Douwe Osinga's Blog: June 2004

Sunday, June 27, 2004

The Mind of an Engineer on a Bus

Reverse engineering is only feasible because engineers in general don’t like waste and illogic designs. So, things build by engineers in general make sense and that helps when you want to take them apart or fix them. If you think hard enough about how you would have designed something similar, chances are you’ll understand the thing you’re fixing a little better.

To some extend it is the same thing with traveling. On Wednesday I found myself drinking beer with a face-painting billionaire, on Friday I was sitting on a dirty bus filled with overweight minorities on their way to a second rate casino destination, all with their own plan how to beat the system. It’s like the guy said, the rich are different, they have more money and presumably can allow for some air sprayed tattoos instead of plotting the fall down of Reno.

Anyway, things started to go wrong around Stockton. It was not so much that I missed my connection, but my driver decided that my connection took too long and I’d better come with him to Stockton where another bus would take me to Merced. It did but I arrived slightly over two hours late. My parents who I had hoped to meet there presumably had given up waiting and the bus station was empty. Now, in a poorer country one would expect to find some cheap hotels around the bus station, since people on through fare usually don’t appreciate enough the fineries of better hotels to spend a lot of money on it, but the US is too rich and too car dominated for that. Motels sort of fill this niche, catering for people on the move and they’re relatively cheap, so I set out for that weird strip build part of town full of shopping malls, car repair places and indeed Motels. Cheap turned out to be relative, but that’s what credit cards are for.

The next day I spent relatively efficient looking at some of the beauty that Yosemite National Park has to offer, but I decided to cut my weekend short, not so much because I had seen everything, but because accommodation inside of the park was tight and getting in and out an hassle. Now, I had no idea whether there would be any connecting services from the local bus to Merced and if so at what time, but the time table had a weird irregularity. The buses always went first to the Greyhound bus station and then to the Amtrak train station, except for the last one, which first went to the train station. Now, I knew that Amtrak sold tickets that included the ride with the local bus all the way to Yosemite, so there could only be one reason for this: if the bus would first make its loop through Merced and then end at the train station, people would not make their connection. So I got out at the train station.

Lo and behold, there were lots of people waiting for a train in the right direction. How smart I am, I though until I discovered that this was only because the train was late. Would it have arrived at the right time, I would not have made my connection. And the irregularity in the bus times? Simple. They park the busses at the bus station, not at the train station, so the last run ends at the bus station, just as the first one starts there.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The price of immigration

Immigration is a tricky problem. More and more it seems clear that Europe needs immigration to battle the overall graying of the population, but integrating the immigrants is not easy. And then there is the question of how to select the candidates: there are hundred of millions willing and only a few hundred thousand wanted. Here's a simple idea that might help.

If you don't do anything, too many people will come. In order to avoid that, we've been making special rules to limit the in stream, but this has resulted in getting mostly political refuges and mariage candidates - not so much because these are the most needed people, but they are the hardest to ignore. But you can't stop the markets, so not only do we mostly get the wrong people, the right people that do get in, get in under false pretenses, which is never a good start.

You could work with tests, quota's or a number of heavy bureacratic methods, which contain a varying degree of randomness, but it all boils down to one thing, we want highly motivated immigrants who think they stand a chance to contribute something to our society. So the answer is easy: just sell the green cards to the highest bidders.

It won't always give you the best results, but I think it will work out way better than the current mess or any rule based alternative. Illegal immigrants already spend fortunes to get into the EU/US. Might as well have them get in on a normal plane ticket and pocket the money ourselves. People that have invested into being part of a society, will want to integrate more. And the people that pay, expect it to be worth it, so they are the people that think that they will earn a lot of money, i.e. will contribute to our economy.

And we should send the money we raise, back to the countries where they came from as a form of aid, as a payment towards the damages done by the brain drain.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Democracy and jail terms

Long time no post - working at Google is nice but takes a lot of time and energy. And you get to do a lot of new stuff, so that kind of directs your creativity. It's an amazing place to work, great tech, food, drinks & culture. And they're always looking for more smart people, so if it seems like something for you, drop me a line.

Wireless Internet is far more common here than at home. Google provided me with a nice laptop and I can connect at lots of places, either because a caffe offers it to its customers or some random guy just has opened his ADSL line for everybody to share. I'm typing this outside a very nice coffee shop. Coffee, sunshine and Internet - pretty close to geek heaven.

I was thinking about why prison terms are much harsher here than they are back home. Partly it is culture of course, everything is more harsh here. You get great opportunities, but if you fall off the cliff, no one is going to safe you. It's your life and your call to make something of it.

But the other thing is democracy. American is more democratic than the Netherlands in that more things get to decided by the people. One of the those things are prison terms. In the Netherlands parlement proposes the maximum terms, but the actual terms are decided by judges and the prosecutor is also independent and these people tend to set relatively low sentences. In America, congress sets minimun sentences and prosecutors are elected directly by the people.

Never mind that the prison system is broken, people usually want longer terms for criminals. You're just not going to win elections when you insist that the poor murderers spent too long in jail. So is the Dutch system better? Not really.

The thing of course is that putting people in jail doesn't help at all. So putting him away for longer at least hides the problem better than letting them go after a few years and then putting them back when they commit their next crimes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

More mothership

In continuation of my previous post, Google set me up for an interview over the telephone. I was rather nervous, but as the recruiter later said, it really went quite well. Almost only technical questions, nothing about attitude or feelings. I guess that is what you get from letting the Geeks run the company. It was actually quite fun. Questions varied from 'how would you count the bits in a 32 bit word' to 'how would you estimate the occurance of a certain word on the web without spidering the whole thing'

So they called me back that they were happy with the result and wanted to schedule a second telephone interview. However, as chance would have it, I already had planned a trip to California just for the next week. Luckily enough they could set up an interview for me right that next monday, so I didn't have to cross the Atlantic twice in two weeks.

Everybody warned me that not having a car in California means trouble. It probably does, but there was actually a quite good train connection between San Francisco and Mountain View. We (my wife was accompanying me) asked around where Google was at the station, but nobody had heard of the company, which seemed pretty weird, but is probably just a sign of the digital divide - the people we talked to where hispanics fresh from the South to whom the whole Internet thing had passed by.

But there were taxi drivers who knew where it was (all Sikhs from India). Google is now housed where Silicon Graphics used to be, but you wouldn't really know. The design and coloring of the buildings is very Googlish. Right away it seemed like a nice place to work, with the massage chair in the lobby, some weird game they made up, a scrolling list of search terms being used right now and a fridge with interesting juices.

The interviews again were very much of a technical nature, this time with actual code writing on the white boards. Now writing code on a white board is relatively hard under any circumstance, but they also wanted me to write the code in C, a language I hadn't used for five years or so, but I think I did pretty well. There were also some more brainstormy questions this time, for example how to solve MineSweeper and one guy even remarked that unfortunately there wasn't time to discuss Michel Foucault. All in all I did quite well I think and two weeks later I had a job offer.

So here I am, blogging from Google's headquarters, sipping the best corporate espresso I've had so far. I'm not really sure what to do with the whole Google hack thing now. Some of them might show up in Google products actually and the new ones I'll probably keep inside here - you get to work 20% of your time on your own projects here, but any results belong to Google.