Douwe Osinga's Blog: December 2004

Monday, December 27, 2004

Write your own travel guide

Back when I was still running Oberon Medialab, one of the problems was that I always came up with new ideas, usually losing interest long before they came to fruitation. One of the reasons I started this site was to quickly build these kind of ideas into something real before I found something else. The so called hacks. However, there was one idea that came up a long time ago that actually made it into reality: World66, an open source travel guide.


More than five years ago, I was chatting with my brother in John's Café, the local backpackers joint in Kashgar about how Lonely Planet was starting to miss the point. Yes they had great coverage and reliability, but they could hardly cover everything, nor were they very up-to-date. Couldn't the World Wide Web help? Lonely Planet receives lots of travelers reports, but they print only stuff once they have sent a researcher to check the report out. What if we would have a website with a global travel guide where everybody could just update anything?


So we brainstormed a little while taking a bus over the Turugart pass into Kyrgyzstan. Back home we wrote down some designs, but it never came to anything. Then in 1999 I took the Trans-Siberia Express with my newly wed wife as a honeymoon and this long train ride gave me among other things a lot of time to think about traveling and travel guides.


So back home in typical hubris programmer mood, I took two weeks off and created World66, or at least a first version. The content we imported from a great number of free sources and as it turned out some of the non-free sources. Then we started mailing people with websites that seemed to indicate an interest in travel. Did they want to help us write our new travel guide? Some did, some didn't, but after a while it started to work a little. The content grew and around it something of a community.


These were of course the wild days of the bubble. There was First Wednesday and First Tuesday, two events taking place on the first Wednesday and Tuesday of the months where potential Internet entrepreneurs could meet up with angel investors and venture capitalists. More over, they had free beer. So we went there and usually talked with each other about wild plans. But there was this one evening when everybody I knew had left and I happened to talk to a guy who could make some calls, get us some financing. Bad days had come to World66.


A lot of powerpoint presentations and with exponential graphs filled spreadsheets later and we had a real company, seven people working and my brother as CEO and a few hundred thousand in the bank. The catch? We were no longer truly open. The financer guys, you see, wanted a model and the best we could come up with (this was when banner ads already had gone out of fashion) was content syndication, i.e. other portals could rent our content. But that meant of course that we could no longer give it away for free at the same time.


But things usually get better after a while. The bubble burst, World66 as a company almost went bankrupt and Hans-Peter, my brother and me succeeded in buying out the financer and then slowly converted the company back to the true path of open source.


Right now World66 is operating under a Creative Commons License, which basically says you can use our content for whatever you want, be it personal or commercial. Of course the idea is that you enter your own travel content and pictures under the same license, so everybody profits.


Recently we added two new features, that should make it easier to access and use our information: cell phone guides and PDFs. The cell phone guides are small screen, xhtml versions of our content that can be browsed from most modern cell phones. One cool feature is that they guess based on your ip-number from which country you're surfing and start the guide there. So as soon as you leave the airplane (and soon maybe even before), you can start getting info.


The PDF versions of our travel guide go a little bit against my gut feeling. They allow you to download and print a number of our better travel guides and take them with you on your journey. Of course, I'd prefer a completely electronic version, but you can't deny that people like paper. Hopefully people will annotate the texts and then take the trouble to go online when they're back and update the content.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Foreign Aid is Theft

I'm all for helping the Third World. In fact, I think that if we could solve global inequality, most of the other problems would disolve too. However, there is something weird with foreign aid given out by governments. You could call it theft. To see what I mean, we'll have to visit quickly what government and taxation is all about.


Why do we tax? Well, there are some things that just make more sense to do collectively that individually. Take building dykes in the Netherlands. If only a few people would spend money on it, everybody else would still profit from not drowning. So it is better to share the costs and taxation seems the only solution so far for that.


In general this should hold true for everything the government does. If things could be handled better by individuals, it doesn't make sense to have the government do it. It just makes things more complicated, plus the government doesn't have much of track record when it comes to do things efficient. If the government taxes you and then goes out to spend it on something useful, that seems nice, but in essence it just means that you are forced to buy this useful service, instead of making up your mind whether you want it or not. For a lot of the stuff the government does, you can argue that it actually hold that these activities need to be done centrally. However, for foreign aid, I don't see it.


Foreign Aid is charity, so using the government to dole it out, just means that you force people to give part of their money to the Third World. Admittedly, it sounds nice, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, the government as Robin Hood, but it doesn't strike as very democractic. Their is no real reason to dole out aid centrally; actually it seems that governments in general are pretty bad at it and tend to give aid with strings attached. Why can't the people just give the money directly?


Ah, because they don't want to and probably won't. But if that is the case, why should the government in a democratic regime give when the people really don't want to?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

No Chicken discrimination in Switzerland

It is the little things that are different from country to country. A while ago, I noticed that eggs from free range chickens in the Netherlands are always brown, while the eggs from chickens kept in small boxes are always white. Discrimination! It is not so hard to see why it would work like that. People associate brownish with more environment friendly, non-bleached toilet paper, recycled paper, that kind of thing, while white is too clean to be friendly (same reason that recycled toilet paper isn't very soft. Good for nature can't be nice to your backside).


In Switzerland eggs from free-range chickens are white (or at least the ones we tried). May be the Swiss are too font of clean and white to have a prejudice like this kick in and discriminate against brown eggs.

Friday, December 17, 2004

The end is neigh

I read somewhere that the chances of being killed in an airplane are actually lower than than being killed by an asteroid that takes out the rest of humanity too. That sounds absurd, but it is not so strange really.


A quick Google search yields that the in 2002, slightly less than 1400 people died in air crash. The chances of an asteroid that takes out humanity are harder to guess; the one that took out the dinosaurs was probably rather overkill, considering that it took out 70% of all species at that time and that humans are rather fragile, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect one very million years or so (This tsunami analysis contains some estimates).


There are 6.4 billion people, so if they all get killed every million years, on average 6400 die per year from asteroid disasters, way more than the 1400 from air crashes. Statistics can sometimes be weird and I'm not sure if this should make me feel save when flying or scared for big rocks falling from the sky.


 

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

We Rock!

Google just anounced plans to scan in a couple of libraries, among others the Harvard University Library with 15 million books. Google is not saying anything about how this is done, but it is obviously quite a big task (especially since the books are not to be damaged during the scanning and indexing). The how is a technical issue, the why is much more important. This is the don't be evil, they are always talking about.


Google's misison statement is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. The Internet aside, these are not the best times for that. Copyright, trademarks and patens have all become tools for information 'owners' to exclude others. You want to acces my info, you have to pay. More and more economic activity has to do with creating information and it is of course only logical that people involved in this want some financial rewards for their efforts.


But it is also not very productive. The nice thing about information is that you can freely copy it, without much cost or quality loss. Throw in the Internet and you can access it from everywhere. That's the sad thing. Just when we can finally offer universal access to all information ever created, we're closing the posibilities by passing more copyright laws.


And that's why this is so great. 15 million books accesible from everywhere by anybody who has Internet access (and that's not everybody, I know, but we're working on that). Sure, there are copyright issues (copyrighted works will only be accesible to extend that the copyright owner allows) and it will take a lot of work and money, but after this is done, it is for sure better to search on Google than to search in a library. And at least for the books in public domain, complete access is granted. The rest might follow.


When I was a kid I used to sneak into bookstores and read the books there. After a while I would be caught and the bookstore keeper would send me away, saying, we're not a library. Screwing your best customer, this is called in the trade. I grew up to become quite a book buyer, but I still remember which bookshops were this nasty.


Nowadays bookshops seem to better understand that readers are actually their customers and they make bookshops nice places to be. It helps with the sales. Maybe at some point they'll discover that people that surf for books are also potential customers and letting people know what you have will increase their willingness to buy what you have.

Friday, December 10, 2004

PyTivo

I don't much like tv, but I do like some programs. So, bittorrent is my protocol of choise. But yeah, getting the programs you want is a lot of websites scouting. Luckily enough some of these websites publish an rss stream with the new torrents. So I wrote a little program that scans a series of such rss streams and picks out the ones with titles that match keywords of your choice.


Check it out at: PyTivo

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The Cost of Pessimism

Germany’s economy is in the doldrums. Has been for years and everybody knows why. The Germans work too few hours, the taxes are too high, the labor markets too inflexible. Add an aging population and you have yourself a nice crisis. Everybody knows. Everybody is wrong. Pessimism is the root of all evil in this case.


 


The other things listed are of course problematic too. But except for the aging, things have been like that in Germany for a long time and mostly they used to be worse. People say that German companies can’t compete in these circumstances, but if that was the case, you’d see expect German companies to struggle when it comes to selling their stuff abroad. Instead Germany is exporting more than ever. German companies are competing great. Economically, the trouble is that the Germans just don’t buy enough and the public consumption is shrinking.


 


Now in the greater scheme of things, everything of course is connected, but the main cause of it all is a lack of consumer confidence. Compared to the Americans, the Germans see things much bleaker and therefore save more and consume less. This isn’t new either; Germans have always saved more than the Americans. But when markets were less open,  the money they saved was directly invested in the local industry, who had thereby a lackluster home market, but access to cheap and abundant money. Now a lot of those savings are invested in the US, where the predominant optimism suggests that there is an opportunity for profit on every corner.


 


It’s not just Germany of course. The same thing is true if to a lesser extend for all of Europe. Japan is much like Germany, i.e. low consumer confidence, high savings, lots of exports and low growth. The rest of Asia is not quite there; currency movements are usually restricted, so the low savings don’t all flow away; The central banks of South Korea, China, Taiwan and others, however, buy American treasure bonds on a huge scale to keep the local currencies pegged on the dollar. This effectively means transferring a lot of the savings of their population to the US against a record low level of interest.


 


Meanwhile, the US economy powers through and advisers in Washington wave away the huge imbalances in the economy, saying that the market just allocates capital the most efficient way possible and that happens to be the US, 6.5% deficit be damned. Analysts are talking up US companies. Meanwhile the US economy is booming on borrowed money. But this Great Game will of course end in tears.


 


See the Washington advisers are right. But the market is sometimes a little slow and when it is slow it tends to overreact. At some point the whole setup will unwind. Some Asian country will think the dollar might drop even further and they’d better cut their losses by selling the treasure bonds they have now. That of course will make the dollar drop even more, which will trigger sales with by the other countries, who don’t want to be the last to sell. The drop of the dollar will force interest up and pop the housing bubble in the US. Cheap mortgages will suddenly become unaffordable and both consumer confidence and spending will plummet.


 


The Euro will reach levels where that will kill the export industry, the one sector that kept the economy in Euroland afloat. Cheaper imports and a flood of money looking for saver investment than the US will mean that inflation will drop below zero. This deflation will further undercut consumer spending and force the economy.


 

Or may be it all turns out well. But somebody should do something about this pessimism before it is too late.