Douwe Osinga's Blog: January 2004

Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Next President

Just a quick project in the list of mapping: the next president let's you guess who will win which state in the next presidential elections in the US. After you submit the form, it shows you a map and calculates you will win. Put it on your blog and prove that you always knew.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Bizarro Google

In the Seinfeld episode ‘Bizarror Jerry’, the crew meets a group of people exactly the opposite of Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George. Quite often I need something similar in a search engine. A Bizarro Google.

It is not that I need a search engine to give me the least relevant pages for a keyword. Many search engines seemed to have tried that and were swept away. But if you type in the name of theory or a scientist, usually the top hits are references to documents explaining this theory or talking about what this scientist said. Quite often this is of course what you’re looking for, but sometimes it is also interesting to find pages that oppose the theory or scientist.

Richard Osinga wrote a few month ago about Anna Wierzbicka, a scientist who came up with the theory that our brains processes knowledge in atomic pieces of information and that therefore every word can be expressed in 61 elementary primitives. It is an interesting concept, though I don’t think it stands up against scrutiny. If you type in her name, you get a long list of pages about her and her theories, but it is much harder to find pages against the theory, though there are probably plenty, this being the Internet. But if I find a new theory (and that happens a lot on the Internet), it would be rather practical to get a list of pro- and contra pages.

Could Google do this? Using Google to get these pages is hard. Adding keywords like ‘against’ or similar doesn’t really work. But Google could probably extract enough meaning from a page to conclude whether it was pro or against a theory. It could be another step in the direction of Google as a common sense engine.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Most Visited Countries

I agregated the results of visited countries into a map. The more a country is chosen in this little tool, the redder it shows up. Fun.


Wednesday, January 21, 2004

New Project: Mapped Web

Last weekend a good friend, Ernst Wit, came over from Italy where he currently lives. Saturday night, a couple of good belgian beers, what better way to pass the time than construct complicated statistical problems? We started talking about Land Geist and Ernst wondered whether we could project the psychological distances between countries on a map.

Physical distances are not the same as psychological distances. Physical distances are easy enough to measure, but how do we go about measuring psychological distances? Mapped Web does this by taking the chance that given a page contains the name of one country it will also contain the name of another country as a measure for psychological distance. The resulting images show us how close countries are to each other in psychological terms.

Check it out: The Mapped Web

Visited Countries Explosion

Last week I thought it might be an excellent idea to make the visited countries project viral. If you enter your countries, you'll get a little box with some code that you can put on your website to show where you've been. That code also contains a link back to my website.

Well, the virus did strike out. In the weekend some Danish bloggers put the code on their site. Now, it rages around lifejournal. My normal visitor number of around 500 jumped to over 6000 today. I'm going to get me some of those Google Ads, I think.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Men and Women

I didn’t pay attention and got into one of those discussions about men are good at and women are good at. Now, I’m all for equal rights, but if someone (female) insists that women are better than men, I get a little defensive. We’re equal but not the same, I know, but don’t tell me that women are better at inventing things than men, but that their inventions were suppressed. Inventions are mostly done by men. Nerdy, lonely and unhappy men, maybe, but that is how progress works.

I joked that household appliances like vacuum cleaners and dish washers were only invented after men were forced by emancipation to take part in house activities and that if women had had to do it alone, they still would live in caves. There is some truth in it, I guess. If there were only men, we’d probably had discovered nuclear weapons around 1200. But we’d probably have used them to wipe out everything by 1300.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Voting is irrational

One of the last taboos in our society must be democracy. Not that democracy works. You can say that democracy doesn’t work. That is doesn’t work here. Or in the US. Or in Africa and certainly not in Iraq. But you can’t say that you’re not going to vote. You have to vote. It is you duty as a citizen.  Meanwhile any child can see that voting is completely irrational and pointless. There is no good reason to vote in an election, but still 50% or so of voters turn up. That is actually quite impressive.

One man, one vote means that it only makes a difference for a man to vote if his one vote is the deciding vote. This has never happened as far as I know in any major election, so never in history has the vote of one man made a difference. There is a chance that it might and there is even a chance that you might be the lucky voter. But it is very unlikely. The impact of the election times that chance, i.e. your expectation value of the actual voting is much lower than the costs of the voting in terms of time and effort.

People tend to get upset when I tell them this. They quibble a bit about chances, but there is not much room there: voting is statistically speaking pointless. After a bit more discussion, it comes either down to that voting is our moral duty or to that we have to vote, because of what would happen if nobody voted. The last argument is often accompanied by references to Immanuel Kant.

Let us start with the moral duty. Discussing morals is always a tricky thing, but in this case, I find it hard to imagine that the right to vote turns into a moral duty once it seems that the former right has no value. Can a duty be irrational? That brings us to Kant, to whom all ethics boiled down to rational duties.

It seems Kantian to ask what if nobody voted, wouldn’t that mean chaos? Isn’t it that we therefore cannot will our underlying maxim to be universal law, as Kant would put it? The underlying law would be not to vote and we cannot want that. But that would be too simple. If nobody would be a baker, we would all starve, but that is no reason for everybody to become a baker. Furthermore, it is possible, i.e. not self-contradictory to want that nobody votes.

To admit that voting is pointless but insist that it is a moral duty, because everybody needs to vote in order for democracy to work, would be distinctly un-kantian in that it treats human beings as an means to democracy and not as an end in themselves. Furthermore, if democracy needs everybody to vote and the more people vote, the less incentive there is for an individual, it seems that democracy itself is self-contradictory in a Kantian sense. The more people vote, the less power they actually gain, so the less they will want to invest into it in terms of studying the issues at stake.

What is there to do? Simple. Reduce the number of people that vote. If there are only 2000 people that vote, it does make a difference whether they vote, so those people will have the incentive to put time and effort into learning what is at stake. The only question is how to select those people. Parliamentary democracy tries to do with by electing those people again. This sort of works, but has two draw backs. One is that it doesn’t really solve the problem described above, because you still have a lot of people who have to vote, but don’t have a reason to. The second reason is that an elected parliament hardly ever votes the way the people would, i.e. it is no longer a democracy per se.

The alternative is simple. Draw a random selection using statistically sampling from the population to vote in a parliament. We all know really that this would be more representative for what the people want than the current systems. Yes, they would need time of work and they would need access to all the information they require. And yes, you could suppose that the average guy doesn’t know what is good for him and should therefore be represented by a politician (because we can trust them), but how would the average guy then know how to choose this politician? Real democracy is by jury.


Tuesday, January 13, 2004

More on LandGeist

A week ago, I wrote about Landgeist . Landgeist projects for specified keywords the correlation between the country name and the keyword on a world map, i.e. coloring Iraq very red for War and Colombia for Coffee.

I choose Alltheweb because Google doesn't seem very good at counting results. 8% of all pages with "united states" contain "cheese", according to Google. Other search engines put it around 1%, which sounded more reliable. The maps looked good, but a little funny:
Landgeist - Alltheweb

For example, Iraq scores very well on War and Islam, which seems fair enough, but also on Sex, which is slightly weird. The best explanation seems to be that Iraq occurs in discussions with lots of other words. Using Altavista with the NEAR keyword gave much better results, because it only counts pages where the name of the country and the term occur next to each other.

So here it is, a new version of Landgeist, this time using Altavista:


Wednesday, January 7, 2004

A Pyramid game with Google footing the Bill

Google AdSense has been a way for many bloggers to finance their hosting costs. At world 66 it is actually one of our major income streams (limited as they are). The idea below misuses AdSense and is meant only as an idea, not something to pursue. Of course it might happen anyway or more likely, might already be happening.

The use clauses of AdSense specify that you're not allowed to click on your own ads or put up a note, please help me survive by clicking on the banners or something. But what about a website where you can register your AdSense sponsored website. You will then be redirected to a framed page with on the top a (random) website with AdSense ads and on the bottom something like, please click one of the banners and press the next button (which sits also on the bottom). If you click the next button, a new site will appear etc. etc.

Once you visit a hundred sites and have clicked a hunderd ads, the site you registered is put in the queue. After a hundred visitors, a site is removed from the queue. This way, you click one hundred ads in return for hundred strangers clicking one ad each on your site. It should beat Googles misuse filter, shouldn't it? And it not, well, they'll kick you out of the program and you'll have to pay your own hosting cost

Monday, January 5, 2004

Land Geist

A new year, a new project. Google has its Zeitgeist,
I just launched my Landgeist. Landgeist takes a word and sees how
often it appears together with the name of a country and then projects the results on a
world map. Sounds complicated, but is really fun. Take malaria, you’d expect a map to appear
which is similar to a malaria map, but it isn’t.
Africa is bright red, the rest of the world
is greenish. That is when people talk about Africa, they talk about malaria, war and poverty.
There are no other subjects. Meanwhile South-East Asia has quite a bit of Malaria, but it doesn’t
show as much, because we know more things about South-East Asia than just Malaria.

Landgeist is not done using Google; Google claims that 8% of all pages containing
“united states” also contain the word cheese. Other search engines put this at 1% or
so. Also, the Google search api returns completely different numbes. So, I don’t trust
Google for this and decided to use AllTheWeb instead, one of my old time favourites.

Friday, January 2, 2004

More's Utopia and Moore's Stupid White Men

Thomas More's Utopia is an old book - it's from 1517 - with a lot of modern sounding idea's. Often it reminds me of that other left wing guy with a similar name, Michael Moore. Moore has close to 500 year of social and economic thought on More, but still there arguments have a lot of similarities.

Thomas More’s leftwing radicalism must be seen in his time of course. More seems to be against private property and things scarcity value an ‘idiotic’ concept, but his radical ideas about the punishment of crimes would be seen as almost fascist nowadays, though they were completely left wing back then. More opposes the death-penalty for theft and proposes to condemn anyone caught as a thief lifelong slavery, which is more human and more just. Well, maybe.

But there are also similarities to the arguing of Moore. Take for example sheep. In Mores days, the rich landowners started to drive people of their lands in order to keep sheep for their wool. The people that were driven away ended up in the suddenly growing cities as vagabonds and paupers, which are then driven to theft and beggary. The people that are already rich make the poor poorer in order to have a few more sheep. It sounds all very modern and relevant. Apart from the third world where this very thing is taking place right now, this story could be told as a parable for the fate of the North American programmer, who is replaced by cheap Indian programmers, just to raise profits of already rich companies by just a little more. ‘Thus a few greedy people have converted one of our countries greatest resources into a national disaster’, says More about the sheep farming, but he could be talking about the fact that high tech expertise, the very fundament on which our current wealth seems to be based, is leaking by the bucket overseas.

There is of course another way to look at the situation. The Middle Ages had produced a number of agricultural innovations that had increased the yields of corn with quite a bit. In other words, less land was needed to feed the same number of people and fewer hands were needed to grow this food. The surplus of land could be used for sheep farming and the surplus of men went into the cities. Wool clothing, a luxury product, became in range of more and more people. And the standard of living in the cities was higher than in the countryside, if not always for the first generation.

People living in the slums of Third World cities would of course rather live somewhere better, but not usually in the countryside. Or maybe they would, but they see that they cannot earn money there. This workforce surplus shows up as mass-unemployment in the statistics, but holds the hope for future industrial riches. Sometimes this works, like in China, India and parts of South-East Asia. Sometimes it doesn’t, like in parts of South-America and most of Africa.
What about the downsized tech-workers? Is it much different? As I argued before this also can be seen as freeing up a surplus of workers. Farmers were replaced by sheep, US programmers by Indian wiz kids. In England it made woollen clothing affordable. In the US it might make software cheaper. But the trick is of course to make the surplus workers productive. The surplus workers in England formed the base of wool-industry which eventually evolved into the Industrial Revolution, which saw the greatest growth in income for the poor ever.

For the US economy as a whole to profit from moving programming work to India, the replaced programmer needs to find a job that adds more then the Indian that replaced him costs. For the programmer it is of course only a good deal if he makes more than in his old job, which is much less likely. More and Moore want to force the rich to behave, but this tends not to work and on the long run, things work out.

But sometimes this is a long run. In the 500 years since Utopia, a lot has changed. Among More’s radical proposals are the idea not to impose the death penalty on all thieves and the building of hospitals that actually cure illnesses, so that patients would go there voluntarily instead of being sent there to die. Would the implementation of More’s Utopia have cut short this long run?

More’s Utopia looks a lot like Mao’s China. There is no private property, people cannot move around at will, a very limited number of consumption good with unlimited access to them for all. People wear simple and standard clothing, eat simple and standard food and live in simple and standard houses. Compared to living standards in the West, this is hardly utopian, but it measures up well against the situation in England at the beginning of the sixteenth century. And it took Mao’s China a surprisingly short time to transform itself into an economic powerhouse with a growing affluent middle class. It took England more than 400 years.