Douwe Osinga's Blog: October 2004

Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Need for Crap

Switzerland is one of the more expensive countries, even if Ikeas Billies are relatively cheap, or at least that is what most foreigners living here would tell you. Ask the Swiss and they tend to relativate it: Switzerland is more expensive may be than other countries but the sutff you get is of higher quality, so it all evens out. Of course they're wrong.

Not so much about the quality of things, quality is probably higher for most things (though not for the falafel, which is worse than usual and way more expensive) but sometimes you don't need higher quality stuff, in some situations crappy stuff will just do the trick and more importantly cheap and crappy things keep the prices of quality in check.

There are a couple of Swiss ADSL providers who are all very reliable, I'm sure, but they are also all a lot more expensive than at home where prices start under 10 euro's a month (here it's more like 40). So the cheap service at home is a lot worse and probably lacks almost all support, if that's all I need, I should be able to order it. And it keeps the better guys on their toes; they realize they have to keep up quality or else people will just settle for the cheaper stuff.

In Hong-Kong and the US (and belately some European countries too), there is a huge variety of suppliers for most things; you can get very cheap food on the street or spend a fortune on haute cuisine (yes, even in the US). Some of my Swiss friends say that it just makes life more complicated and the Swiss system where decisions are made for you is much easier; you pay what's asked and can expect reasonable quality.

Of course it only makes life easier for you if you have the money. If you don't you might have chosen for something of less quality. Europeans sometimes talk about Walmart of a place where only the American poor go and where the poor have to put up with all the cheap crap the huge corporation imports from China. The other side is of course that without Walmart (and say only the Migros, Switzerlands largest supermarket) the poor don't have as much buying power.

Forced quality is yet another tax on the poor. Economist sometimes compensate the income of countries for their price levels; poor countries are often cheaper so their (lower) income buys them relatively more. It makes the poor countries seem less poor. It'd be interesting to do the same exercise with the buying power not of the average person, but of the average poor person; the poor in the US might suddenly appear to be less poor compared to the European poor.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

No Floppy Drive

Today I suddenly realized that my laptop does not have a floppy drive. I needed to create a boot floppy in order to install windows 2000 on a fresh hard disk (if anybody knows a better way of doing this, please le me know), and all I could find was a cd-burner. I suppose we came a long way since Apple came out with the iMac and everybody wondered what you would do with a computer that didn't even have a floppy drive. Now I've been working on this machine for 5 months and I never noticed.

Of food and drinks

Zurich is a lot more easy going and international than most people would think. Bars stay open late, there’s food from every kitchen of the world and some of the streets look distinctly raunchy. But there is some of the traditional Swiss character left and it sometimes shows.


I came back to work after dinner and after some more work, me and two colleagues decided to go for a beer. One of them hadn’t eaten yet and it was kind of late and the kitchen of the place we went to had closed. There was a fast food like place around the corner run by a guy from Pakistan, pizza and sausages, that kind of thing and waiter pointed out we could get something there. So two of us decided to order the beer, while our hungry friend went for pizza. But then the waiter came back and informed us that even though the kitchen was closed, they did not allow outside food. Please eat your pizza outside in the rain. Obviously we left and had the beers at the fast food place.


The reverse happens too. It was less late, but we still wanted a beer. So we went into the Rheinfelder Bierhalle, a place famed for its Jumbo-Jumbo Cordon Blues (they are huge) and their cheap beer. But none for us. It was dinner time and they wouldn’t serve us just beer, which seemed strange for a Bierhalle. The Bierkeller next door however had the same policy: no food, no beer.


The English pub around the corner had no problem with people just ordering beer. I guess that’s where globalization really helps you; providing Pakistani and Brits that undercut the Swiss traditions when they work against you.

Monday, October 25, 2004

My poor inner-Geek

After months of speculation, PalmOne finally anounced the new Treo that I had been lusting for. Unfortunately the phone that should have been the love of geeks all-over turns out to sport only a 640x480 camera, not the 1.3 MPixel rumor had promised. Also it only has 32Mbyte internal memory (it will take an SD card to expand memory to 1GB, but still). Now I don't know what to buy me for christmas/birthday. Maybe an MS Smartphone after all?

Monday, October 18, 2004


The big mac index is a currency index by the economist that tries to calculate which currencies are over and undervalued by looking at the prices of big macs in the respective countries. Countries where big macs are more expensive have overvalued currencies, countries where big macs are cheaper have undervalued currencies.

The economist is only half joking with this. Other approaches usually take a basket of goods and services and add them up. But the big mac can be seen as such a basket and McDonalds has already done the counting. But the big mac is just one universally available product. While shopping for furniture I realized the Billy of Ikea might be perfect example too.

Life in Switzerland is expensive, but is Ikea more expensive too? In which country is Ikea the cheapest? As it turns out, Ikea uses one application for all countries and replacing the countryId in the url with a different number will give you the shop and prices for the different country. Add productId=15559 and you'll see how much a Billy is in that country.

I extracted information from 12 countries and got the following result:

CountryLocal PriceCurrencyprice dollarsPrice Level

Rip-off Brittain anyone? As you see, Switzerland isn't so bad, even a little cheaper than my native Netherlands.

Apart from price differences, I think the chart can be read differently too. Namely, how respected is Ikea in each country. The more respected, the more they can charge for the same thing. As it happens, the same thing is true for burgers too. In some countries Big Macs are thought of something special, which makes them expensive.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Google Lock-Up

I don’t like alarm systems much. Forget to turn them off once and before you know it some pseudo-police guy with a fake (or not) gun will show up and make you prove you are in fact not a burglar. The one at the Google office in Zurich is very strict. Leave the door open for more than 45 seconds or so and you have to go through a complex procedure to avoid the coming of said pseudo-police guy. Last night, however, leaving the door open wasn’t the problem. More the reverse.


The door wouldn’t open at all. We had gotten in fine, worked for a bit, but now we were locked in. We fumbled a bit with the lock, entered codes into the alarm terminal, but nothing helped. Getting in had worked, but holding the badge close to the badge reader through the window didn’t. Called the corporate apartment. A Google-badge carrying colleague answered and was easily persuaded to come rescue us. However, the door would still not open. It did click a bit, but that was all.


More fumbling and the sudden realization that the reason the door didn’t open was in fact that it was locked from the inside! Unlock the door, click, click and the door opened. Sweet freedom. How could we have locked the door and not noticed, how stupid. Well as it turns out we were not that stupid. We had only locked the door during the fumbling with the door face of our escape attempt. By the time we realized this, the colleague was already on the wrong side of the door and also locked in.


Having run out of near by colleagues we called the security people. They didn’t know what to do, but offered to come by. We politely declined, since they usually charge triple overtime plus weekend bonus for things like this. The largish emergency exit button began to look more juicy all the time, so we finally pressed it. No alarm went off, just a dry click and the door was free again. Hooray!


The alarm did go off when we opened the door, however. And the door no longer locked itself. Bit of a pickle. Leaving an the door open with a running alarm was clearly not an option. Calling in the uniforms was all that was left, though they couldn’t do more than stare at the door mumbling something that this was a job a technician. Technicians we have a lot at Google of course, but none that know much about real stuff, more about network protocols and data storage schemes.


Ten minutes later our secretary showed up with knowledge about two important keys. One to reset the emergency exit alarm and one to lock the door from the outside (the same lock we managed to lock from the inside before). Panic struck for a few seconds when we realized that now that we had reset the emergency exit alarm, the door was shut again, this time with everybody on the wrong side, including the secretary and the man in the uniform, but fortunately the emergency exit button worked again, so an exit was still possible.


I leave as a question to the reader what we ended up doing with our collection of alarms, keys and badges, so that people could still have a chance to come into work the next day (Sunday) without being trapped in the same way, nor that the alarm would keep going off or the door being unprotected. Hint: it involves somebody being on call.

Friday, October 8, 2004

Der Untergang

I went to see “Der Untergang”, a movie about the last days of Hitler and the Third Reich. The movie has been a bit controversial in Germany since it shows Hitler as a human being and not just as something utterly evil. The scarier, I’d say; if somebody who looks like a grandfather could do something so terrible, than makes it all just more real. Bad things do happen and you can’t put them in a box labeled “extreme evilness, unlikely to be repeated”. What stroke me most about the movie, though was the military.


The generals were taking orders right till the end and to some extend even after the dictator killed himself. There were soldiers risking their lives to get gasoline to burn the remains of their Führer. Now I know of course it is just a movie, but there is probably something to it. Soldiers are trained to take orders no matter what and so they do. It was really the same in Stalingrad where the Germans should have retreated, but Hitler wouldn’t let him. 1.5 million soldiers died in the Battle for Stalingrad.


Following orders only makes sense because you think the system works and the only way the system works is if all it’s part function in a predictable way. You being one of those parts, you’ll have to behave predictable too. But if you see the system is falling apart to the extend that there is really no way it is all going to work out, the whole reason for following orders disappears. But still the generals followed orders.


Not winning the war was just unthinkable. The lack of alternatives makes people go on after they know there is really no future. Of course it is not so different for most people. You get stuck in a job that goes nowhere, but you’re just scared of the alternative. Of course most people are just stuck and not just heading for Der Untergang

Thursday, October 7, 2004

All Look Same?

I often wonder if all white people look the same to people from other races. I know most white people think they do look more different (with different colored hair and eyes), but that might be because of the fact that you only look different on the things that you pay attention to. Anyway, I came acrross this little quiz which let's you guess the origin of 18 portraits, whether they're Chinese, Japanese or Korean. My result: you might as well throw a coin. Hmm, a three sided coin. Or not of course.

Monday, October 4, 2004

The unbearable lightness of Movies

I was watching a not quite so interesting movie the other day with my wife; my wife expressed her opinion on the movie by falling soundly asleep. There’s this thing about movies you know that are not good but you haven’t finished. I know the movie is not going to get better, but I feel that if the movie does get better, it will save the lost time. Of course on another level I know the time is lost already; that’s were technology comes to the rescue.


WinDVD has this interesting feature that allows you to speed up the movie in steps of 5%. And they have a nice DSP trick that makes the sound, well, sound normal, only faster. So it turns out you can watch a bad movie 40% faster than normal, a normal movie 25% faster and a really good movie still 10% or 15% faster than normal.


It is an interesting experiment in data-compression of movies. As always, the more information something contains, the hardest it is to compress. A completely blue photo compresses better than a detailed picture, better movies are more complex, so they compress less easy.


Compressed movies are strange; I downloaded something to watch on the train. Unfortunately, the download didn’t finish in time, but it did almost. 97% or so. This was with bittorrent. Bittorrent doesn’t download files sequentially, it downloads bits in random order. So the file I had was almost the complete file, with just 3% random bits missing. The funny thing is, it played pretty well. Sure it had some hick-ups and scrambled frames, but it made me think.


What if we had a special BitTorrent for movies. It would use a compression scheme that would play the movie, no matter how little data was actually available. Sort of like progressive gifs, but obviously much more complex. The nice thing about such a scheme would be that a download would never be incomplete and neither would it ever be finished. You could always keep your torrent open, collecting more random bits of the movie and improve the quality of your movie.


Obviously the original source of the movie would have to be of very high quality, but depending on the server architecture, that could actually be the full DVD; clients would start downloading from this source and get there own, very compressed (at least in the beginning) version of this movie; however and this is crucial, each client would get a slightly different version, so that if would take away the original, the clients could improve their quality by just communicating with each other.