Douwe Osinga's Blog: May 2004

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The calling of the Mothership

About two month ago I was starting my working day as usual by sorting through my incoming email - deleting junk that escaped my filter and fishing in the folder with suspected junk mail for something real - when I hit upon an email titled 'Google in Zurich'. It was from somebody doing recruitment for Google asking me whether I would consider moving to Switzerland and join their engineering team over there.

Somebody at Google had found my site and had rather enjoyed my Google Hacks and told the recruiters to have a chat with me. Of course I felt very flattered. I went over to the working at Google page and it all sounded very interesting. I had of course my company to consider, but a little interview wouldn't hurt I thought, so I sent them my resume and they told me they would set up an interview.

Running a blog had paid off. The potential depth & reach of a personal website are pretty awsome and yes, when you start nobody comes to your page and it seems very hard to attract any attention in a sea of other bloggers. But if you have something unique, there are always other people that like that kind of uniqueness and they'll find you somehow, whether they are a large or a small group.

Blogging is a great tool with the whole self-promotion and brand 'me' thing.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

A Hacked together tech saving the World

Of course it was never going to be this way. UMTS was going to be big before the end of 2000 and we would all be surfing at top speed using our cell phones. As it turns out, we all meant just the Japanese and Korean (DoCoMo is talking of bumping up the speed of their phones to 14Mbs, in the Netherlands we're still testing UMTS). Meanwhile we're stuck with GPRS, a hacked together protocol that allows packet switch networking over normal GSM. It is slow, it is expensive and it will save the world.

There are four billion people who don't have access to normal phones and it is going to be a hell of a job to get those people on the Internet. Not only that but these are the people that have the most to gain by access to the Internet. If you have a phone, newspapers, access to television and the money to buy stamps, you can communicate with people, read news, watch stuff and send mail faster through the Internet, but you could do all those things before too. If you're poor, the Internet can really open up these things for the first time.

But here's the thing: for most Internet solutions, you need electricity, computers and some kind of wiring, be it tv cable or telephone lines, all in short supply in Africa and all expensive. This is where GPRS comes in. GSM coverage in the Third World is increasing incredibly fast. GSM is a proven technology using standard components. Mass produced phones are getting cheaper all the time. It is really the only way to bring some kind of Internet to the real masses.

Why would they need Internet, some might ask? Communication. Knowing what price which products are going for is of huge importance to farmers, rich or poor. So is the possibility to communicate with business partners (or for that matter friends or family).  Internet is all about making things go smoother, hopefully smooth enough to include the poor in our economic system.

Scary Movie

Was is this image so scary?

(via J-Walk Blog)

The fact that a recognizable picture morphs into something unrecognizable, which turns out to be the same picture but than rotated presses a panic button somewhere in our brain.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Free Rider Problem

Quinn has an interesting post on the Free Rider Problem. In any situation where people work together to generate value, a problem as to how to divide the spoils of the work will pop-up. If you're with a small group, usually social control will do the trick, but get a larger group and there are always people that put in less than they take out, or at least there are people that think other people do that.

Actually putting in less than you take out isn't really the problem. You work together to produce some kind of synergy, so it is possible that everybody gets out more than he puts in, or as long as everybody gets out more of the system than he puts in, the system is ok. You could still have freeloaders, i.e. people that put nothing in, but still get something out of it (think a community of farmers, with mice eating some of the produce), but as soon as some people get out less than they put it, they quit the system and the amount of freeloaders vs the others only increases and everything breaks down.

The Internet makes the whole free rider discussion much more acute for a number of reasons. The sheer amount of users disables the normal social anti-freeloader mechanisms. The fact that most value on the Internet is produced digitally and is easily copied against a marginal cost of effectively zero, makes free loading relatively harmless at first (i.e. the fact that I copy an mp3 illegally doesn't take away something from the band/record company, while stealing the actual CD would). And finally the Internet creates lots of potential new markets, i.e. electronic distribution of music, blogging and spam for example with a potential for cheaply generated value without an obvious way to split the spoils.

In technology you see the Free Rider phenomenon too. Big computer companies have to invest lot's of money to keep ahead of the curve, right? Wrong. At least, Dell doesn't really believe that. The New York Times compares the approaches of HP and Dell when it comes to research. Dell is free riding on the tech that is developed anyway, while HP is striving for improvement. Patents are supposed to take care that, but that's a solution that I'm not always too happy with either; it gives HP a monopoly on certain printer solutions, but it keeps the whole market very un-fluid. An Open Source approach might be a solution here.

Anyway, back to the Internet. Quinn writes:

poor people getting something free off the internet isn't theft, it's free publicity. There's more of an argument, albeit sometimes tenuous, that people who can afford to pay for something getting it free is theft. But, and this is very important, if someone is too poor to pay you for something digital, you haven't lost anything if they have it anyway

It sounds plausible and I'd want to believe it. I should be able to download music I'm not interested for free and once I like it enough, I should be charged for it, or something like it. But if a company is too poor to pay for a full Windows/Office license, should it be allowed to install it for free? Microsoft doesn't loose anything, because the company would otherwise install Linux (which let's assume for the argument, would be worse for them) so they actually gain the free publicity.

But the other companies in the same market who did well enough to afford Office and actually spent money it, suddenly have a competitor that has the same stuff for free. And Microsoft does loose something. A product that can be had for free seems less appealing than a product that always costs money. Sure, you could argue that software/digital stuff in general, it should be free anyway, but that is beside the point.

Also, you build a digital poverty trap like this: poor people can use all kinds of digital stuff for free, but as soon as they get richer, they have to give their money to Microsoft, the Movie people and the Record Companies.


Sunday, May 23, 2004

My last Google Hack

I'm proudly presenting what probably is going to be my last Google Hack on these pages: Word Color. Word Color takes a word or a sentence, retrieves the top 9 images for what that word and calculates the average color for those images (hue only, so it doesn't end up all grey or brown). And yes, the color of money is green. Have fun and let me know if you find something interesting.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

How not to renew the look of a cell phone

One of concepts that made Nokia great is replacable face plates. It changed a phone from something purely functional into something that can make a fashion statement. Apparently some people take this as far as that they have different face plates for different outfits. The face plate on my phone started to look distinctly worn, way beyond it years, or rather, year.

Buying a new face plate seemed like a waste of money, when you have a unfinished bottle of spray paint in the closset. So I took of the face plate and the thing on the back, taped of the parts that should not be painted (like the window in front of the display) and started spraying. At first it all seemed to go splendidly.

The phone now indeed looks as new. Unfortunately, there where some little pots on the display, which I tried to remove with sandpaper. I succeeded, but it reduced the visibility of things on the display considerable. Also, it turned out I painted the wholes on top of the speakers shut, making it much harder to hear other people.

I have repaired some of the dammage, but am still in the market for new set of face plates.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Why George Bush was right about the UN

Recent developments seem to prove that George Bush was indeed right about the UN when he said that the UN had to act or that the UN would be irrelevant. Of course I'm not talking about Iraq, but about Sudan.

While some left wing people are trying to indict Tony Blair for war crimes and some right wing people try to convince the rest of the world (mostly in vain) that the Iraq really is for humanitarian reasons, Sudan is quietly against in genocide against their people in Darfur.

Incidentially, Sudan was just re-elected by acclamation for their position in the human rights commision of the United Nations. Talk about irrelevant.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Internet Micro Economy Revolution

A perfect market is a market where all parties, producers and consumers, have perfect information. They know what is on offer, for how much and where. Of course real markets are seldom perfect and for the lack of information capitalism has come up with a less than perfect solution: advertising.

Advertising tends to be annoying, isn't actually very informative and is expensive; it adds a lot to prices of everyday articles. Sure, it does support a large portion of the entertainment industrty, which is nice, but hardly a sign of an efficient underlaying market.

Not only is advertising expensive and not very efficient, it is also not very granular. If you're a small company and you want to attract more business, it seems logical to contact a advertising agency. Of course they'll charge you a bundle, but they'll also tell you that you cannot just put one ad in a magazine, but that you have to build up some kind of recognition in your target group. It's hard to run a campaign all in all under 50.000 dollars.

Enters Google. My parents have a holiday home (yes, in Drenthe) they rent out sometimes. Unfortunately, they don't have to have their guest book directly online, but if they would have, then they could start advertising on Google with a budget starting at 50 bucks. They could micro-manage demand by advertising more when they don't have many reservations.

A similar thing is happening at EBay. Selling second hand stuff was a nice start, but the real revolution is the selling of new stuff. EBay is rapidly developing into a global market place for everything, but especially for smaller sellers. Mask carvers in Africa, small time importers of electronics in Austria and dog breeders in Australia all serve their specialized markets over the Internet in a way that was inconceivable ten years ago.

It's the small things like this that make economies as a whole fastly more efficient. Now when will it show up in productivity statistics.

Saturday, May 8, 2004

The most succesful economic system

So what seems to be the most succesful economical system right now? What do the fastest growing economies have in common. Hint: It is not the social market economies of Europe or the more brutal capitalist system of the Anglo-Saxion world.

Communism is the right answer. China, India and Vietnam are currently the fastest growing larger economies. China and Vietnam are of course (at least nominal) communist states. India is more mixed, but at least one of the Indian states has been run by communists since forever (Bengals). And Bengals is aiming to be the next Bangalore. The communist just declared IT to be essential and a part of industry where strikes are illegal.

Of course most of these communists are just more capitalist then the orginal capitalists.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

European Brain-drain

Ever since world war II, Europe has been losing lots of smart people to the US. Right after the war, it was the greater opportunities and the freedom. Later it was the money. There is still a (largish) gap between payment in Europe and the US, but I think now there are other reasons to why technical people still move overseas.

Being good at something technical counts in the US and in Europe much less, at least in the Netherlands. Here we realize that innovation drives economic growth and that innovation is mostly a technical matter, but we when push comes to shove, we rather pay his manager than the guy who invents new stuff. Of course you can't run a modern economy without managers and marketeers, you do have to sell the stuff too, but these people only make existing processes more efficient, they are not creating new processes or methods of wealth-generation. Engineers do.

Partly this is realized by the government, which tries to get more people to study technical stuff. So they're trying to educate young people, especially girls, about how important technical educations are. Of course financially it doesn't make much sense to study math or science. It is much harder and it will land you a job that pays less than if you would have studied economics.

If you're a good programmer in the Netherlands, you're expected to become a manager. Programming is supposed to be about executing a plan made by a manager. This of course takes the fun out of the equation and kills innovation. Young geeks go west. Meanwhile productivity growth in the Netherlands has been lagging for years and is hurting economic growth.

Saturday, May 1, 2004

Google's GMail

So I got me one of those new Google mail accounts. The functionality really seems quite nice and feels much faster than Yahoo! mail or Hotmail. It is all done in nifty javascript and dynamic html. Of course this rules access using a phone browser pretty much out, but then it is still a beta. Thorough reviews can be found on a number of places on the web. But what the about the privacy?

Gmail puts context sensitive ads next to your mail. Some people say, it reads your mail so where's the privacy. Computers of course always read your mail, otherwise they won't be able to display it on the screen, in the sense that they go through it letter for letter, the same way as they do when to decide which ad to show. The real privacy issue is of course not so much Google, but more Yahoo and MSN.

Google seems to have the smarter ad display software, so it seems they know a lot about you, but everything happens just context based. There is no trail of previous searches or a list of clubs you are member of that influences this process. If you are a member of Yahoo!, it knows a lot about you and supposedly uses this information for all kinds of purposes. Some would argue it is an even trade, you sell your privacy in return for some services. You don't have to do it, you can also go somewhere else and pay for your hosting/email/discussion group or whatever it is that you get for free from Yahoo!

But is your privacy yours to sell? You cannot sell your vote, because we imagine that a society where people could sell their vote would be worse than a society where they could. Especially if we allow the reselling of privacy information, we will end up drammatically fast in a situation where there is no privacy at all. You sell your phone number once and everybody has it, because the cost of copying information is zero.

A better model might be one where I rent out my privacy information, for cash or for services. But as soon as I don't want the services anymore, the other party loses the control over the information. And if multiple companies want access to the information, they all have to pay for it. Also, people should be able to put their own price on their privacy. I really don't like to be called during dinner time about whether I want to refinance, but if they pay me 10 euro per conversation (with me saying, 'no thank you'), it might be different. Calling Bill Gates would be very expensive and calling some people would probably be almost free. The same for email and for the regular junk mail.

Of course a scheme like this can probably only be realized using a central clearing house for privacy, which in itself would be a thread to privacy, unless some complicated system with emcryption can be worked out.