Douwe Osinga's Blog: July 2005

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.