Douwe Osinga's Blog: 2005

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Black Rebel Whiskey (Grass)

We're back from two weeks in Thailand and Laos. It was excellent as expected; This part of Asia has this perfect mix of tourist friendliness and mild exotic. One thing that was sort of remarkable, however, is how copied the guesthouses in Laos were (and the same thing was noticeable in Cambodia)

What I mean is that for example in Vien Vang, all guesthouses had little platforms for the guests to sit on with cusions and small couches on top of them. Very cozy, but quite unique for Vien Vang. Could be that it is part of the local culture, but more likely is that one guy came up with the concept and it was a success, so everybody copied it. The menus are the same thing; extremely similiar. Banana pancakes everywhere, but no banana poridge (another breakfast item popular with the backpack crowd). There were three places that continuously played Friends reruns on their DVD installation.

So what is this, a very efficient market where innovation spreads really fast or Intellectual Property Theft? I am tempted to go with the first, but it must be frustrating if you are the innovating guy in the backpackers town. All your innovations copied in just no time with people hanging around for only a few days so not much of a chance to build up a loyal customer collection either.

About the title of this post, it is from a Laos menu. At first I though that it was some sort of exotic Whiskey from the Indochina war times, made from jungle grasss. As it turns out, it was just some Asian confusion with Rs and Ls, and it should read Black Label Whiskey and Grass means nothing more than 1 glass of the stuff.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Why high taxes don't make people work less hard

In conservative circles and more and more outside of them, it seems to be a popular thesis that lowering taxes is good because it gives people more of incentive to work; they get to keep more of the money they make, so clearly they'll work more. Sounds plausible, but if you think about it, it is of course rubbish. The other way around is much more likely; the higher the taxes, the harder people work, all things equal.

In the end people don't care about taxes and all that. They only care about how much money they make. And when it comes to money, it is just like anything else. The more you have of it, the less extra happy another dollar will make you. If you are starving then you'll gladly work long long hours to make enough not to starve. If you are quite affluent already, you need quite big incentive to start working more (luckily enough are society comes build in with all kinds of tricks to make us work harder anyway).

So what happens if we increase taxes to say 90%? It just means that people have only one tenth of the money, so they are a lot poorer and will suddenly have to work again for a car instead of getting one anyway.

The problem of course is with the other side of equation; governments have a tendency to spend money more wasteful than average people. If you raise taxes you put more money in the hand of the government and if then that money is wasted, the economy suffers. But it is not the low taxes for the rich that make the rich work so much harder that in the end everybody profits.



Monday, November 14, 2005

Moving out the grey masses

The old Europe is getting older. Not only the old, apparently the New Europe isn’t quite that fresh anymore either. The simplest solution to do something about the coming lack of young people in Europe would obviously be to import more young people from countries where they have rather too much of them. Unfortunately the popularity of this solution has decreased quite a bit the last years, making for example the Netherlands for the first time since the years just after World War II a country where more people emigrate from than emigrate too (how that reflects well on the current government is another question of course). If we can’t import young foreigners, the other solution to stabilize the population pyramid is of course exporting the old locals.

It should be simple enough. There might be a pension crisis, but the total of pensions and private savings should surely be enough to make for a comfortable old age in a cheapish Third World Country, shouldn’t it? Right now it seems a lot of doctors educated in the Third World don’t stay around due to lack of career opportunities; moving millions of European pensioners around should create a nice market for these guys. And these poorer countries tend to have warmer climates, which is nice if you have a lot of free time on your hand. Sure, they’d want to see their children and children’s children, but in these days of cheap telecommunications and air tickets that shouldn’t be that much of an issue anymore.

And while the old enjoy their well deserved rest on the beaches from Ghana to Sri Lanka, their old home countries can focus their energies on keeping up the wealth that allowed them to send their retired oversees. I’d like a place in Goa, I think.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Collective ownership of the land

There was a time when a lot of land was commonly owned. Not because people back then were all communist; it just made economically and socially sense. I think we're approaching a time, at least in the EU where it would make sense to reinstate this situation. That's why the state should nationalize the land.

The fact that one can own land, is actually quite surprising. You can't own the air, nor the water (not personally, not yet), so why the land? Even if you own land, you usually own it only up till a certain depth. And if the government needs the land, they can take it back, for a fair price, but nevertheless.

When food is scarce and a farm can be run by one family, then it makes sense for society to allow farmers there own land. If they own it, they will do their best to make it as productive as possible and that's good for society. In post industrial society this of course no longer the case. We could produce enough food for our population on a relatively small area used for agriculture. We should in fact important most of our food; it just makes more sense to grow it in countries where the climate is better (plus of course these countries tend to be the poorer countries that could do with the trade).

At the same we have a growing need for recreation and a desire to try to restore our forests, swamps and what have you to something closer to their former glory. The Netherlands are the most densly populated country of Europe, but still only about 30% of the are is used for industry, roads and living. I'd say, let's put the rest in a government run foundation.

The foundation can still lease out land for agriculture, should a need for that arise, but should mostly just put the land to use that gives the population of the country the most pleasure; typically restore forests and wetlands and make them accessible for people to enjoy. Licenses and leases for tourist infrastrure will have to be given out, but that doesn't need to entail ownership of the land.

Private ownership of land was useful for a while, but it is time to get over it and start enjoying what there is. And who knows, maybe even restore the ecosystem a little. 

Monday, November 7, 2005

The high cost of free education

I used to think that university education should be free. As luck would have it, for me it was. Better than that, our government back then even paid students a small wage to study, i.e. they paid us to increase our future wage potential. I don't think university education should be free anymore, which admitedly is easier to say after you've gotten one. But here's the thing. There is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no free university education either.

I mean this in two senses. First of all, it might be free to the student, but somebody is paying, because it costs money. That somebody is Joe Taxpayer of course and all things the same, he'd like to keep his money. Or to put it in a more liberal/left wing formulation, the same money could be spend on other things. Lower education for example. Lower education is for everybody, university education tends to end up with the people that will have lots of money later anyway.

The other sense I mean it in is that the whole thing distorts demand and supply for university graduates. We end up with too many people studying English because they like it and not enough engineers, because people tend not to like it. For a lot of this oversupply becoming a teacher is pretty much the only option, which drives down the paylevel for teachers and which makes teaching in general a less attractive option, i.e. if you have studies philosophy you will only become a teacher if Google does not offer you a job. Making students pay for university and then put this money in making the salaries for primary and secondary school teachers higher could break this cycle.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Somebody registered the domain and put a bunch of spammy looking ads on them. It's a great compliment and honour to join the ranks of the sites that are targeted by typo squatters. And so unexpected.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

European trips

When people think about the life of a Googler engineer they tend to think of the glamorous activities; the espresso powered late night debugging sessions, the blue lcd light reflected on a engineer drowned in a last minute coding spurt. Or the quiet Tuesday mornings spend on writing documentation for a system almost ready to be abandoned. Of course reality isn’t always up to the legend.

This week for example was one fighting on the PR front. First there was the SES Stockholm, a gathering of people interested in how to build search engine friendly websites and the vultures circling around the desperate, the guys with promises of high Google rankings for a low price. One session of this SES was called Meet the Crawlers and as luck would have it, one of those crawlers was me. Of course before this seminar-in-an-hour could take place I had to get to Stockholm. This involved catching an early plane, which in turn involved for me getting up at the normal only theoretically time of 5:30. Since I didn’t want my wife to wake up, I decided not to use our alarm clock, which has the enthusiasm of a overly excited cock about getting up early, but rather trust my new cellphone. Of course that didn’t work; I missed a ‘are you sure’ dialog and come 5:30 it was all quiet at the Seilergraben. Weirdly enough my biological clock kicked in, be it 15 minutes to late, and at 5:45 I found my self sitting in my bed wondering what the hell was going on. Only for two minutes of course, when I realized that I had to run fast to make the train that would let me make the plain that would bring me to Stockholm. So I got up, put some clothes on, grabbed some stuff that looked useful for a trip to Sweden including whatever my for the time surprisingly awake looking wife had to offer and sped out of the door in order to catch said train. The six months that I haven’t been to gym turned out to have been not in vain; by the time I got to track I was fully out of breath and it was with only 45 seconds on the clock that I jumped in the train; unfortunately it was what the Germans call the ‘Gegenueberliggende gleis’. Good thing there are taxis to get you to airports when you really want to.

I probably didn’t learn my lesson very well, since fate decided to throw me the same kind of ball a couple of days later; last Saturday I went to Munich for the SEO Stammtisch. These things tend to get last into the night and I saw that there was a train at 03:15 back to Zurich. I might have had a couple of drinks so sleeping in the train wasn’t much of a problem either; waking up on time in Stuttgart seemed more like an issue where I had to change trains. It turned out it wasn’t. I woke up fine, but my train had a delay and I had to wait for 2 hours in Stuttgart around 5:00 in the morning. The station was reasonably well made homeless safe, i.e. no space to sleep, except for two benches with a small table in between. I can still feel the table in my neck muscles.

The next time I woke up I heard the guy on the speakers say Zurich just as the doors of the train closed. I ran, frantically pressing the door open button. Low and behold; it opened. Of course the train had left when I found out I was standing on platform 3 in Winterthur.

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Government Granted Monopolies

One of the fundamentals of old school capitalism is assumption that property is absolute. Property is not something that is defined by the laws of the country, the laws of the countries are there to protect your property. In the context of of so called Intellectual Property, I think this is the source of much confusion.

Obviously one of the most important things in politics in being in control of the discourse. How can be for the Death Tax is the already classic example. The Intellectual Property People have played this very well, by calling the ideas, songs and what have you Intellectual Property. The Free Market people here Property and think, needs to be protected. Anybody against it is obviously a communist and we don't like those.

At the same time it should be quite clear that it is not really property, not in the capitalist sense. For one thing, patents and copyrights expire. Now, the Intellectual Property People would like to change that of course, but there is a reason for it. These are temporary monopolies granted by the government to promote the enhancement of science, technology and the arts. See, government granted monopolies is a bit longer than intellectual property, but it would surely make the Free Market people think.

Who can be against property in this capitalistic world? Who can be for monopolies, especially if they are created by governments? It is all a matter of branding. Of course it doesn't stop here. Property can be stolen, so that makes you a thief or a pirate if you copy a song, or write a program that uses an algorithm that has been patented. Monopoly breaker sounds a lot better. It is all a matter of branding.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

On killing our leaders

Pat Robertson suggested a few weeks ago that the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela would be an easy way out for the US, much easier than invading a country, like the US did with Iraq. Now, no matter what you might think of Robertson, Chavez or the general usefulness of trying to change the leadership of other countries, I think he has a point. It is just not in the advantage of the US (and by extension the rest of the west).

War is an expensive business, even for a country as rich as the US (let alone for any country that should get invaded). Having a small band of professionals kill the leader of a country you're not so happy with, is much cheaper both in money and in lives for both the invaders and the invadee. Still, the world didn't quite agree with Robertson to the point where he was forced to make his apologies. Now that might have to do a little with the fact that he actually suggested a target and not merely suggested a strategy, but I doubt it. Political assassination as a means of foreign policy is for some reason not done, which isn't that strange if it weren't for the fact that it is less done than invading countries.

There are theories that Saddam Husein had his secret agents plan the assassination of Bush Sr and that this had to do more with the last Gulf War than all the Weapons of Mass Destruction. It certainly seems to be the case that the Americans after the invasion tried to specifically kill Saddam with aimed bunker busting rockets. The Israelis certainly aim for Hamas leaders, so this whole killing of enemy leaders isn't totally strange. But it certainly is frowned upon.

I think that it is partly because it levels the playing field and it lowers the cost of attack. If any country could just reasonably cheap eliminate any foreign leader it didn't like, things would become very chaotic. You sometimes hear that instead of war, the leaders of a country should just play a game of cards and this would make things much more peaceful. Rubbish of course. If say, Liberia could invade the US with a near fifty percent chance of success, they would certainly be tempted. Same with assassinations. It would make war too cheap to be not an option for a president in trouble.

Currently the US is the only country with enough financial resources to afford itself the odd invading of another country. China might get there, but isn't. It is in the advantage therefore of the US to make war more expensive, not cheaper (and arguably by threatening the Soviets to take the cold war to space, the US did make it too expensive for the communists).

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Crowds beating the market

There have been a bunch of books on the wisdom of mobs. The basic assumption is usually that the average behaviour of a group is for a lot of purposes better than most of that of the individuals. A popular example is usually the stock market. Individual investors quite often think they can beat the market, but obviously on average they can't. Mix in the transaction costs and the fact that some people do stupid things and you end up with a situation that on average it is actually better to follow the index than to think that you are smarter than the market. And indeed, index following funds have been rather popular and successful. Of course following the index means you're always going to do a little worse.

As long as you just follow the index, you are of course doing exactly as the market in general. However, every so often the index has to be re-weighted. Stocks that have done worse are taken out, or are getting a lower weight, stocks that are doing better are increased in weight, or new stocks even come in. If you follow this behaviour by buying more stocks in the better doing stocks and selling some from the worse performing, than you will be trailing the market, since your basically buying high and selling low (well, a new stock in the index might obviously still go up, but a stock that gets dropped presumably is on a lower price than when it came into the index).

Anyway, I was thinking, if you knew about all the trades that ever went on, you could do better. But how much? You could exactly follow the market by just executing all the trades your self too to some extend. Could you do better? I would think you could probably pick the very worst and maybe the best ones too of the investors you are tracking. If you just trade a little bit more like the best guys and a little less like the guys that are not doing so great, you're there.

What if you would track only a random sample of like ten percent of all people that trade on the stock market? It would probably still work. So how many people would you need? Probably any decent investment bank would have enough to go on. They can just look at the trades their customers make, disregard the customers that seem not so smart from what they're doing, overemphasise the trades of the guys that seem to excel and there they go.

Of course you could argue that this would never work, since there are these banker types that have the inside information and that the best thing you can expect is to nearly do as well as the market. So where do we think these bankers get the inside information from? Ah...

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

US$ 197 or the ecosystem of mobile software

These smart phones have the drawback that they can do everything and have many options, but then after a while you find yourself using only the SMS and the phone after a while. Well, it wasn't quite that bad, I used the browser and the contacts quite a lot too, but still I thought it was sub-optimal. So I visited Handango and went a-shopping.

Or rather, I sat down and thought about how I could make my phone the most useful. Email is one thing. Blackberries I think still rule the mobile email market, but after I installed ProfiMail and configured GMails Pop option on it, things looked quite nicely. The interface is done a bit odd, but quite effective. It has all the usual email features, but that is kinda unusual for cell phone mail programs.

Next on the list was a good terminal client. Now this might not be something for everybody, but in my work I need to check on things that run on remote servers and that is where ssh comes in. I experimented a little with the free Putty clone, but it doesn't work well with the virtual keyboard, that is, if you activate the virtual keyboard, you won't be able to see what you type. PockeTTY doesn't have this problem (isn't free either, but goes for 19.95 or so, so that's not too bad).

The next program I got me was TomeRaider. Originally I think the idea behind this program was that you could write little scripts that 'raid' a site and convert it into something readable from a phone/PDA. But you can also download preconfigured archives of pages. I got me the Wikipedia (or really the wikipedia from a year ago; the current English text is 850MByte or so compressed, the one from a year ago is only 500, which sits more comfortably on a memory card of 1GB). I also downloaded the IMDB; one thing I do on my phone is check movie reviews when in the video store; being able to do this straight away is less painful.

Next stop is BetaPlayer. It is a nifty player that does most of the common movie formats on Windows Mobile. Seinfelds play quite nicely, even the rips from years ago that were very popular and of bad quality; you don't notice the bad quality so much on the tiny screen. Pocket Video Maker is an option for you if you want to be able to convert like DVDs for play back on your phone. Should work fine for recorded TV shows too.

The last thing I installed is Mame, or Multi Arcade emulator. Not so much since I care about these computer games, but because I like the idea that games that needed a huge arcading machines a couple of years ago, now play fine in emulated mode in something that fits in my pocket. Amazing progress.

Anyway, one of the interesting aspects of this whole thing is the software ecosystem. You have the commercial PC ecosystem of course, with the high prices. Then there is open source, where everything is free. But cell phone software is not free, but just relatively cheap, from 5 - 25 dollars or so. I like that. It makes it possible to try stuff and buy stuff without having the urge to pirate the programs since they are so expensive.

I actually had my own little adventure in this ecosystem. When I first got my hands on a P800, a way cool phone back then, I wanted to write software for it. And I did. Conway's Game of Life. In Java. Around the same time I came across said Handango. They offered the option for publishers to sell their software through there website and I signed up, more to find out about the service than to make money. I put up Conway's life for 1 dollar and watched to money stream in, about one sales a month or so.

I never thought about it anymore, but during my buying spree in mobile land I thought, well, maybe I can use my incoming money (all 14 dollars or so I guessed) to buy this software I want, so I checked my account: 197 dollar. Of course most of it has been send to me to an address I no longer live in the form of checks that cost more to cash then they are worth. But still. I'm part of the ecosystem.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

How to end terrorism. Part II

As promised my other plan to end terrorism. I think this one is better than the last one, but I don't expect a lot of support for it, so here we go.

My plan to fight terrorism is like Seinfeld: do nothing. See, the point of terrorism is to spread, well, terror. Terror is spread by the attacks of course, but only a little. The press and all things around it amplify it by orders of magnitude. Terrorists don't try to kill people to kill people, but to make other people scared of being killed. The more it plays on tv, the more we talk about, the more the terrorists get what they want. So I say, we just start ignoring them. Sure we take a few hits, but if you add everything up, it is not worse than a month of traffic accidents.

And the terrorists will just stop if they see nobody pays attention. It is like the old question, 'what if they gave a war and nobdy came?'

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

How to end terrorism. Part I

I thought of two ways to end terrorism. Neither will be popular I'm afraid. The second one will require heroism. The first one, discussed here, will be more like what we're going to do.

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Franklin D. Rooseveld

We'll see. I'm guessing a lot of people are willing to give up some freedoms for temporary safety. I guess it all depends on what you mean with temporary and with essential, but not a lot of people who saw how many cameras the London police could access to track down these terrorist went, hey, we should protect our privacy. That could have been me on the camera.

'Big Brother is watching' you was a great quote to make people scared of the intruding eyes of a central government, but for most people in the West, terrorism seems much more of a problem than the vague thread of a upcoming dictatorship. So we agree that the policy should be able to listen in on phone conversations, go through Internet logs and use cameras in all the good fight against Very Bad People. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

And right we are. The only problem with this approach is of course that it is just bits and pieces. A camera here, a phone tab there, it just doesn't add up to much. What if we would take the fundamental approach and just fase the fact that privacy was a twentieth century pipe dream to begin with.

Let's first get rid of cash. It is outmoded anyway, we have plastic money. The banks impose usually some silly transaction costs on payments with electronic cash, but they only do that because they can (they would do the same on cash if they could). In the fight against terrorism, I'm sure they'll gladly forgo this stream of income. Then make all flow of money registered, whether by electronic cash, credit card or direct debit. Then lets put a GPS tracker on every person. Most people have a trackable cell phone anyway, so not much is changing. Finally build a big datawarehouse to keep track of everything.

We'll want some sort of access system in place of course, preferably in such a way that the police and such can only with a court order get information out, but other than that, with such a system in place, terrorists won't have much of a chance. Neither have any other criminals really. All criminal/terror money streams can be easily tracked down. For any crime happening at a certain time/place we'll always know who was present. For any suspicious person we'll know all the people he talked to more than normal.

I don't think this is the way we should go, but I do think we'll probably end up there. Step by step and all willing of course. If fighting terrorism doesn't do the trick, I'm sure stopping sexual predators will. Next time a better solution that will be less liked.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Trees with USB Connectors

The more we go wireless, the more we need wires to charge all those gadgets. It is really a drawback. Let's say I'd wanted to put a mesh network over a forest. Technically it is not that hard and it is not that expensive. Get a bunch of wireless routers, put something smart in there to make them talk to each other and do multiple hubs, add one UMTS adaptor and you're done. The problem is of course that they all need power too and if you're going to put power lines to each of 'm, well then you might as well throw in a data line. That's why I think we should put USB adaptors on trees.

USB is not just nice for exchanging data; it also works great to power all these gadgets. So if we could somehow manipulate trees into powering USB outlets, we could do great things. It will probably take a while before Genetic Engineering gets to the point that this will happen automatically, but it should be possible to build some sort of USB plug that you hammer into a tree, connects with the tree juices and using a fuel cell convert this into electricity.

Sure we could work out something solar powered, but solar powered things tend to be very big and we like out gadgets small. Plus trees are big & solar powered and they look so much nicer than most other solutions.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

On not decaying in the cold clay

I sometimes worry about the Netherlands. It's a great country with a long tradition of tolerance and pragmatism, but lately with all the foreigner-panic and people saying all the wrong things and the rejection of the EU constitution, I start to doubt. However I just read a small article about my home country that made me smile and realize: we still got it:

Like in many countries, there are nudist beaches in the Netherlands. Sometimes, however, if you have people going to the beach all naked and when they start rubbing sun lotion on each other, well, they get really into it. More and more people seem to have sex on these beaches which then offends the Nudists, who insist that nudism is about being natural, not about sex (though sex can be natural too, of course). It also made some local governments wanting to close down the nudist beaches at all. So guess what the Dutch Nudist Federation wants to do about it?

Of course. They want to government to designate certain beaches as sex beaches. People that want to have sex go those beaches, people that just want to be naked can go to the nudist beaches

Thursday, August 4, 2005

At the wikimania

So I'm at the Wikimania. When I first heard about it, I did ask to be a speaker; always seems to be a good way to get to know people. Unfortunately, I was told, I was too late and a poster presentation would have to do. Interestingly enough when I arrived here, it said on the program and on my badge that I was a speaker. More over, I will have to speak at 9:30 on a Saturday!

Friday, July 29, 2005

It's a Chinese Kid!

If you talk to parents they often utter surprise about the fact that their children have started to follow traditional role patterns even if the parents never pointed them in any such direction. I usually try to make the case that parents might influence their children very subtely without even noticing themselves, whereupon the parents tend to point out that I have no idea what I'm talking about, myself having no children. So what's a poor guy todo? Blog of course.

I once saw a documenatry on the BBC where they let parents play with the children of others. The children were only 2 or so. But they had cross dressed them. It was very interesting to see. The parents would bring dolls to the boys and even though the boys were much more interested in cars, they would still push them on them. The girls were given the cars of course.

But it goes further than that. If you think about, our whole society is seeped in a light form of sexism. If we greet people, we say Ladies and Gentlemen. Why? What does this distinction matter? We don't say, Welcome Short People and Tall People. And before you think that doesn't matter and is only tradition, we do it a lot with children too. We say, oh what a sweet girl and oh what a clever boy. And since some words go better with some words, this leads very easily to making the boys feel clever and the girls feel smart.

If you think about it, why do we need words like boy or girl anyway? There's a famous essay by Hofstaedter about the use of he versus she. Instead of making the argument why this is bad, he writes from the perspective where there are different pronouns for black people and white people. It is very effective. Of course chairman is just a word and has nothing to do with the sex of the person, just as chairwhite doesn't mean the guy (there I go) is white.

Take the average birth card. It shouts something like: It's a Boy. Let's assume we there's a mixed black/white couple. What would we think if they would send out a birth card saying 'It's a White Kid!' Okay, I know it is hard to say when children are that young what color of skin they'll end up with, but what if they did some pre-birth tests to find out, wouldn't we find that a bit weird? But we care a lot about the sex of the baby even if we say that that doesn't matter either.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Taxis and Nighttrains

About a year ago, a double confusion involving trains having a different schedule on Sunday than on other days and the similiarity between two cities in the Ruhr made us miss a night train, you can read the story on this blog. Suffice to say that 58 Euro spend on a taxi didn't get us on the right train in the end. Marx wrote that history repeats itself, once as a grand tragedy, the second time as a rotten farce. He's silent about the third time though.

Three weeks or so, we undertook another night train trip, this time combining a goodbye pary of the sister of my wife with a birthday party of my brother (another present, right here). Everthing went quite well, except for when we wanted to leave again from Osnabruck and it turned out that the connecting train to Hannover had been canceled, to be replaced by a succession of three trains, two slow ones and one IC. The slow once made us feel uncertain, since fast ones don't wait for the slow once, but they went fine. Unfortunately, the fast train had a 60 minute delay, enough to make us probably miss the train in Hannover. Trying not to think too much about our previous taxi adventure we reluctantly forked over the 130 Euros a local driver wanted to bring us to Hannover.

It was quite a ride; we didn't have much time and 170 Km/h over the German Autobahn is at least value for money. Once in the city, however, it turned out that the driver didn't really know where the station was, so he started yelling at random people asking where to go. With two minutes on the clock we entered the railway building. We ran up the stairs only to find out that the tracks had been changed; we could see our train on the track on the other side of the station. We ran down, slightly panting now, raced up the stairs again, made it to the train - which then sat in the station for another 15 minutes.

Last monday it was third time lucky. Or not. When we arrived in Ferarra, we neither couldn't find the track where the train should leave (2) or the time on the big board. The first thing never got resolved. There is no track 2 in Ferarra. The second thing was easier: the train got canceled. A friendly local offered us to drive us to Bolognia for 50 euro, from where our night train was leaving.

We made it nicely in time to Bologna, with our taxi driver mumbling something about that we really should go to Vienna, not to Basilia. A little later we understood why. There was a strike and only the odd train was going; at 4 am there would be one going to Milan, with a possible (or not) connection to Zurich.

Of course we decided to do the right thing and take a hotel and figure out the next day what to do. Better arrive a day late for work than hang out on the railway station for 4 hours I always say.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Time to side with the Republicans

Ah those Americans are at it again. The UN debates on the future of how the Internet is run; currently this is done by an American organization in strict American capitalist fashion. The Third World feels cut out - Icann doesn't pay enough attention to their concerns. And what does the American government? It preempts the whole thing by simply declaring that the Americans will keep running the Internet. Another example of Bush going it alone? Not so fast Louis.

These supressed Third World Countries, who are they exactly? Well, there's the Africans and other poor who'd like the UN to cough up more money to bridge the digital divide. Sounds good? Throwing more money at the digital divide is not going to help much as long ast these countries use their local telecom monopolies as easy cash generators and job providers for government cronies - nowhere is making a call as expensive in Africa and still we wonder why the call centers move to India and not to Nigeria. Or they put high taxes on the import of cell phones, often for the poor the only way to reach the information society; or they outlaw the import of second hand cellphones just as they meet with a cell phone manufacturer from South Korea.

Or take China and Iran, who would like to have a seat at the table. We all agree that the Internet is a great medium for communication, but there are limits, aren't there? And these limits are different in different cultures, so it is only logical that China and Iran should help the UN define what is and what is not acceptable on the Internet. It just like the UN Human Rights Commission with members like China, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia, famous protectors of human rights.

Theoretically I'm all for having the UN doing the global things. But in this case, I'd rather have the Americans do the honours and keep the Internet at least kind of open.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Income distribution and communism

Some might think seeing the title, here he goes again. I do seem to mention communism a lot in this blog. It is just that I like the market/capitalism as a way of optimizing economic growth, but I'm not so sure as to the justness of the resulting income distribution - what good it is it if society as a whole get richer if the very poor don't? And yes of course communism is not solution either and certainly not the type practiced in the former Soviet Union, but it is still something to think about. Today's thesis: communism did help the poor in the West. Take a look at the following graph.

I found the reference in an article in the economist of this week and Google brought me the original paper plus an excel sheet containing the data. This is graph shows what percentage of all income in these selected countries was consumed by the riches 0.1%. At the beginning of the 20th century this number was around the 10%, meaning that 1 in 1000 of persons ate 1 in 10 of the cake. It then came drammatically down, reaching 2% in 50th - 80th and then it picket up again, especially in the United States. Why? is the question of course.

Well, you see the graph starts falling around the time of the October revolution, which first showed the world that Communism was something that happened to real countries. It is very conceivable that the shadow of this made countries think twice before making the poor poorer; what if they would start a revolution? So income inequality dropped and dropped until in most countries the communists were only a fringe party and some socialist/liberal party would just hand out niceties to the labour movements and generally keep the working class fed.

Then the Warsaw block starts falling apart at then end of the eighties. Around the same time income inequality starts rising in the US and the UK (but not in France). Could this be that with the revolution as alternative out of the picture, the superrich just start taking what they want?

Now I know the timing isn't perfect, the distribution both started dropping before the october revolution and before the fall of the Berlin wall, but for both you can argue that what happened was only the result of a process already under way.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Art in the Train

During our trip in Albania my wife and me got to talk about art and how museums tend to attract less and less people for their regular collections and more and more for special & travelling collections. Of course this phenomenon is close to not ever going to a museum in your home town (unless you have visitors) and visiting three in a weekend when you go to a foreign capital. Last chance to see attracts.

Circulate art and people will visit more. The ultimate conclusion of that, of course is to make all museums travelling circusses. One of the easiest ways to do this, might be to put the art on trains. It would also make for an interesting way to travel; you catch a train that takes an hour or so and while traveling you have a look at the collection of a museum from a completely different country. Mix the trains enough and publish the schedules including which collection is where and you have a hit on your hands.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

The lack of Open Source Creativity forced Software Patents

I think it is always good to try to look at things from a different perspective, so please bear with me when I make this argument against Open Source and pro Software Patents. It is just an argument.

Back the old days, the Software Ecosystem didn't need patents. Development of software was hard and relatively expensive, so the only way to make headway in the marketplace was to come out with products that were in some sense better than what there was before. Software more or less competed on innovation. Sure, some companies were better at this than others and sometimes innovation was more making things better integrated (Notably Office & Windows) and sure there were some companies that tried to compete on price by coming out with cheaper products and lesser features but they never got anywhere really; cheap is not free, plus they just didn't have the PR to convince people to go with there.

Then along came the Free Software movement. They did not just bring a PR machine that trumped Microsofts along, they also ferfently started copying functionality of the commercially available software. The PR machine would on the one hand point out as much as possible that Microsoft never innovated, while at the same time copying whatever Microsoft build in Windows and in the case of Linux, starting with an effort to copy more or less Unix; indeed the whole thing reminds me of the Soviet Union which in its propaganda would claim that the United States were a terrible place, with suppression of the common man, unemployment and widespread poverty, while at the same time putting up as a 5 year plan to overtake the United States.

In the ecosystem of Software, this was new. Suddenly there was a respected (because of the PR machine) entity writing software for free. The old implicit deal of the industry whereby you could copy innovations of others since the marketleaders would be compensated for their efforts anyway, suddenly stopped functioning. Viewed in this way, Software Patents are just a counterfailing power, a way to protect the innovaters from the Free.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The key to commercial filesharing

Grokster lost and the Big Guys won. What happens next is anybody's guess, but one thing that seems possible, is that the movie & record companies will try to take over the p2p space by introducing legal variants, i.e. variants where you have to pay the content. They tried this before and if they'll try it the same way, I fear they'll fail the same way. Here's why.

People like file sharing because its free, but also because it really is sharing. Not only are the files shared (stolen some would say), but there is also sharing in storage and bandwidth going on. So if you try to charge for this, suddenly I don't have much of a point of leaving my directory of downloaded movies open, or leave my bittorrent client running even after I have downloaded my movie^H^H^H^H^Hlinux distribution. I'm paying for this, so why should I share.

The solution is pretty obvious of course: instead of just charging people for using the content, record/music companies, should pay their users back if they share their music/movies with others. Whether the model is like Apples, i.e. pay per track, or Yahoo's, pay per months, if the record companies would give some money back to the people that spread the music, people would suddenly like to share, because it brings something.

More over, dedicated fans would even more enthousiastically try their friends to listen to their music/watch their movies and it would even provide somewhat of a businessmodel for fansites, something that can only be good for the entertainment industry.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Blogging on Cellphones

A couple of days ago I had a little time to kill and I had my cell phone with me. So I thought I'd give blogging a retry. Now I didn't go online or anything, I just fired up mobile word and starting typing or rather tapping away. It went pretty well and when the tram came, I had composed the following post:

They teach children literature in school, even though less and less people read books let alone literature. It makes you wonder if this time wouldn´t be spend more productive on teaching children about things they´ll actually will be doing like watching TV.

Film is of course an accepted art form, so teaching cinema might be a first step. Seinfeld of course could be another class. But in general I do think that watching TV is an acquired skill and I don´t mean the optimization of the zap process. You get a lot of information offered - processing it the right way is non-trivial. The EU is working on legislation to limit advertising aimed at children, but wouldn´t it be better to strengthen childrens immune system against misinformation, rather than to merely postpone the inevitable moment of confrontation?

I kinda stand by the content, but after pasting it in my normal blog editor, I realized it is a lot shorter than most of my posts on subjects like this. This probably has to do with the fact that the screen is smaller and it is harder to enter text, which seems obvious at some level, but it also means that my brain is perfectly willing to compress an argument because of a medium without telling me.

If you look at the books of philosophers you kinda get the same thing; Artistotles wrote a lot of books, but they're very short; his complete works fill about half a book of Kant. Probably back then writing books was a lot of physical work so they kept them short. Come to think of it, probably not such a bad idea. Everybody should just write books on cell phones and we call could read a lot more books in the same time.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Project Resurection

Two projects belonging to the group of all time favorites among visitors had been off line for ages. I just patched them and they seem to work again.

Number one is Google share, a rather simple script that allows you to enter a domain (for example 'beatles') and contenders (that'd be john, paul, george and ringo). It will then lookup at Google what percentage of pages that contain beatles, also contain any of the contenders, i..e what is their share in pages.

The second one is one of my very first projects at least the first one that took out the server it ran on due to being overly popular. Mindworld starts with a map full of random pixels and asked every visitor for one specific random pixel whether it should be sea or land if all the pixels are to be a map of the world. Slowly a worldmap emerges, but one that describes the average idea of people of the world.

Google share died when I moved servers and missed a crucial graphing package. Now it outputs html. Mindworld is now running on MySQL which should be better than the pre-beta Python DB it ran on. We'll see.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

More Albania impressions

I've been back from Albania for about a week and still haven't gotten around blogging about it in some more detail. I think I'm not going to either, but here are some things that were remarkable:

  • They are building hotels like crazy. Quite some people said stuff like 'Albania, isn't that a war country/the poorest/most criminal of Europe.' Some people in Albania seem to think they can overcome these image problems and become the next Turkey/Tunesia

  • There are not a lot of tourist yet. It is kinda strange walking around a beach full of beach chairs and shiny new hotels, but nobody else around. One time we went to a restaurant and the cook/waiter received us like he had been stranded on an island for years and we were rescueing him.

  • Not all of these shiny new hotels stay up. A disturbing site, a row of new hotels, some of them not even quite finished and in the middle one that broke down. It becomes even more disturbing if people are still living in the half of the hotel that stays up.

  • Under communism cars there were no cars in Albania. Now there are. Roads of course are not really up there with the rest of Europe, but the cars are. I counted and 50% of all cars on the road were Mercedes Benzes. Not bad for the poorest country of Europe.

So this is my theory. There are people in Albania with money. These people think that Tourism is the next big thing after whatever it is they did to get there money in the first place. These people like German cars. Albania might have building regulations, but these people have ways around them if they exist. So they build fast and cheaply, brazing themselves for the hordes of Western European tourist that might start pouring in any time now. I think these people are going to be dissapointed.

Not so much because of the tourist that won't come. Most people have short term memories when it comes to political turmoil and with a little help of some of the big European operators the public will accept Albania as the next tourist destination, just like they accepted Gambia, the Dominican Republic and Kenya.

No, the problem is that nowadays you need something extra to make it in this world as a tourist destination. Cities like Prague, Paris or San Francisco attract people automatically. Indeed in smaller cities like Venice or Florence are running the risk to be completely overrun by tourists.

But if you're not on anybodies radar and just going for the sun&see masses, you're basically just competing on price. I'm sure at some point somebody from L'Tur or so will come and talk to the Albanians saying, I can bring you 5000 Swedes. However, I'm paying only 1.50 a night. And if you don't like that, well, I'll send them Tunesia. Don't get me wrong, Albania does have some special stuff, like some ancient ruines and a couple of intereting castles, but it'd be a long time before people will actively decide in masses to come to Albania for that.

Until then, it is basically a race to the bottom for the 'other destinations'

Saturday, June 18, 2005

World66 and the press

Of course it is mostly due to the success of the Wikipedia, but Open Content is hot. World66, the Open Content Travel guide I helped founding and still kinda run, recently also attracted some attention. About two weeks ago I got an email from a Wired journalist with a bunch of questions, which I answered in detail with lots of vision and wisdom. She published a lengthy article on Open Content, where my interview answers where condensed to something like 'mostly harmless' or in this case,  Other public wikis are out there, like travel guide World66 and a few sites serving open-source programmers. But still.

A fascinating article appeared on Kuro5hin, which was subsequently linked to by a number of other sources, among others, Slashdot, about which companies Google should buy. World66 was also mentioned, but may be a little too wild for Google, they said. On the World66 blog my brother wrote about this:

'"We can't comment in this stage," would be a good official reaction, but "this is our phone number" is equally good. It's +31-20-3449480.' Exactly. And should any other big cash laden company be interested, it is not too late to put in a bid.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Using the other nerve cells too

It is often said that we're only using 10% of our brain or so. Might be true. But of course in general we're only using 10% of our body as anybody can attest who has been doing a stiff workout program without preparation - all those unused muzzles complaining suddenly. And all those nerve cells that we could use to feel pain, heat and pressure - usually they are just asleep. But we could use them to extend our capabilities.

A couple of years ago there was an experiment where blind people were given back a limited sight ability by hooking up a camera to a device on the skin of their back that would exert pressure according to what the camera saw. I can't find back the link, but I think the resolution was rather limited, so there might have been only 80 pixels in a row or so, only reacting to light and dark. Still it had some value. This is a typical example of using those nerve cells that are doing nothing normally. The amazing thing of course is that the brain figures out pretty quickly what this extra input is and what it should do with it.

Most people can already see, however, so for them it is not very useful. However, I suspect we can create a very similar thing to make ordinary people see in infrared/ultraviolet or maybe sonar or radar. And while were at it, adding a little compass to shoes could make your feed aware of what is North. I trust the brain will start picking up these signals and give the direction sense impaired a better change to not get lost.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Albanian Espresso

The espresso in Albania is of surprisingly high quality. It is one of the good things about being an ex-Italian colony. You see things like that a lot when you travel. English colonies tend to have great railways, see India, Egypt or Southern Africa. The French colonies usually have at least local bakeries that do nice baguettes. Germany didn't have a lot of colonies, but the ones they have and where I've been to, Namibia and parts of China (Tsingtoa) at least have excellent beer. And the Dutch, well, we had Indonesia for a good four hundred years, with great culinary consequences too: the best Indonesian food available in Europe is to be found in the Netherlands.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Time travel

So we're back. It was a nice trip. Albania looks better in real life than on paper, more about that later. Apart from the destination, it was that funny old time warp thing again you get when you go somewhere strange for a week.

The first days seem like a week. The second day you're walking along the ruins of a Greek city spotting turtles and you're thinking 'was it only yesterday I was in Zurich?' Of course the slow time doesn't last and before you know it, you're planning the rest of the trip in more detail. Worse, towards the end of the trip, time speeds up even more and it seems like one moment you have time to visit three highlights, the next you don't and you have to really hurry to make it back in time for the ferry to Corfu (from where our plane left).

And it doesn't stop there; The two hours to get to the airport turn out to be short face to face with the deficiencies of the Greek bus system. And the bus doesn't stop at the airport either (would hurt the profits of the taxi people) so one ends up running with luggage towards the terminal.

With 42 minutes before take off we enter the building. No problem, you'd think, but there are about 300 mostly Germans before us that still have to make it through a security checkpoint before checking in. Check the big board, may be the flight is late.

Neither our departure time, nor our home city is mentioned. What's going on? We check the tickets. Yes, 11:30 it says. Check the date, yes Sunday. Guy next to us says when prompted it is Saturday, however. Now isn't that odd.

Somehow during the week we missed Thursday and lived one day in the future ever since. Anyway, it gave us a nice bonus day on Corfu. Longest vacation day of the trip.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Switzerland is expensive

Switzerland is expensive. Not a very original title, of course. But if you live here and you weren't born here, from time to time you have to remark that and as a blogger from time to time you have to post about it. By and large I'm okay with it. So the odd pub charge 9 franks for a glass of beer, supermarket meat has sometimes trouble staying on the good side of the 100 franks a kilo limit, Switzerland is rich and Google doesn't pay badly. It is a matter of high quality standards and you get what you pay for: Zurich is expensive but also the most liveable city of the planet.

For example, you can swim in the river for free. For the Swiss the swiming being free is the notable part of that sentence, for the rest of the world probably more the fact that you can swim in the river without protective clothing. Actually the Swiss declare proudly that the water of the Lake Zurich is of better quality than drinking water in most countries (and is certified drinkable). Anyway, but it doesn't have to be free. The Swiss have the notion of Badies, swimming pools, except for that these are actually wooden constructs floating on the river with a hole in the middle where you can swim. For 6 franks you can go in and swim in the hole, which is the river. Many people do.

The Bahnhofstrasse is another example. They just don't sell cheap stuff. And to drive the point further home, there is one ATM that allows you to withdraw money only if you ask for more than a thousand franks (which is slightly over 800 US dollars).

Back to the title of this Blog. Calling with a cell phone can be. I have a prepaid phone and pay about 69 rappen (1/100 of a frank) per minute. Oh well, it does come with GPRS access and the GPRS access even works outside of Switzerland and if you stick to simple Google queries, how expensive can that be. Let me tell you.

I couldn't call anymore and had to put new money in my prepaid account. 50 franks I put in. But after typing the 16 digits security code, it told me that my new balance was now 32 franks. Odd. So I called the phone company people. They told me that I probably had gotten a negative balance and that that could happen if I used the Internet outside of Switzerland. Well, I had accessed Google 3 times in Germany, but I didn't really see how that could have gotten me from a positive number to minus 18 or so. The lady on the phone wasn't so sure and wanted to lookup some numbers.

While I waited, the word 'thieving' went in my head searching for the word 'bastards' just to be ready, you know, which was a good thing, because they made a descriptive duo for sunrise, the phone company in question: they charge you 2.50 SFrs per access (I thought this was supposed to be an always on network) plus a whopping 80 Franks per megabyte. Still seems stiff for three searches, but it is possible.

So that's why I sometimes have to say: Switzerland is expensive.

Monday, May 30, 2005


So the French have voted 'No'. And I suppose so will my fellow country men. The end of the EU constitution. The interesting thing of course is that most people are not against the constitution. They are just dissatisfied with a number of things and feel like saying no. And things were going so well at some point.

During the nineties I often thought that roaring would be the word for the decade. At least in the Netherlands, economic growth was high, crime decreasing, unemployment almost non-existent. These before then end-of-the-bubble days were great. The government looked very reasonable too: a grey haired statesmen led the bunch, going to his work on a bike. You'd think they would be returned after the elections with an even greater majority.

They were not. The mood had changed and people were unhappy. They suddenly complained about crime, foreigners and the state. Fortuyn came along and captured the mood perfectly, became enormously popular and was then murdered.  Also begann Holland's Untergang.

What's wrong with these people? The Dutch have always had somewhat of a reputation for complaining, but it always concentrated more on the lousy weather and the football results against Germany. Now they've become a nation of grumpy old men. Where are those liberal traditions of tollerance now?

Social welfare is a great good, but sometimes I'm affraid it makes people lazy. I don't mean lazy in that they don't want to look for a job because they'll get money from the state anyway; that may be too.

The first generation under a social welfare economy is of course happy. They're used to work and now they can work in the secure feeling that should they lose work, a leg or their youth, the state will step in and help out. Now the second generation thinks it is a right, this welfare and forgets that somebody has to pay to make it work. So mis-use becomes the norm and things have to be reformed.

The third generation just feels ripped off, since the system isn't so great as it used to be, but they grew up believing it should take care of them. So they complain.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Fame and fortune

A couple of weeks ago, a reader send me a scan from an article in PC-Magazine. In the list of the 100 websites you didn't know you couldn't live without, was mentioned.

"Don't miss the Google Hacks page on this eclectic site. Google Talk starts with words you supply and 'talks' by adding words found in your search, repeatedly by searching on the latest few words. Poetry in translation translates text through German and French and back to its original English. And more!"

May be not completely accurate, but still very nice. Or as a friend of mine said, I don't see a lot of other homepages in that list.

In the Googleplex a fellow engineer approached me saying I should buy People Magazine, which didn't seem like the kind of thing I usually would do. So I asked him why and he said that I was mentioned in the list of 50 most beautiful people. As it turns out, he meant that they had used (presumably) Google Talk to say some things about these beautiful people, which is an entirely different compliment. Unfortunately I only got around looking for the magazine when they had replaced it by a new edition, so if anybody out there has the article and could scan it for me, that would be greatly appreciated.

Lastly, I just got an IM from Danny Friedmann, pointing out to me that my site was mentioned on BBC world. The broadcast is linked from this page:
The site is mentioned just after the 19th minute. That's my 15 minutes of fame for this month

Monday, May 9, 2005

Closing Time

Visitors to Europe from the US are often confused by the opening hours in Europe. Why are shops closed on Sundays, but not bars? What about museums? I suppose every country has its own ideas of what makes sense to close at what times. Except for the US, I hear some people say, there everything is open all the time. Well, they'd be wrong.

I just (around 11) went out for a little something to eat to keep night starvation at bay. But about everything was closed. No late night shops, no quick shoarma. There might have been a Chinese restaurant with three customers left in a darkening noodel shop and the Irish bar was still open, but it was half empty and there the kichen was closed. You can complain all you want about Johanniter in the Niederdorffstrasse but at least they serve their solid Swiss meals until 3:30 am.

And what's the deal with the 'no alcohol after 2am' rule? Bars may stay open after 2 in California, but they can't sell beer anymore. Even worse you can't drink beers you bought before 2. There's something very weird of going to a club that stays open till four with no alcohol the last two hours. In 24 hour supermarkets, it is the same deal. They'll sell you beer after 7am again.

Makes you wonder what's worse, finishing a beer at 2am or opening one up first thing in the morning at 7.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

60 years

60 years ago the Second World War ended. I just read in the economist that three quarter of German soldiers that died, did so on the east front. Considering how tough it was to beat the Germans on the west front there is no other conclusion possible that without Stalin sending off his compatriots to the slaughter of the Great Patriotic War it would have all ended very badly.

In the Netherlands we tend to concentrate on the Canadians as the country that freed us. And so they did, but only because they happened to be there first. Now, considering how things ended, we can be glad that it were the Canadians and not the Russians, but if you look at the numbers with the Canadians losing 37 000 people in World War II and the Russians 27 000 000, we should at least mention the Russians when we celebrate the 5th of May.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

On the road

I'm on the road a lot lately. To SES Munich, then to Hannover last week for a pub conference on search engine optimization (yeah, pub conference is a fancy word for drinking beer while talking shop - what I tend to do on a friday night anyway). This weekend Queensday in Amsterdam and then on Monday I'll be flying to Mountain View where I'll stay for two weeks.

One thing I realize is that nowadays I can pretty much work from any place, as long as there is a reasonable Internet connection. When I was in Munich, something went terrible wrong with one of the systems I was working on. But since there was wireless Internet in the hotel lobby (be it of the non free, T-Mobile variety), I could connect to the machine where the system was running and check it out.

This is quite nice - it gives you the idea that one day you could just travel around and work where you happen to be. Hike through the Thai jungle and at night hack around a little on a Google project. Of course in the real world having access to the right computers is only have the story - having access to your colleagues is just as important. E-mail and telephone help, but there's still enough left to make it worthwhile for me to actually go to California.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Around the beginning of this year, my brother came around for a visit. Now his blogging about this trip might have been more adventurious than the actual undertaking, at least we did discuss some interesting ideas. We've always been interested in traveling, that's why we set up world66, so we were among other things talking about why you'd still want a paper travel guide. One of the things of course is maps & highlights.

What do you do when you plan to visit a new country and have a fresh travel guide? You flip to the overview map. Most of the modern travel guides superimpose highlights over these maps, so it gives you a nice impression of what's on offer and where everything is. Then later you start reading and build your plan.

Online travel guides usually don't have this property. You click from place to place of course, but you hardly get a sense of where you are. A few weekends later of python hacking and we can present mapsonomy. Start from an overview of the world and drill down to any detail you want. Cities are marked on the map and for any view we try to get out the travel highlights. Filtering might be suboptimal, but we can work on that. The overview in total is pretty cool.

And why this name, you might ask. Well, at some point we'd like to extend the interface to make it possible for anybody to put their content on these maps, whether where their friends live, where which birds live or where what happened. A foksonomy on a map if you will. But for now, check out mapsonomy.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Zurich's answer to Burning Man is Sechseläuten. There is a bunch of parades from the guilds (the groups of professionals that have run Zurich since 1336) and they all end up at the square at Bellevue. There is a snow man made of straw on top of a stack of wood. The snow man is called Böögg, which is not only a very weirdly spelled words in any Germanic language, but it also means something that dropped out of your nose.

Anyway, at six sharp, the fire the stack of wood and turn on the timer. The snow man is filled with explosives and the sooner the explosives to go off, the better the summer will be. It took more than 15 minutes, so that doesn't bode well.

It all goes back of course to some heathen feast celebrating the return of the summer. After the reformation in the 16th century, the celebrations got forbidden, but 1892 it got reinstituted. Back then it also indicated the beginning of a daylight saving scheme avant la lettre. In those days, sun set and sun rise where both centered around 6 o'clock. In winter this meant that the sun set would be before 6 o'clock, so people worked only till 5. After sechseläuten, they had to work an hour longer.

Of course today it is different. The sun sets around 20 00 and the snow man explodes in clear day light.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Changing Times

I'm just back from the SES Munich 05. The total amount of food I got from Swiss during the flight added up to one piece of chocolate. I remember back in the day when I flew with LOT Polish Airlines back from Delhi to Amsterdam over Warshaw, getting 7 full meals in the process. Of course these meals were not very good, so I might have swapped for a good piece of chocolate, but then it was milk chocolate, so probably wouldn't have anyway.

Saturday, April 9, 2005

Communism might have been right after all

Last week I wrote about income distribution. Poorer people in richer countries might be worse of if they were poor in a poorer country. Most economist nowadays think that having a very even income distribution kills some of the incentives for entrepreneurs to do their thing and thus hurts economic growth. Absolute equality for all means poverty for all. A good reason to reject socialism? May be not.

A more equal income distribution makes all poorer maybe, but it doesn't hurt the long term economic growth potential. Country A with an unequal distribution might just always be 1.5 as rich as B where things are more equal, while both growing at the same economic growth rate. Of course if you towards a more unequal distribution, this would temporarily boost the economic growth, i.e. if A would become like B in a period 20 years, it could catch up and therefore have 2.5% more economic growth in that period.

The interesting thing of course is that increasing the average income while making the distribution more unequal means that you predominately make the rich richer, while keeping the poor, poorer or slightly richer. The real question is, whose income should economic policy optimize? People tend to answer directly or indirectly with 'me'. Quite some people I know wouldn't mind raising the taxes for the higher incomes to do well. Invariably they think that the higher incomes start at around 40% more than what they make.

To answer this question, John Rawls came up with the Veil of Ignorance or the Original Position in his 'A Theory of Justice'. Underlying all societies is a social contract. This contract should be in a way that we'd all agree to it if we didn't know where we'd end up in society. Rawls concludes from this that this conctract should be in such a way that the poorest do relatively well, i.e. you can increase the income of the rich and make society more uneven, but only if this makes the poorer less poor.

An unresolved issue here remains what the poorest are. The absolute poorest guy in whole of the country? Or the poorest 50% of a country? Economists keep statistics about which percentage of the total income in a country is earned by the poorest 10%, so this seems to be as good a number as any. Plus it is not unreasonable..

Say I give you a coin. You throw it. If it is heads, your income will be halved for the rest of your life. How much should your income rise to make you take the bet? For most people, the answer is, a lot. Having less money just sucks a lot more than it is nice to have more money. So if you didn't know where in society you'd end up, you'd have a great incentive to make live easier for the poor, as an insurance against the maybe not very likely outcome that you'll be in the group of the poorest 10%.



GDP per head

low 10

high 10

Sierra Leone




















Central African Republic




































Czech Republic
























United Kingdom
































United States




In the table above I show the average income in a group of countries and the income of the poorest 10% in those countries. For good measure, I've added too how the richest are doing. Obviously, the average, the poor and the rich are doing quite well in Norway, no surprise there. However, if you look at the scores of the poor in the US, you see that they are actually doing less well than if they would have been poor in countries like Slovenia or the Czech republic. (And yes, being poor in Sierra Leone is really bad).

These countries are therefore actually doing a better job in taking care of their citizens, poorer though they might be. If you look at the more detailed list, you see that former communist countries are doing better in general, that countries in South-East Asia aren't so bad either and that most countries in the Americas (with the exception of Canada) don't take care much of their poor. The 500 bucks a poor Brazilian makes a year is pretty extreme.

In most ex-communist countries the gap between rich and poor has grown and often the average income has only recently caught up with the figure under communism, while the rich countries have just kept growing. In other words, back in the communist days, it was really true that the poor were better off there than they were in the West. If you take Rawls theory serious, this suggest that on some measure their societies were more just.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Income distribution and the cost of living

One of the first things visitors notice about Switzerland in general and more specific Zurich, is that it is expensive. It happens to be also a very livable city (some say the most livable), but that is hardly consolance for a short term visitor. For European visitors I have a simple explanation. Switzerland is richer than the EU, so it is only logical that things are more expensive. The richer countries are, the more expensive stuff gets (and yes, Switzerland is richer even if you take into account the higher prices). For visitors from the US, the story is more complicated.

Income per head in Switzerland is slightly lower than that in the US ($32 700 per head in CH vs  $37,800 in the US). However, prices are lower in the US. Of course this has to do a lot with the fact that the dollar is so cheap, but this doesn't explain it away completely. Even at what economist say is a fair price for the dollar, Switzerland will still be expensive. So what's going on?

In a world with free trade, but no free movement of people, some prices will tend to become the same all over, while others will not. Things that can be traded will, like stereo's, things that cannot be traded, like hair cuts, will not. Of course if you buy a stereo in a shop, you are also paying for the service you get, so even the price of a stereo will not be quite the same, but you get the idea. So what determines the price of the non-tradables? Mostly wages of people.

Mostly wages of poor people. See, most of the richer people ultimately work of international competing companies. When you buy a non-tradable, your money goes to the hairdresser, the waiter, the shop assistant. Relatively poor people. And these people are just paid badly in the US compared to Switzerland. So although it is nice that a lot of these low paid service things are cheap in the US, this very much depends on the uggly side of the american society: unequality. How much are you willing to pay for fixing that?

Friday, March 18, 2005

Summer's here

Zurich is a very pretty city. Especially if you walk around in the old time during the winter with snow covering the old city, it is like walking around in a story of the brothers Grimm. The small winding streets, the empty snow covered squares with the mediaval churches, it is all very nice. But kinda dead. If it is cold and snowing, nobody goes out. And double this on sundays when the shops are closed.

Since a week or two, the snow has gone and the sun has come out. Temperatures suddenly went up to 19° C (50° F). And what a difference it makes. Every cafe has now a little terras on the sidewalk. Where all these people came from, I don't know, but it is sure nice to see them on the street. The lake is still too cold for swimming, but with this weather, for how long? Nice.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Seinfeld teaching French

I like watching old Seinfeld reruns. I like it to the extend that I have a complete collection of them on my hard disk. You know, for when I get bored or need something relaxing. I also like watching old Friends episodes with my wife. Of course after a while you tend to know the lines. So we decided to leverage that. By having those old sitcoms teach us some new French.

See, if you rent a DVD in Switzerland, it will usually come with four or five spoken languages plus a bunch of subtitles in even more languages. Now, we both learned French in high-school, but it is sort of rusty. I mean, it's probably enough to buy a drink in a café or a dead beaver in a bakery, but not enough to follow movies or have anything bordering on an interesting conversation.

Even watching episodes of comedies you've seen before is kinda hard, but it is doable. Plus there are all these other options: you can watch the French version with French subtitles (unfortunately the one we tried had two different translations, one for the audio, one for the subtitles, so it didn't help that much), or watch the French with English subtitles or really any combination. Even English without subtitles when you're tired.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

100 dollar is too much for a computer

A while ago Negroponte presented a plan on the World Economic Forum to supply everybody in the third world with a 100 dollar laptop. It's a nice idea. Buying components in bulk and not aiming for the latest technology, it should be possible to bring down the cost for a laptop from the 499 dollar laptops of WalMart. It's a nice idea and education is the key to a lot of problems in the developing world, but there are three fundamental problems with this approach.

One is power. Power is unreliable in the Third World or non-existent. Anything in this direction should either run directly on batteries or have a battery life time of two weeks or so. The second problem is bandwidth. Face it, a laptop without an internet connection isn't going to do a whole lot of good these days. And Internet connections in the Third World are very expensive, 3 - 10 times as much as in the US. What good is a 100 dollar laptop if a dial up line will set you back ten times as much per year? In Bangladesh a DSL line will cost you 500 dollar per month and that is the 32kbs version. The third problem is the 100 dollar. If you make 1 or 2 dollar per day, is spending 100 dollar on a laptop for one of your many children the best way to invest the future of your family?

Building a 3rd world cell phone is probably a much better idea. Leave behind the whole fascination in the west with the tiny. Cell phones in poor countries are shared among villages, so they can be bigger. Throw in a larger display and a fuller sized keyboard to enable e-mail and Internet (SMS is very popular in the Third World, with a year ago 250 messages a month on average send per user in the Philippines). Use GPRS for datacommunication, with the most popular services like websearch and email specially optimized for bandwidth use and I think you have a killer package.

And we don't need to give this one away. If somebody puts in the research to design the thing and really, really optimizes for cost, I'm sure there's a Chinese factory somewhere you can build it for around 30 dollars. Share that among 10 villagers and you have a proposal that might make sense for the poor.

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Philosophy Hacks

I recently received a message from O'Reilly that they are indeed going to use one my hacks in their upcoming book 'Mapping Hacks.' Great, of course. It was a neat piece of Python code and even though 75 dollars is not something you can live on a writer, it also brings fame and is something I can blog about. Consider the last thing done.

But it got me thinking about writing in general. Where do I want to go with this site, with my daily musings that more and more seemed to be bi-weekly musings? The hacks and projects page used to be a great outlet for hacker-creativity and back when I worked 4 days a week and used one to do all kinds of fun things, my site was mostly about new hacks that I created with the odd cute observation thrown in to make it look like a blog.

Now that I work for Google, I work my 5 days a week again and still do loads of hacker-creative stuff, but it stays within the company. I've always wanted do to something with Philosophy and the web (I studied Philosophy in Amsterdam). I had some more or less (more less than more) successful experiments in this realm, but nothing that really stuck. O'Reilly's titles got me thinking. Philosophy Hacks, that would be something cool I should work on.

Ah, but what is it? I'm not quite sure, really, but there is something there. I think the Philosophers of our age are hackers, whether they know it or now.

Over time, Philosophers have not been one class. The earliest philosophers were thinkers concerned with how to run (city) states. Nowadays we would say they were politicians or lawyers. Later philosophers were more concerned with how nature worked, early scientists, we'd say. For every period in time, there was a group of thinkers working on the most important ideas of their time, the ideas that were shaping the future of society. Sometimes these thinkers were called philosophers at the time, sometimes only later.

The economists of the last 70 years or so, have been the most recent wave. Mostly unconcerned by what Kant or Plato has written, they studied how wealth is produced and tried to come with new theories how that could be done better or even more just. Marx might be recognized as a philosopher, but most other economists are not. Still, I would argue that the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century is Milton Friedman, or may be Keynes.

If the economists were the leading thinkers of the twentieth century, than surely the twenty first century thinkers will be the geeks. They are currently the guys questioning the fundamental assumptions on how the world works and how the world should work. If you look at how the things run by geeks do, it seems you could do worse. I'd say taking the geek value system as a basis for a general philosophy wouldn't be a bad idea.

So, I'm thinking of working this out into a system.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Working in a coal mine

Even though cheese and chocolate fondue gathered some fame outside of the borders of Switzerland, the local food and especially the food from the German speaking part can sometimes be as subtle as a good kick in the head. There are lots of other places of course, but anything with Bierhalle or Bierkeller in the name seems to cater for people working in mines.

Johanniter is one of those places. It serves food until 4 am and has reasonable priced beer, but it pretty much looks like a Bierkeller and if you don't notice that right away, then the stuffed animals hanging from the wall should be a dead give away (Pun sort of intended). We sometimes go there with Google for lunch, mostly because it is close by.

Friendliness is not their strongest point. Last time went there, most of us ordered something solid. Roesti with fried cheese and sausages in wintry if slightly fatty sauce. It was pretty good, but none of us finished it. The waitress did not approve. Why did you not finish your meal? she said. Did you not like it? Well, we replied, we liked it, but it was just too much. If it was too much, she said, then you don't work hard enough.

I guess if you compare it to working in a coal mine, she has a point.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


So I gave up waiting for the Benq P50 or the Motorala Mpx. They are great phones, but they have one drawback: you can't buy them in the real world. When T-Mobile announced their MDA IV with even better specs, I knew what I had to do. Not keep waiting for the cellphone of tomorrow with ever better specs but that is never available, but settle for something great that exists. I bought a T-Mobile MDA Compact.

T-Mobile is just the label. It didn't come with a network (Switzerland must be one of the last countries not having their own T-Mobile). The MDA Compact is actually produced by HTC and goes with the codename Magician and is variably known around the world as i-mate Jam, QTek s100, XDA Mini and MDA Compact.

I have the phone for less than a week and I love it. It runs Windows Mobile Second Edition (which makes a lot of people around me go 'oh, evil'). It reinforces my believe that MS might just win this battle. It is not the software it comes with (though it ships with a reasonable complete set), it is the ease for third parties to develop stuff for Windows Mobile that will do it.

One thing I expect from a phone nowadays is to be able to play Seinfeld. Well, for some reason the mobile version of Windows Mediaplayer (which otherwise runs circles around anything I've seen on a Nokia phone. No wonder they're considering licensing this). But there is Betaplayer, which installed in a snap and played the Seinfeld I had on my disk without any conversion. Full screen, full frame rate, great sound.

Internet Explorer isn't too great, but Opera has a great replacement. Playing MP3s from an SD card always has the drawback that even at 1GByte, you can't put enough music on it. The iPod shuffle solves this nicely. Luckily enough there is PlayList Sync which will copy random music to your phone so you'll always have something fresh.

There is a port of putty and python and so on. Oh, it is also a great phone, though dialing without a keypad and on the touch screen isn't ideal. I also like it that it syncs and charges over USB. No stupid external adaptors (well, there's also an adaptor, but that's, well, stupid). The screen is very bright and crisp. Also, the phone is relatively small.

Syncing is kinda slow, I suspect it's only USB 1.1 and the battery life can't be that good considering all the features, but for now I'm happy

Saturday, February 5, 2005

Should you switch?

A couple of weeks ago, two friends of mine came over to visit from the Netherlands. It was great of course, but one of the things we ended up talking about mainly were a couple of riddles. I thought about it some more and now I have five variants. Some might seem familiar, some trivial, but I think the combination is very interesting.

  1. You have hundred dollars. I offer to throw a coin. If heads comes up, I half your money, if tails comes up, I double your money. Should you do this?

  2. There are two envelopes on the table. One contains twice as much money as the other. You take one. One hundred dollars. I offer you to switch envelopes. Should you?

  3. A quiz master has hidden a price behind one of three doors. You are a winning candidate. You'll have to guess which door has the price by lining up before it. You make your choice. The quiz master says, I'll help you a little, this door, and he points at one, does not have a price behind it. He then opens it to prove his point. You are now allowed to switch to the third door. Should you?

  4. A quiz master has hidden a price behind one of three doors. You are one of three winning candidates. You each choose a door. The quiz master says, we can't all win. Unfortunately you and he points at one of your competitors, didn't win. He opens the door of that person and there is nothing behind it. So your competitor leaves. Now the quiz master offers you to switch door with the other survivor. Should you?

Well, think about these for a little. Then continue reading this sentence. And a little more if you really thought about it. You're sure you thought about it and are not just continuing to read to get the answers? Ok, here is the answer. You should take the bet/switch in puzzle 1 and 3, but it doesn't matter in 2 or 4. I'm sure you can come up with some kind of explanation, but what is exactly the difference between them?