Douwe Osinga's Blog: February 2004

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Georgia and the our big world

This Thursday I'm leaving for Georgia (the country in the Caucasus). In the unlikely event you'll be there too next week (and you're not my brother), drop me a line and we can have a drink.


I've started to read something about the country and as always when I read about a new country, I'm amazed about how big our planet is and how different it parts. Georgia is of course an old country with lots of culture and history. I knew you could ski there and that they have decent beaches.


But I hardly knew the Georgians as a people and now it turns out that there is a huge difference between the Megrels, who are quick and smart and the Kakhetians who are more calm and wineloving or any of the other 15 major ethnic groups. And they speak weird and complicated languages with up to 46 cases and 8 grammatical classes for nouns, making Finnish seem like something you could teach in kindergarten.


And the history is filled with brave fights of proud kings, trying to salvage their independence from some great other empire, with me having some vague idea about the empire, but never having heard of king and kingdom.


And it is not just Georgia. You can go to China and visits town you've never heard of with ten million people or go to India and discover new religions and villages that once were the capitals of continent spanning kingdoms. Why sent people to Mars?

Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Economist: The Case for Gay Marriage

The Economist is my favorite magazine. I like their style, the humor and their optimism. The can write an article about the war in the Congo and still somehow point out that it all could turn out well. And they don't just write about economy. As a matter of fact, there is no other magazine with such an extensive and even coverage of world events (versus European or American events).


Of course I don't always agree with the economist. They are not so much more conservative than I am, as well more libertarian in the economic sense. They don't like social security and I tend to do. Sometimes this leads to a greater liking of the British Conservatives or the American Republicans than I feel comfortable with.


This weeks leader is about gay marriage. They come for it strongly and brilliantly, using the conservative pro-marriage arguments. Anybody having any lingering suspicion that the Economist is conservative should read it. '..gay marriage would damage an important social institution, according to Mr Bush. Yet the reverse is surely true [...] Allowing gays to marry would, if anything, add to social stability, for it would increase the number of married couples. The weakening of marriage has been heterosexuals' doing, not gays'


If Bush things marriage is good for society, because it stops immorality, then surely he should think we can't have enough of it. Any out of equality, liberaty and the persuit of happiness alone should of course be enought to allow gay marriage.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Happiness and God

The BBC has a an interesting poll on what the World thinks of God. The results are as you'd expect, with Nigeria the most religious and the UK and Russia scoring very poorly. The more western, the less people believe in God, with the US being the big exception. By the way, more people believe that believing in God makes you a better person than people believe in God. But the question about religious acitvity made me think of another BBC poll, a couple of years ago: happiness.


On both religious activity and praying, Nigerians score best and the Russians worst. Here's the thing. On the poll on happiness, it turned out that the Nigerians were the most happy people of the world and the Russians the unhappiest. Now they both have quite something to pray for and maybe not always that much to be happy about, so is this a coincidence?

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Why Google is a verb and Yahoo isn't

For years Yahoo has tried to push their motto, 'Do you Yahoo?', trying to make their brand name into a verb. Google has been trying, in vain, the opposite, to extend that they started sending trademark letters to websites using Google as a verb. But the fact that Google is a verb and Yahoo isn't goes a long way in explaining the differences between the two Internet powers.


The search engine wars are starting up. Yahoo dumped Google and we're all waiting for Microsoft to get their secret weapon out and kick Google. Well, maybe not in this version, or the next, but how does 3.1 sound. But let's concentrate on Google and Yahoo for a bit and especially the verbness of both names.


Yahoo has always tried to be a complete internet solution, from discussion groups, to mail, to homepage building and commerce. Yahoo doesn't want to be a portal, a place where you start your Internet adventures, but wants to be the Internet or at least a lifestyle on Internet. That's why they would like to be a verb. Do you Yahoo implies that Yahooing is a better way of internetting.


Google is the opposite. Google doesn't try to be everything for the Internetter, Google does only one thing: search. Whether in newsgroups, shops, images or the plain old web, searching is what Google does best. It makes to google as a verb much more attractive than to yahoo, which is why Google doesn't want the verb to become popular; before you know it, people are googling at the new search engine of Yahoo.


Yahoo wants to be everything, wants to be a lifestyle and thus to be a verb. Google wants to be one thing and wants to be unique and therefore doesn't want to be a general term like a verb.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Google Random Image

A new project. Google Random Image is a little javascript code that scans the html of the page it is on and uses that to find a matching image on Google Image Search, which is then displayed. This way you can always have a fresh image on your site/blog.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Countries and currency risks

The European leaders complain about the weak dollar and how a further weakening dollar could hurt the still vulnerable economic recovery. Companies that fear currency movements, routinely insure themselves against those risks by using options or currency swaps. What's stopping countries?


A dollar dropping below 1.30 to the Euro could do some serious harm to exporters in the Netherlands, hurting government income in turn. So you'd expect the governemnt to take steps to insure themselves against something like that. But they are actually making things worse.


Almost all Euro-countries borrow money and they borrow it in Euros. That means that in terms of dollars, when the dollar drops further, their debt increases. If they would borrow in dollars, their debt would decrease if the dollar dropped further, offsetting the damage of the lower dollar. If the dollar would recover, the debt would increase, but so would the economic recovery.


I'm not saying all Euro debt should be in dollars; this would carry the risk that when things go really bad and there is a run on the Euro, defaulting would become unavoidable, while if a country has debt denominated in its own currency, it can always print money. But I do think that there should be some debt in dollars, evening out the risks.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Google as research substitute

Mediabistro has an interesting article about Lies, Damned Lies and Goolge. How journalist more and more use the number of hits on a Google search to prove something. Not so strange, of course. A Google search is quick and usually yields the required high number to impress: Abba is still popular, twenty years after they broke up, scoring 1.4 million hits.


The number of Google hits, like a witty saying, proves nothing, of course. Quite a few of my Google hacks use the number of hits returned by Google as measure of something or other, but I also found out that the number jumps up and down quite a bit and is not very accurate, especially for combinational searches. Search for:
USA
USA -Cheese
USA +Cheese
You'd expect the number of hits for the last to searches to equal that of the first (the set of pages containing USA can be divided in two parts, the pages that also contain Cheese and the pages that do not contain Cheese). But it doesn't.


In order to prove my point, I wrote a little project to predict the US presidential election by checking the number of hits statename + partyname returns according to Google. For one thing, searching using the Google API returns completely different results from the results you get when you search using Google web interface and Altavista does something completely different again.


The project is still interesting (Bush wins, but it will be close race) and it would also be interesting to see whether the results become better the closer we get to the election and the more the Internet is concentrated on the elections. Check it out at Google Elections.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Google Date

The latest in the series Google hacks, Google Date lets you enter a date (day, month, year) and it will return what Google has to say about this date in a sentence or two, three results per search.


Google doesn't optimize searches for relevance when it comes to dates. So the results aren't famous-person-dates, but random events out of the lives of random people. It makes the world seem strangely connected.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Collective Poetry

A new project on these pages, collective poetry. The flash applet on the page behaves like one of thos magnetic poetry sets that allows you to form poems on your refrigerator. Every time you move a word, the position is saved on the server, so the next person entering the site sees what you've done.


The interesting part is that the refrigerator can be share by many people. The window you see on my site, only shows 500x500 pixels of a refrigerator of 1600x1600. You can visit the other parts, but you cannot edit them. You can rent a part of the refrigerator though. You register and get a little bit of code you can put on your site. That code will then display a different part of the refrigerator and your visitors can create their own poems.


The urls of cooperating sites are printed in the flash applet, to allow easier cross visits.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Big Guys are Scared (and getting bigger)

The take over attempt of Disney by ComCast and the planned merger of Sony Music and BMG make the promise of the End of Big Media seem like another fairytale from the pre-millennium Go Go years. From the looks of it, Big Media is not exploding into pieces, but only getting bigger. But look closer and you’ll see that this just Big Medias way of reacting to an existential crisis that has a lot to do with the Internet.


The success of legal digital music, like Napster 2.0 and Apple’s iTunes, seems another indication that Big Music is surviving the digital challenge, but it is significant that it was a technology company (Apple) that made it happen. The original plans of Big Music didn’t include burning CDs at home, but the success of P2P networks forced there hands. These legal alternatives to Kazaa et al are using DRM that bars users from the full potential of digital music, but they also illustrate that Big Music has lost its monopoly on music distribution.


Distribution of music used to be hard work. You’d have to control radio stations, get you records into stores and finance publicity of new bands. Only the biggest of music companies had the muzzle to do that and in order for a band to succeed, they needed access to this infrastructure. The more people start buying music over the Internet, the less important this infrastructure is.


The revolution that shook the music industry is under way for the movies too. It takes a bit more time, because downloading a movie is a lot more work than downloading a song or even an album, but with bandwidth still expanding and getting cheaper, the Internet is closing in on Hollywood. The real fight here is not about piracy or which technology standard is better; it is about distribution. The Internet will allow anybody to start a tv station, just as it allow anybody to start a radio station. The desertion of Disney by Pixar is a sign of the times here; Pixar can go it alone, it doesn’t need the distribution of Disney anymore.


Comcast is cable company offering broadband Internet access; by acquiring Disney, they can add a huge content library to their offerings. With that content, they can offer their users all that they need in digital land and put them in a walled garden; there’s no need to go to the scary Internet. If this sounds like an AOL replay, it is. AOL bought Time Warner for the same reason. That didn’t work and this probably won’t either. It is panic play. But as usually on Wall Street, when the going gets though, the big eat each other.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Homophobia

In the US the republicans fire up the troops by insisting there should be a constitutional change, banning gay marriage (how does that belong in the constitution?) In Europe, politicians seem generally more reasonable, but homophobia is running deep here too. And it is weird. As observed by many others, if you’re heterosexual, you should only applaud other men being not interesting in women. Instead men-men generally like some good ol’ girl on girl action, but completely freak out when they see to men kiss.


What could the deal be? Are hetero’s threatened in their manliness by homosexuals? I honestly have no idea what that means. If I didn’t like fish, would I be threatened by people who did, would I be afraid that they would convince me that fish is nice? If they convinced me, what exactly would be my loss? You account for homophobia by insisting that men just have low sales resistance as Seinfeld did.


Why does homosexuality exist at all, evolutionary speaking? There isn’t much of a point in terms of the continuation of the species on first sight. At least there isn’t in a monogamous society. There might be in a polygamous one. If the successful men all have three wives, that automatically leads to quite a lot of lesser men with no wives at all. Homosexuality might be one way to cope, given that unreleased sexual tension could otherwise lead to violence. Species that develop ways to avoid this kind of violence have a bigger chance of survival.


Does this explain homophobia? I think so. Heterosexuals are not so much afraid to discover they actually like other men touching them, but they are afraid that they might not be among the successful polygamous men who get three wives. Before you all unwrap your flamethrowers, remember that this is just another Wednesday night theory and no, it does not mean I think that homosexuals are less successful (on average I’d say they are more, but you can’t say that either, can you?)

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Beating my own spam filter

How did it ever come to this? The growing spam problem forced me to install SpamBayes, a very smart and well done in Python to block spam based on Bayesian rules. It works great and catches 75% of spam, I'd say. But if send myself a file from home to work, it will label it as spam too - no text, just an attachement, very suspect.


So I have taken to entering random words in the body of those emails - to fool my own spam filter.

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

How the Internet cuts in the middleman

Back in the day when Wired preached the long boom gospel, people talked about disintermediation. Before the Internet, large parts of the economy had been inefficient because of lack of information. Markets had been unclear, consumers and producers didn’t know about each other, so we needed middleman. Car salesman, real estate agents, even newspapers, where just sitting between consumer and producer, making margins on every transactions. With the Internet, things would happen directly and more efficiently, because of the information at you fingertips thing. Unfortunately this nice theory turned out to be wrong.


Yes, we have more information and can shop directly. Travel agents have a hard time with people scorning the Internet for the best deals. Newspapers feel the heat now that people can gather there own information (and don’t place that much personal ads). Car salesman are suddenly confronted with a public that knows about technical problems to be expected by this make and year. The Internet revolution took place and made the economy better – who knows it might even be responsible for those feisty productivity numbers in the US. But the intermediates it didn’t kill.


Take travel agents for example. We don’t go to two, three travel agents and compare prices; we compare prices with thousands of providers with the click of a mouse. But what happens? You go to Google, type in cheap fights Armenia and hey, on your left hand an interesting text ad pops up, promising the best deals compared. You click and land on a page where you enter your travel data and it gives you a list of options, you click one and book. You could do it in thirty minutes, no need for pesky travel agents getting a slice of the pie.


But Google got some money for the ad, when you clicked it. And a guy who specializes in building interesting pages and advertising for them by Google did the page you landed on. He gets his money by using something like Trade Doubler, companies where you can get banners and sometimes complete webapps that make money, among them a complete bookings centre for air tickets, which you used in this case. Trade Doubler did not implement the bookings centre; another company did that. Finally, the ticket was booked at the airline. So there you have it, instead of having one intermediate, we now have four, all getting a slice of the profit margin.


The Internet not only improved the flow of information, it also reduced transaction costs dramatically. Travel agents are not in trouble because we don’t need them anymore; we still don’t buy our tickets at the airlines. They are just too expensive. They need 20 dollar or so a transaction to function. On the Internet people run companies on tens of cents per transaction. Going through the four intermediates didn’t involve any human intervention. So anytime an inefficiency on the Internet is spotted the size of a dime, somebody jumps in there. There are people making money with websites that contain nothing more than a Dell shopfront to sell computers. They advertise at search engines, get traffic and let Dell handle all the details. They are slightly better at this than Dell, so they jump at the opportunity.


Little P.S. a guy named Aaron discovered that if you type ‘Jesus Christ died’ in GoogleTalk, a little app I wrote that lets Google finish your sentences, the result is:
Jesus Christ died for our sins. BY his blood we shall be Free from defects in material and workmanship.
Christianity for you, I guess.