Douwe Osinga's Blog: April 2005

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.