Douwe Osinga's Blog: September 2004

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.