Douwe Osinga's Blog: July 2004

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Four bikes in America

I took my bike from Amsterdam when I went to the US. It makes a surprising amount of sense to have a bycicle in Silicon Valley; distances are too large to walk in general, but not that large that you definitely need a car. There are also a lot of bike paths, some of them very nice and not used a lot. Quite some people come by bike to Google, though far more come by car - even if it would only take them 10 minutes to bike.

Arguably, bringing my bike to the US made less sense. It served me well for years even after I crashed it into a tree, but it was kinda old. Also, I'm not sure what the airlines do to bikes, but it must be similar to what they do to coffee. The wheels on the bike where not as wheel-shaped as they were before and the nice box KLM made me buy to put it in for 20 euro was torn, upside down and sitting in the middle unattended. Long story short, when I got a flat tire and saw that WallMart had bikes from $68.68, I decided to make my Amsterdam bike my spair (unrepaired).

So I got me a nice and shiny Chinese build mountain bike for 90 something. The cheaper bikes were not available and this one was slightly larger than the other ones. Still too small, really, but you can't expect that much for so little money.

After a month or so, I returned from a trip on Saturday and my bike was gone. Oh no. But so was the bike of my neighbor and that is always suspiscious. So I went to the receptiondesk when it reopened on Monday and asked if they knew anything about it.
'Yes, we've put your bike in storage.'
'There was a flooding, it might have gotten wet.'
'Ah, that could hurt a bike. Could you not have left me a note about this?'
'We did. It is right on the bike.'
'The bike in the storage?'
'Yes. In the storage.'
The next day I asked my neighbor if he thought his bike was gone. 'No', he said, 'I parked it at work.'

Now having established that Mountain View is actually a safe place for bikes, I left it overnight at the local friendly coffee shop and it was promptly stolen. Yes, I locked it, no, not to anything. Back to WalMart, this time got the 68 dollar one, which turned out to be cheap for a reason. It sucked. The breaks didn't work very well, it made all kind of sounds and it was too small. Ok, the last thing I could have found out in the shop (and maybe the first two too).

Luckily enough the 90 days return policy took care of that and now I am again a proud bike owner with a lock that locks bikes to things. And the key of my lock has a clock, though no obvious way of changing the time. Let's see how this bike survives the trip back to Europe.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Driving under influence

God may be dead and there is not truth out there, but everybody agrees that driving under influence is Very Bad, right? But is it, or is it just one of those things we tell each other and we never question, because it involves sin (drinking) and death? Let's think about this for a bit if for nothing else then to question our believes.

The statistics seem bad enough. In the Netherlands about a thousand people get killed in traffic every year, with estimates as high as half of those accidents being alcohol related. Stop people from drinking and cut the amount of people dying in traffic in half. How could anybody think driving under influence is not bad?

Ah, but statistics are a tricky thing. According to NHTSA, the american government organisation researching these things, you have a 300 times higher chance of dying in a car crash if you have an alcohol level of 0.15 BAC. Again, a scary number, but if you don't really know how good your chances are while driving sober, it is not saying much. For comparision, 0.15 is what you get after you take nine alcoholic consumptions in two hours, assuming your a guy of about my size and is three times the amount legal in the Netherlands.

Normally you have a chance of dying in car accident of about 7 in a billion per kilometer, so now it will be 210 in a billion. Does this sound scary, or not meaning any thing? Let's put it into perspective, most trips back from the bar are not that long, so your total chance getting killed is 2 in a million, which is similar to the chance of an airplane crashing (1 in a million, but usually a airplane trip is two legged) and will decrease your life expectancy by about half an hour, which is similar to the decrease in life expectancy you get by smoking three cigarettes, which is about the same amount of smoke you inhale when you don't smoke but stay in a bar for the night where people smoke. 

Before you stop me and tell me my assumptions are wrong, realize that that is not the point. The point is, we tend not to think about these things at all, we just assume they drinking and driving is bad, because it kills people. But risk is part of life and taking risk is unavoidable.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The way of the engineers

Google is an engineering driven company of course and it shows. And with such a large concentration of engineers at one spot, you get to see the similarities. For one thing, nobody seems to have a watch. You stand around with a group of ten people, ask for the time and all of them reach for their cell phones. Who needs a watch if you got one of those? Sense of directions is something that doesn’t seem to necessarily with good sense of engineering. People get lost left and right (admittedly, the  floor plans are sort of confusing) and a surprisingly large percentage of engineers don’t even seem to drive, including yours truly.

Politically, your average engineer is rather left leaning – one guy had a t-shirt saying in five languages: I’m sorry for my president, I didn’t vote for him, but some of them are radiate libertarians, denying the state the right to levy taxes. There’s not much in between and social conservatism doesn’t quicken pulses around here, everybody should basically just do what works for him.

Engineers like simplicity and are against rules that are unnecessary, since they know that these kind of rules lead to more trouble than they’re worth, so the like libertarianism. But then again, they usually don’t care too much about money after they have satisfied their lust of tech and gadgets, so they don’t see why the rich shouldn’t give some of their wealth to the less well off. Money, like anything has a decreasing yield of happiness the more you collect, so it just makes sense to redistribute it at some point.

Clothing is the other thing. Wayne, our VP of engineering, when pressed for a Google dress code came up with the rule, everybody should wear clothes at work. But there is an unwritten dress code among engineers. When I went to a Google drink I noticed that the females from sales stood out like they were civilians on a military ball. They were not wearing the uniform of jeans and darkish t-shirt, but colorful and fashion inspired wear. Jeans are comfortable and non white t-shirts are easier to wash.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

They probably are Giants

Finally a band that gets it. And one of my favorites on top of that. They Might Be Giants  opened a shop on their site where you can buy their albums as 256Kbit MP3s. No stupid DRM, no restrictions, great sound quality and for a good price, 10 dollars for an album. And of course the best thing is, you buy directly from the source, the guys who actually make the great music.

Ah, but what about file sharing? Well, as John & John put it:

 Greeting from us - They Might Be Giants. The MP3s being sold here were created by John Linnell and John Flansburgh and the musicians we work with. We sincerely hope you buy and enjoy them. There are many complicated and interesting issues revolving around file-sharing, but we have a simple request: please do not trade them with your friends or post them on-line as this service is how we are making a living

And that is how it is of course, your fans are your, uh, fans, you might as well trust them. The musicians make music, customers give them money and all is well. Digital Rights Management is just another word for screwing your best customers: you want to fight piracy, but you end up making it harder for the people that are willing to pay for music to enjoy the stuff they bought. I want to be able to play music on my laptop in MP3 format. I'll buy a CD if that's what it takes (it helps that they're cheaper in the US), but not if I can't rip to to my hard disk.

Hopefully, They Might Be Giants makes a killing with this and other bands start to realize that cutting out the middle man and delivering to your customers what they want instead of fighting proxy wars with file sharers is ultimately just sound business. Prices for music should then drop to maybe 25cts a song and file sharing will just become irrelevant, why steal if you can affort to buy something of guaranteed quality?

Friday, July 16, 2004

Google Talk Fix

Anybody who's played with Google Talk has probably noticed that it sometimes got stuck in a loop. Sometimes that'd be funny, like in if you typed in  "I did not authorize torture" and it would respond with 'did, did, did...', but usually that's not what you want. I've been meaning to fix it and I finally did. So go check it out.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

My other blog is a porsche

My regular readers have noticed that I post rather more infrequent than back in the day I averaged 29 a month. Work takes a lot of time and I try to post here sort of coherent ideas. Also, work is absorbing creativity rather efficiently and all the Google hacks I do come up with now end up at, uh, Google.

All and all a good reason to open a new blog to further dilute my productivity. Rather, I do come accross some interesting projects, mostly of technical value. It is a typical link blog: a short description, followed by a link. Check it out if you're into that kind of thing:

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Are we too poor for communism?

Poor countries usually have a hard time to maintain their democracies. Democracy doesn't necesarily make a country rich, though most democracies are rich. It is easily explained, even though democracies are usually better run than dictatorships, but for citizens themselves, democracy is a luxury problem. If you're hungry, you want food, who cares who runs the country. Once you have food, a refrigerator and may be a car, you start to care. You want a well run country, if not for yourself then for your children.

Typically when a country gets to the 8.000. dollar a head income, enough people start to care to make changes. This happened in Japan, South-Korea and Taiwan and to some extend in Europe. Sure, there are exceptions, India comes to mind, as does the US, but it is sort of pattern. It is part of a Maslov pyramid sort of thing. First things first. What if communism was something similar?

Equality for all and collective ownership of the means of production turned out to hurt efficiency. But equality brings peace of mind as would a state that takes care of our needs without us having to bother. The richer we get, the less important it becomes to make that next dollar, the more important relative ease of living becomes.

I'm not picturing communism as living in a drab, Eastern European capital, but more like living in Club Med full time. People like the concept of everything included, all-you-can-eat, flat fee. Why not flat fee all-you-can-live? It doesn't have to be run by the state per se, Disney could do it, but what's the real difference? Once a society is rich enough to offer something like this to all its citizens, why wouldn't it?

Put in other words, agriculture and industry are becoming less and less important for our economies. At some point they will get a sort of residu status, something you might as well collective, not because that is more fair or or more efficient, but just because nobody wants the bother of arranging for his material needs.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Stupid White America Bashers

A popular meme these days seems to be that Americans are stupid. Come to think of it, the meme is older than the latest block buster, at least in Europe. It is amazing how many normally intelligently behaving people subscribe to it. I presume this is because the Americans are rich, powerful and successful, so there isn’t any harm in insulting them in a stupid way, at least not form a political correctness perspective. Ten years ago, it seemed pretty acceptable to say that Japanese were uncreative (never mind them coming up with a zillion little ways to make your car/stereo/what have you work better) or that the Germans were aggressive (never mind that they seem to harbor the most pacific sentiment of all democracies). You don’t hear that so much anymore – both the German and the Japanese aren’t doing as well. But the Americans are.


But ask anybody who claims that Americans are stupid whether he thinks that they are less smart on average than blacks and you create a political correctness dilemma. Some people will just say that the Americans are less smart, but African Americans do on average less well on intelligence tests and yes this doesn’t mean a thing, poorer people in general do less well on these tests, but it drives home the point: making these broad statements is just racist, which is what most people realize when you ask them this and they’ll come back with something that you can’t make the comparison, because the one  would be racist (the other merely being American bashing).


But there really isn’t any difference between saying something about all people belonging to the same race and all people belonging to the same country? Some broad statements might be supportable with statistics, but usually people saying either things aren’t interested in statistics, they’re just trying to point out that this group of people they’re talking about is inferior. If a guy in a pub says to me, Americans are stupid, he doesn’t mean, gee, I read this statistic that Americans have an average IQ of 98, while in Japan it is 106, let’s talk about this for a bit, he just means, I don’t like Americans and resent the fact that they are richer and more powerful than Europe.


Sure, there are interesting differences between Europe and the US and I enjoy discussing them. Everything is bigger here, from cars to orange juice containers and that kind of stuff. And the grasp of European geography of the average American does seem to be a little limited, but so what? How many Chinese provinces and their capitals can you name? And they are usually European-country sized. Americans and people living in the US tend to win the lion share of the Nobel prizes (though may be not the one for peace this year) and I would say that the US is at least more smart people friendly than the EU.


Not even George Bush is stupid. Believe me, I’m no fan of his work, but he is a guy who on a thin mandate set out to do the things he believed to be right and he got most of them. Tax cuts, going it alone on the world stage, more oil exploration and getting rid of Sadam Husein, they’re all things one might not like, especially from a left wingy European point of view, but disagreeing with some one, even disagreeing strongly never is a reason to call the other guy stupid. He did what he set out to do and he might be the price of not being reelected, but calling him a miserable failure would be incorrect. Oops.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Greetings from a small island

Life at Google is to some extent like being on a tropical island. There has been a huge storm, the dot-com bubble bust and left and right people wash up on the beach from their respective ship wrecks. They’re good people, only the best swimmers make it to the island and they have experience – Microsoft hires out of school, Google hires people that have something to show for. You sit down at lunch and here’s this guy that worked for Sun when Sun was still a hot start-up. There’s another guy who worked for four start-ups, all gone belly-up now. Other people were not in a ship wreck, but jumped overboard voluntarily, people from Oracle fed up with the bureaucracy or people from Microsoft, fed up with, you know, being from Microsoft.


Google has been the hottest thing in the valley for quite some time now and it is an amazing place to work – a bit like Sun twenty years ago, or Netscape ten. It just goes to show that around here you don’t really work for a company, but you work in Silicon Valley – which is partly why it works. In the Netherlands, they make you sign a non-competition agreement for any job of any importance. You can’t work for the competition, can’t start your own company in the same area, in the same business, that kind a thing. Now, Google is very secretive and we have complicated contracts, but that we don’t have. If I want to work for Microsoft tomorrow, that is fine (as long as it is fine with Microsoft) and if I think I can do a better job on my own, I can start my own company – hell, that is how Silicon Valley made it big.


Anyway, the islands isn’t full and if you think you’d make a good Googler, drop me a line. Google is always looking for smart and motivated people.