the one open door where a conductor was standing, but he wouldn't let us in and we saw the train leave.

First we thought the train had left too early, but when we checked, it actually said that this train left on 11:13 Monday through Saturday and on 11:00 on Sunday. It was Sunday. Ah, but our ticket said 11:29, right? Ah, but that was from Duisburg and not from Dusseldorf. So we had less than 30 minutes to get to the other city. A taxi driver thought it would take 30 euros and 15-20 minutes to get there, so there we went.

Did we know a street close to the railway station, the taxi driver asked, while fumbling with the route planning thingy. Weird and we were still panicking. When the taxi stopped, the meter said 58 euro and the clock 11:02. We got out and started to run into the direction we though the station was. Also in different directions. There was no railway station.

When we did arrive at the station, the train had long gone of course.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Going home

Every party got the end sometime. This Friday I'm flying home. Google Zurich here I come. Google Headquarters is a wonderful place to work and I'm sure I'll miss it. The concentration of wonderfully smart people, the toys, the excellent food, the great weather, the interesting tech talks. Google is like Silicon Valley, only more so. But Zurich will be great too - like a startup from within. But first there are some other things.

I'll arrive in Amsterdam at 11:35 jetlagged and all and will be meeting some friends from 19:00 to 21:00 or so, if you want to come, it's in Gent aan de Schinkel. Then Sunday my wife and I will take the night train to Denmark, where I'll visit the readme conference and festival and present a paper on the mapped web. It should be fun, also the festival afterwards.

Then a week later, it is moving time and living in Zwitserland will start. Going home. The old Douwe Egberts commercial said: home is where you drink Douwe Egberts. With the Senseo being sold everywhere, this has taken a whole new meaning. Or maybe not.