Douwe Osinga's Blog: March 2005

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.