Douwe Osinga's Blog: 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

7 Rules for Traveling

I haven't blogged in a long time. I promised a further explanation about why my blog went away for two weeks, but now I am thinking, who cares? Anyway, we're about to go off to Germany for Christmas and from there on to Ecuador to see among other things the Galapagos Islands. Very exciting. So, yeah, I like traveling. I've come up with 7 rules to make traveling even more enjoyable. When I say traveling, I mean the Lonely Planet crowd: you don't mind beaches, but you are here to see cool stuff and you are on some sort of budget.

  1. Sleep where you want to be
    We wanted to spend a weekend in Lisbon and when I booked the flight there was this offer for a luxury hotel at a relative small price, so I took it. Bad move. Yeah, the hotel was a upscale business hotel, but it was in the business district (dead on the weekend), miles away from the historic town. In terms of enjoying the city, any single starred pension right down-town would have been much better.
    You should sleep comfortably of course, but other than that, sleeping is sleeping. You wanna be close to what you came for.

  2. Smile, mime & 20 words goes a long way
    I traveled from Mexico to Venezuela on maybe fifty words of Spanish (maybe a little more at the end) and it worked fine even in places where English was scarce. People like it if you pick a little of the local language, but apart from that, miming and smiling usually works too. When I am confronted with somebody with whom I don't share any language, I usually talk to them in Dutch. Slowly and with lots of hand movements and it surprisingly often works out.

  3. Learn to listen and to ignore local advice
    We were in Namibia and wanted to cross to Zimbabwe through the caprivi strip. The bus was canceled and the local travel agent said there were no busses at all going there. We asked what the chances for hitchhiking were. Well, we could ask the ‘boys' at the gas station. The ‘boys' were the black people – the travel agent was run by whites and it turned out that they had their own (mini) bus system with continuous departures to Zimbabwe. We had an excellent trip seeing another side of Namibia.
    The locals are of course a great source of first hand information when traveling, but they have their own perspective on things. It's an important input, but not the end of all discussion.

  4. Trade time for money in your own currency
    We booked a boat from Java to Sumatra but through unforeseen circumstances we ended up in third class ten meters below the see in an overcrowded iron compartment. The trip was supposed to take 72 hours. We considered the situation for ten minutes and then upped and left. We booked a flight instead. That night sitting on our porch overlooking a tropical river, sipping an ice cold beer with Orang Utangs in the jungle back drop, we considered that the boat would need another 60 hours.
    Travel in third world countries can be cheap and that is great – on a tight budget you couldn't afford it otherwise. But there are times to snap out of the “10ct for a banana are you crazy?” mindset, especially if you can buy a lot of time with a little more money.

  5. Readjust your appetite for risk.
    Getting around in Kenya's Matatu's is of course way more dangerous than taking the subway at home – to the extend that Matatu's would be outlawed as certain death traps at home. So why take them in Kenya? If you use the same risk calculations you do at home when traveling, you obviously wouldn't be doing much and probably shouldn't go. But since you're going to be taking these risks for only a limited amount of time, it is all ok. Higher risks for a limited amount of time in return for extra ordinary experiences is a good trade off.

  6. Check the weather report
    While in Morocco, I decided to take an excursion to the sand dunes of the Sahara. It hadn't rained in 10 years, but that day it did. While it is true that in most places travelers go to, the weather is more stable than in say on the East coast of the US or Europe, nothing is certain.
    Most places are nicer with sun and if you travel around, you have the choice of where to go next. Any internet café can tell you where the sun shines.

  7. Don't under-spend on food all the time
    Years ago I was traveling with my brother in Syria on a tight budget. Falafel three times a day is indeed a cheap way to fill your stomach, but it does get old rather quickly.  Only much later did I discover that Syrian food is actually really good. Eat as much rice and dhal as you want while in India, but take one night and splurge on the best food you can find.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Near Death Experience

Frequent visitors to this blog might have noticed - it was gone for a good two weeks. Sigh. Things are better now -  but probably still not perfect. A full report is to follow later.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I just claimed my blog at technorati. I did it a long time ago, but something had gone wrong back then and now I saw that they had something new that allows you to just post the claim code. Looks a little uggly of course in the rss stream, but what the hell.

Anyway, I now have a profile at It claims I have the 27th most popular blog in their index, which considering that they track 60 million different ones, sounds quite impressive I think. To be honest, they also claim that my last post was 475 days ago - I don't blog as frequent as I used to do, but still, it is better than that.

My brother pointed me to which shows you how much your blog is worth, based on link popularity and blogs that have been sold. $3,760,965.48 is the right number. I like it how they calculates values up to the cent.

Of course my link popularity is mostly based on visited countries, a little project I wrote a few years ago. People just like to show off in how many countries they've been. Of course if anybody is in the market for a well linked blog, drop me a line. I could give you a nice discount.

Please ignore

Technorati Profile

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Learning languages 4 at a time

I wrote a program that scrapes a database of languages to calculate how many you need to learn to be able to speak with most people. Depending on the assumptions it is at least two hundred. Way too much to be practical. Of course to be able to speak a language a little bit and be able to look at a newspaper article and to know what the article is about, you need a lot less. This seems like the sort of level that I think I could attain in Italian or Spanish quite easily. I suppose a lot of people starting to learn a new language should realistically shoot for that level, rather than fluency.

But it got me thinking, why settle for one Roman language? Wouldn't it be cool if you could learn the basic words in like 5 different Romananic languages at the same time? It would probably not be that much harder than learning one and it would be quite interesting because you'd learn all the differences and similarities. After that you could learn basic Slavic and basic Germanic and have a rather good grip on at least the EU.

Learn to speak 5 languages in 3 weeks. Badly.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 2.0

What goes around comes around., the company selling dogfood over the internet became the poster child of the previous dot  com bubble after they started giving away free pets with the food and apparently now is one of the new social network phenomena’s, a social network for dogs (well, mostly for their owners).

I got me thinking about what was wrong with’s plan. I mean lot’s of companies do this sort of thing where they give away something or sell it for very little (razor, printer) and then make their money on the supplies you need to use the item (blades, printer toner). Why not do the same with dogs and dog food? The answer is simple of course: for the razors and printers there are high switching costs. There are of course companies advertising copycat toner cartridge but in general people stay with the toner of the printer producer. With dogs this is so much harder – you buy a dog from one place and this dog will eat food from any place.

Or is it that much harder? Technology has progressed and I feel we’re ready for See with genetic engineering it shouldn’t be so hard to create a dog that will only eat’s dog food. Some hidden allergy or a lack of some enzyme combined with a patented ingredient in the dog food or something. The marketing then is very simple; you target kids and give them these very cute puppies and an initial amount of food plus instructions on how to order more. After a week or so the food runs out and the choice is then between buying more food for the dog or seeing it starve.

Of course I am joking. Kinda. You see and will see this stuff more and more though. Usually in the name of security or quality, manufacturers will put microchips in products that make sure they will only work with selected other products – cars that only run if you put them on approved tires, printers that check some cryptographic key in the cartridge, laptops that won’t work with generic memory. You might pay a little more, the manufacturers will say, but it safer (this car just steers better with this type of tire), guarantees quality (the cryptographic key assures color correctness) or it just makes sure the batteries don’t explode.

We could even do this in the dog story – many people feed their dogs the wrong food and this makes the dogs unhealthy and unhappy. Better to make sure it only gets the approved type of food that guarantees a long and healthy life for the dogs 2.0.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Genocide and Freedom

The Dutch are often proud of their freedoms and tolerance. Gay marriage, tolerance of soft drugs, abortion and euthanasia laws paint a picture of a society that lets people make decisions rather than the government prescribe what’s good for them. However, bring up the US Second Amendment, i.e. the right to keep and bear arms and there is a lot less understanding. I’ve always thought that there is something to this right though.

The Dutch, the Swiss and the Americans (and many other nations of course) all fought wars of independence in the name of freedom (well, and to protest against new taxes). If you think it is in the right of the people to revolt against oppression, you’ll need to grant them the right to bear arms, lest they’ll just be slaughtered by the tyrant any time they try. Anyway, that’s not what this blog is about. We were watching ‘Hotel Rwanda’, about the genocide in Rwanda and there were two things that sprang to mind.

First you cannot help but wonder whether if the Tutsi’s had had weapons, way less than 800 000 people would have been slaughtered. Yes, it would have been a civil war, but that beats genocide. Plus as it turns out, some of the Tutsi’s did have weapons and ultimately overthrew the government, saving the lives of millions.

The other thing is that maybe it is time to take this whole weapons bearing thing to the next level. See, the second amendment doesn’t just say you can bear weapons, it says:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

A well regulated militia was something that surely was missing in Rwanda. You’d think the UN could have provided one, but the few hundred soldiers that were send, stood by and did nothing on explicit instructions from the Security Council. And later when it was clear what was going on and the Security Council decided to send in 5 000 troops, still nothing happened because they couldn’t agree on the details. 300 000 – 500 000 died after this decision.

What if there would have been a well regulated militia? Not one based in Rwanda, but just a thousand well trained commandos working for the people. During the Rwanda crisis, the people in the West knew what was going on, but we all felt there was nothing we could do. If there is a famine, we can send money and some organization will swoop in and send food. Why not an organization that after the money has been send, swoops in with a bunch of marines and kills the bad guys?

I realize that most people that want to support the third world are not much of the gun rights type of people and vice versa, so this proposal might be tricky.  Some people will say that giving mercenaries an official role can’t solve anything. A gun for hire might get hired by the wrong guys. But think about it, the wrong guys already hire guns.

The bottom line is that we all know there is most likely going to be genocide in the next 7 years. Read the Onion article ‘Nigeria Chosen To Host 2008 Genocides’, you’ll laugh and cry. Then read the Wikipedia on the Rwanda genocide and tell me how the International Community is going to react differently next time it happens. Having the Dogs of War on standby just might.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Cheaper Airfares

I wonder whether any economist has ever studied the prices of public toilets. The prices are of course usually pretty low, but there doesn't seem to be much reason to it.

For years and years the going rate in the Netherlands was 25 (Guilder) cents, about 11 euro cents, but after the Euro introduction, it shot up to 50 euro cents. A case of severe Euro inflation? Maybe. It seems to me that a market like this is held into place by little more than convention; if you really have to go, you'll most likely pay up, but the actual cost to the seller is rather low. Held up by convention and the need for the price to fit one coin, the toilet charge stays stuck and defies inflation until an external event opens up the chance for a new equilibrium.

Equally interesting is the question which establishments charge for the toilets and which don't. Companies usually don't charge their employees for going to the toilet, but sometimes they do charge for the coffee. In normal restaurants toilets are free, but in some fast food outfits and clubs you have to pay. On airports it's free, on railway stations you pay, but on the train it is free again.

On planes it is of course also free, but I wonder for how long. Somebody at Ryan Air or Easyjet must be thinking about this. After the free coffee the free toilets could very well be the next thing to be sacrificed in the persuit of offering the cheapest ticket possible. If you charge 2 euro per go, you can not only use this money to further reduce prices, but people most likely also will go less, so you'll  need less toilets, which will allow the airline to cram in more seats and reduce the ticket price. People will complain of course and call it an outrage. But when it is time to book, they will buy the ticket that is 5 euro cheaper and remember to go before take off.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Life expectancy of famous people

First of all, I must say I am a little disappointed in either the intelligence of my readers or my ability of explaining the abracadabra puzzle. Over 50% says it doesn't make a difference, even after my double explanation and a python program to back it up. Oh well.

My wife and I went to a concert a week or so ago and we noticed that of the three composers, two had died at a very young age and Mozart wasn't one of them. So we were thinking, do painters live longer than composers? Would be hard to say, if it weren't for the wikipedia. Determined to find out, I downloaded an XML dump and started hacking at it. I am not yet ready to answer this question, but I did produce an interesting graph, pasted below.

On the X axis the the year of birth, on the Y axis the life expectancy. This is based on people mentioned in the Wikipedia, a life expectancy for the famous, if you will. There are two interesting observations. One is the dramatic drop at the end - people born in the early twentieth century life to over 70 on average, but then it starts dropping and people born the last 20 years, don't life longer than, well, 20 years. Of course this is only due to the fact that we're only counting the people that actually died and nobody born in 1970 died at age 70 (yet). This site shows how the life expectancy of rock stars is only 36.9 vs 75.8 for normal people - I suppose my graph goes a long way explaining that too - how many rock stars were born 75.8 years ago? Not even the Stones.

The second interesting thing is the dramatic fall in life expectancy around the first century BC and AD. It is backward looking average that is plotted and we have less coverage in the early days, so it could all be a bit shifted, but it still is strange. The very high expectancy around -500 can be explained I think because of a lack of actual trustworthy records; oral tradition tends to multiply the years. But the unhealthy first century? Maybe a combination of young dying roman emperors and christian martyrs?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Typing monkeys

A long time ago a good friend of mine told me this puzzle. Let’s say there is a monkey hitting a typewriter at random. And let’s assume he is only hitting letters and that the chance for each letter to get hit is equal. Do you have to wait on average longer, the same or shorter before the monkey will have typed ‘abracadabra’ or ‘abcdefghijk’ (i.e. a string with an equal amount of characters)? Don’t start reading the next paragraph if you want to solve the puzzle, since I am going to give away the answer.

Most people tend to say, well, it must be ‘abracadabra’ that on average shows up first. Abracadabra’s can overlap, so it is just more likely that you have that sequence and therefore you have to wait less long on average before it appears. Sounds reasonable enough, but is of course wrong.

A smaller group of people tends to say that it must be equally long. If you randomly select a character in the stream of characters coming from the monkey and ask yourself, how likely is it that at this point ‘abracadabra’ or ‘abcdefghijk’ starts, you’ll see that these chances must be equal, that is, once the monkey starts typing the first letter of the sequence, he has to type exactly one letter as the next and the chance of him doing that is 1 in 26 and this is independent on what he needs to type. Again, sounds reasonable but is also wrong (or more to the point, this is correct, but that was not the question).

That pretty much leaves only the third option, i.e. abracadabra takes longer. I have two explanations here. The first one combines the previous two answers. Yes, abracadabra’s can overlap and yes the chance for abracadabra to start at a certain point, is the same as for a-k.  So if we have a lengthy string of characters typed by our monkey, we expect that the number of occurrences for abracadabra to be the same as for a-k. But since abracadabra’s can overlap, they take up less space so to say (i.e. a larger portion of this string is made up of characters that are not part of abracadabra then not part of a-k). Therefore the average distance between groups of characters that are part of abracadabra must be larger than the average distance between groups of characters being part of a-k. Since when we are starting to type we are not in the middle of a group of abracadabra characters, it will take longer before we encounter some group first.

Not everybody is convinced by this explanation. Another way of looking at it, is to look what happens when the monkey types and only needs the last character of any of the targets. In the case where he is trying to type abracadabra, there are two options, either he types the a, or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, the monkey will have start all over again. In the case of a-k, the monkey as three options: he types a ‘k’ and we’re done, he types b-j and we have to start over, or he types an ‘a’ and the monkey has blown this chance of typing a-k, but we already have the first letter of the next try, something that doesn’t work with abracadabra.

If you’re not convinced still, I wrote a python program to simulate this. I am not using abracadabra, but ab vs aa. And my monkey doesn’t type all letters, but only a,b,c,d,e and f. Still, this shouldn’t make a difference. Except for one thing: on average you have to wait 34 characters before you see ‘ab’ and around 40 before you see ‘aa’ . However, if you let the monkey type and you count how often ‘ab’ occurs before ‘aa’, you’ll see that this is equal. Confused? Well, the first chance of either ‘ab’ or ‘aa’ is just after the first ‘a’; if the monkey types an ‘a’ or a ‘b’ we’re done. However, if the monkey types an ‘a’, ‘aa’ wins, but ‘ab’ has good chance of being just one after. If ‘ab’ wins, ‘aa’ has no such chance.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Astrology and Pluto

Astronomers just voted and alas, Pluto no longer has the status of a planet. A sad day for the Pluto fans, but as we find more and more Pluto like objects out there it becomes clear that you have to draw the line between planet and non planet somewhere and Pluto just doesn't have what it takes. Too bad for het Goede Doel.

I always wondered how astrologers felt about the outer planets. They do occur in their analysis, but since they are recent discoveries, astrologers from before those discoveries can't have used them. I've always assumed that it is just added forces; before the discovery of Uranius, Neptune and Pluto astrology's predictions must have been just a little less accurate, like predicting the weather with just few satelite instead of complete coverage.

This of course begs the question what they are going to do now. Are they going to also demote Pluto and say, well, all those predictions based on Pluto's position were wrong or we were misguided? Or will they stick to their guns and disagree with the astronomers' analysis and keep Pluto in there. And in that case, will they also recognize the cosmic influences of the other dwarf planets, Ceres, Charon and, well, UB313?

Your love life this month: with UB313 in Scorpio, there is not much you can expect.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Zurich, Sweden

In the US it seems quite common to confuse Switzerland with Sweden. Visitors to the Zurich office kept remarking how that town was the prettiest town of all of Sweden and their host kept complimenting them on their good eye sight if they could see that from there.

But it is not just the Americans. It took me about a year to tell my bank I no longer lived in the Netherlands, but after I finally mailed them my change of address notice, I saw that they were now sending mail to the correct street address, but that they had specified Sweden as a country. The amazing thing is that the post delivered the mail just fine; they probably just go, oh another Zurich, Sweden. Just put it on the stack.

I wanted to ignore the thing, but my wife sent them an email pointing out their error. The bank told her that I should tell them since it was my account. I duly complied. I got a friendly reply pointing out where on the website I could download an address change form. I replied that I didn't want to change my address, I wanted the bank to fix their mistake. But the bank pointed out that they couldn't trust email. The fact that there is no Zurich in Sweden and that almost always if you send mail to Zurich in Sweden the post will deliver it in Zurich was something they didn't deny and they could see the ridiculousness of the situation. Now if I could only download, fill in, sign and send off the form. Needless to say my mail is still being sent to Sweden.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

The rich getting richer

Bill Gates has been the richest man in the world since for forever of course, but the last years it sometimes seemed like he could lose that position. No, not to the boys wonder who founded Google, they are doing quite ok, but are not even close.
I was thinking of Warren Buffet, the sage of Omaha, who made his money by clever investing. If you beat the market consistently by a large margin for sixty years or so even a small starting capital grows quite large. Buffet famously refused to invest in the Internet stocks around 2000, saying he didn't see how they would make money and the bulls were saying that he just gotten too old until it turned out he just still was smart.

Anyway Warren Buffet will no longer be a threat to Bills pole position. Warren gave away most of his money, in total around 37 billion. To whom? To Bill Gates. So it seems true what they say about the rich getting richer (or at least one of them)
Of course this is not quite true. The money wasn't donated to Bill the person, but to Bill the foundation or the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, already the largets foundation of its kind, but with Bill Gates quitting Microsoft it is almost the same. And it is a good thing too. Geeks have learned to mistrust the dark lord of Redmond or at least his business ways, but as far as charity goes I think he has made all the right calls.

If I needed somebody to help dispose of 37 billion dollars, I think I'd approach Bill too. He is pretty much the only person with experience in the field.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Finally being someone

Google Alerts are an excellent way of keeping track how something is doing on the Internet. Any self respecting blogger probably has one with his own name. I know I do. Usually it just spits out sites that rebroadcast my RSS feed accompanied with Google AdSense, but sometimes there's a nice hey I am famous moment. Today was the best so far. Somebody wrote an article on the Wikipedia about me. There is no way around it fame, fortune and groupies will follow shortly: I now officially am someone.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The last train to Milan

One thing I am not particulary good at, is to accept things that are not very logical. Last weekend I was in Milan and I needed to get back to Zurich. I had missed the last train by a couple of minutes and was walking along the tracks to make sure it had really left, this being Italy after all, when I came across a train leaving for Dortmund in a quarter of an hour, passing by Belizone. In my mental picture of Switzerland any such train had to pass Zurich by not too great a distance but still my routeplanner insisted that the only way of reaching the largest city of Switzerland before the 7 o'clock express involved waiting four hours on a forsaken station in the middle of the night.

The unfriendly lady of the Italian railways refused to sell me a ticket to Zurich saying there were no more trains to Zurich and I should come back tomorrow. My pleas that maybe I wanted to break my journey in Belizona and continue to Zurich with the earliest train possible fell on if not deaf ears then certainly no longer understanding ears. Belizone it was.

The signs at the tracks threatened that the next stop after Belizone would be in Karlsruhe safely in Germany and about three hours after I estimated this train to pass Zurich, but I decided to board anyway. As it turned out, I was right. The train also stopped at the Swiss German border where my passport was checked and I therefore woken up. I quickly got off the train to find myself in the German part of Basel. It was only about an hour walk to the Swiss railway station where I had to wait 70 minutes for the first local train departing in the direction of Zurich. I had to change trains in some small town and succeeded in missing the connection by not paying attention and being tired and finally arrived at home around 6:30 in the morning. And to think they had almost lured me into taking a comfortable hotel in Milan and the fast train in the morning.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The rumors of this blogs death are exaggerated

From the looks it seems this blog might be nearing its end. Postings are further and further apart and are much lacking a uniform theme. It has been a long time in coming. This blog was always mostly about hacks and projects with random thoughts inserted in between. No new projects because of my now working for Google makes the thoughts stick out weirdly. Anyway I am not quite ready to throw in the towel, so here's a what happened to me this weekend.

We had a wedding in the Netherlands. A fancy wedding. In a country house. All very nice but not easy to reach by public transport, so we found ourselves in a bus that we taken more because it was the only bus within half an hour, than that we were so sure it was going in the right direction.

Frequent bus riders know how often there is one person sitting in front of the bus talking to the driver, someone not quite right. They ride the bus and talk enthusiastically about different routes or longingly of yesteryears perfect time table. Sometimes it's a fat looking girl in her early teens with presumably a not so secret crush on the driver, but in our case it was a middle aged guy with an impressive beer belly and a scary scar on his brow. When we came in he had some kind of slight dispute with the driver, my money would be on him not having his public transport card on him. The beer was heavy on his breath, but when the driver looked doubtful after we mentioned the name of the country house, he jumped up explaining to the driver how to get there, maybe thinking there was a slight chance the driver would change his route for us; I was wearing quite a fancy suite after all. The driver just nodded and dropped us ten minutes later off near a road side restaurant. He said that at least we could ask at the restaurant for a cab, but our barrel bellied bus rider insisted he would get off with us and point us how we should walk. That way he would make it up to the bus driver. Whatever it was that needed making up.

So we got off and pointed us in the direction of a country road that looked like the place where they find the pretty couple murdered after three weeks and if looked closely our guide looked quite a bit like the confused man the police had taken in for questioning about said couple. Plus my new shoes were hurting and the country road had to be followed for 15 minutes before taking a left so we made for the road side restaurant and ordered a cab. While waiting outside we ran into our guiding friend. He and me both felt guilty. Me about having accused him of murder if only in thought. He, he really seem to feel bad that we had decided on a cab and kept saying how it was all his fault, while we insisted that there really wasn't any problem.

After a while he settled down and confessed that he had drunken 26 beers because he was nervous for the match the next day. He had once lived on a country house. Very big and nice. It was owned by his brother but he had made it pretty. But then his brother died and his sister in law had kicked him out. Now he just rode the bus and drank beer. 8 every day. Except for today. Today he had drunk 32. Because of the match. When the taxi arrived I wished I was Carmiggelt.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Helping a brother out

My brother is a writer and created an innovative way to promote his latest book. Read a fragment here (in Dutch)
Dit is fragment nummer 5 van het boek "Wembley" van Richard Osinga.

Het opstaan

Geen schaamte. Alles is te zien, vanaf de eerste uren van de dag als alle kleuren grijs zijn, tot de avond wanneer achter elk raam het licht van de televisie danst. Niets blijft verborgen. Alles, alles, alles. Geen geheimen – geen tradities, zegt Aboubakari.
Ik sta voor het raam en kijk naar de honderden ramen. Wie wakker is maakt zich klaar voor de dag: eten voor de tv, vertrekken in stilte, weggedoken in kraag en sjaal. De auto staat buiten te wachten. Lege huizen blijven achter.
De zon is op, maar nergens te zien. De straten zijn vaal, alsof een wind uit de woestijn alles met een dun laagje stof heeft bedekt. Niemand buiten, geen kind dat speelt, geen vader die brood haalt voor het ontbijt, geen moeder op weg naar de markt, geen jongens die zich verzamelen om te praten, te lachen en te wachten tot de avond komt.
Regent het? Het regent elke dag en het regent nooit.
Youssou komt zo. Dit is zijn bed. Het ruikt naar de schoonmaakmiddelen waarmee hij werkt. Het zijn geuren van bloemen waar de zon nooit op geschenen heeft. Hij wil niet wachten wanneer hij uit zijn werk komt. Hij is moe en wil slapen. Ik ben dankbaar dat ik zijn bed mag gebruiken zolang hij werkt, maar als ik geld heb is het eerste dat ik koop een eigen bed.
Ik veeg met mijn hand het laken schoon. Ik verzamel de kleine haartjes, stukjes nagel. Ik laat niets achter. Je weet nooit.

Naar het begin - Doe mee - Lees verder >>

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Google Trends

Every now and then the Economist publishes interesting graphs where they show how the count of the word 'Recession' in selected news publications correlates with the actual occurrence of an economic down turn. I always found this fascinating and used to think about all the cool stuff you could do if you had the actual counts of all the words in the all the news. And then I joined Google. Oh boy.

I remember talking to somebody from the news team and asking about this. Oh, well, we have that data around somewhere, the answer was. Using Googles Mapreduce it was actually quite simple to run over this data and extract the counts for words in the news over time. I threw together a quick http server that would actually plot the data and send it around the company. People thought it was pretty cool. Later I added the labeling of the peaks using the headlines of the news and some people started saying things like this should be launched on labs.

Then I met up with the guys doing something similar, but based on the number of times people searched for a certain keyword and we decided to combine the efforts. Oh and a designer had a look at the thing (my demo might have been cool but was also rather ugly). Yesterday the thing launched on Google Labs as Google Trends.

Thursday, May 4, 2006


The first time I heard the term Foosball it was during an episode of Friends. I thought it was some sort of joke, the Americans using the German term because it isn't really football and table-soccer sounds so odd. Maybe it is such a joke, but it seems it is the official term. Also, it seems to be a game popular among the Google going geeks. When I came to Google I fancied me to be somewhat of reasonable player. Man was I wrong. There's people doing trick shots I've only seen videos of. And then there's people with perfect control. One tricky thing is, how to create balanced teams (for playing two on two).

Actually, it started out with the desire to run some sort tournament. Problem is of course that if you pair anybody somewhat reasonable with Stefan, that team wins the tournament. What we need is a good ranking that spits out even pairs. Something like the ELO ranking.

So for a few weeks or so we tracked all games and wrote down the results. Last week I loaded up the results in a 50 line python program that does some machine learning. It actually predicts like 90% of all games correctly, which is not that far from optimal, given that the games are far from consistent with each other. And it probably is a simpler algorithm then the famed ELO.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The stolen Böögg and the Nazis

Back in the day when Usenet was the place to go for a good flame war, Mike Godwin came up with what has been called since, well, Godwin's law stating that if a discussion goes on long enough, the likelyhood of somebody bringing up the Nazis approaches one. And in many groups if somebody brought up the Nazis he'd automatically lose the argument. This post is an exception to that rule, I hope.

About a year ago I blogged about the odd tradition in Zurich of the burning of the Böögg. The Böögg is a huge snow man like puppet filled with fireworks that is set to fire each year to celebrate the coming of the summer. This year things were different. The Böögg was stolen by Left Wing Radicals.

It turns out that what I thougth was a odd and charming ritual from days long gone is actually part of a Zurich culture war that dates back a long time. I was surprised to hear that the fact that the Böögg had been stolen didn't pose any immediate problems, because there was a reserve Böögg, stored in a secret place, guarded by the police. Aparently in 1921 or so, the Böögg had been the target by the Communists and they had succeeded in setting it on fire before the official hour. I can imagine how Lenin, who lived in Zurich until 1916 said before he left, guys I'm going to start a revolution and that his communist friends said: well, don't worry, we'll do something quite revolutionary too.

Anyway, I joked around about this to a Swiss friend of mine. But he didn't think it was funny, he said the whole Böögg thing was very conservative and he never went there. Bad taste or something. So I was talking with my wife about this. Would you not go to a palace because it was built on the backs of slaves? In the GDR they had little plaques on museum items saying, the average laborer had the work so many days for something like this. It is one way of doing it.

So what if the Nazi's had built this great palace but with slave labour?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Who is Heinz supporting?

During a ski trip last weekend I came accross a bottle of Heinz ketchup. It had an interesting label:

Excuse the bad quality I had the settings all screwed up. But still. We were wondering, does Heinz have these bottles in every country? Or are they just pro Swiss and against the other teams? If you see a similar bottle supporting a different team, please drop me an email. Maybe we can create an interesting overview page.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

The cost of mobile data

Long time no blogging, I am afraid. I don't know. Anyway, I am still playing around with my cell phone. GMail works pretty well, the stripped down version, but nevertheless. I can check my mail on the tram, I got Google Talk working, I can tunnel into work, it is all great.

Data prices have come down too. Sunrise, a Swiss provider, has a deal on 50 Franks for 2GBytes a month, which is quite nice for GPRS/UMTS. Maybe not quite unlimited, but it is enough if you refrain from downloading movies and be easy on the music. The problem is of course that I don't need data access in Switzerland that much; I have my connection at home and a quite decent connection at work too.

Switzerland is not that big so when you're traveling it doesn't take much in you are in a different country. GPRS still works, but now the roaming charges kick. No more unlimited or cheap Gigabytes. On my account they charge an impressive 40 franks per megabyte when I am in the Netherlands. That is a mark up of more than 1500 times. That can't be right.

You can do better than that of course, an Austrain per-paid card gets you a megabyte in most Western countries for 8 Euro's, which is of course still very expensive. But there must be a market here somewhere. You can't sell the same product in the same market with a difference in price this big.

Rental is of course one option. You arrive on the airport, pick up a SIM card with unlimited data on it, pay 10 dollars a day or so and return it when you're done. But with the advent of cellphones that support both GPRS/UMTS and Wifi, it should alos be feasible to do something more advanced.

Each of such cell phone supports the hardware to be a portable hotspot; they could just let others connect to the wifi part and route the traffic though the cellular data network. If we could put some sort of peer to peer payment system in place where users would pay the local provider a little bit, each of those 50 Frank unlimited plans could help a lot more than one person out.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Life imitating art, eh Dilbert

So we're back in Europe. And even though we booked a flight on Swiss, we were actually transported on American Airlines. Oh boy. You can really notice that this airline is practically broke. The plane was rather dirty, i.e. trays contained old coffee stains, little fuzzles in the toilets, old stuff in the seat pockets, nothing to worry about to much, but as my wife remarked, if they don't clean the inside of the plane, maybe they didn't have a look at the state of the engines either.

Then the food, which was in nothing like good restaurant food, except for that it came in rather small portions. And they charge for beer, of course, 5 dollars. Some may counter, what is 5 dollars on an airticket and I'd say, excactly. Why annoy your customers for a few dollars.

As usual they played the security video and that was quite amazing. You know where they always show how to put on the life jacket? They didn't do that. Instead they showed how to hold on the cushion of your seat to avoid drowning after a crash. Now I realize it might have never happened so far that the life jackets were any good in case of an emergency and therefore getting rid of them might have seemed like an obvious way of cutting costs, but I could have sworn I had seen exactly this on Dilbert. Dogbert shows the management how to save money on safety and on the last frame you see all these scared people crashing down, while holding on to their seat cushions.

I guess I wasn't the only one that was surprised. Soon after the showing of the video the pilot begged for forgiveness but we were going to be late, because somebody had decided he wanted to get off the airplane and now we had to unload the persons luggage too.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Big City Mountain View

I'm currently at the Googleplex in Mountain View California. It is interesting to be back at headquarters; it is so big compared to the Zurich office and so packed with very smart people working on all these different projects. Last week I spend a few days at the New York office, which is much smaller (while still bigger than Zurich). But in a strange way it seems New York also seemed smaller than Mountain View.

Not in actual size of course, but New York seem to be build on a much more human scale. When I talk about New York I of course mostly mean lower Manhattan (the apartment we were staying in was at 11th street, the Google office is close to Time Square) and that part of New York is actually smaller than Mountain View (Manhattan is 51.8 km2, Mountain View is 31 or so), but what I mostly mean is that in Manhattan if you want to do something, walking is a good option. I could walk to the office and I would be one of the many people on the sidewalk.

In Mountain View however, anything worth going is always going to be far from anywhere else and most probable won't even be in Mountain View but in the next non-descript Silicon Valley town. And even if it is just two or three blocks, the blocks are huge here and walking is something people don't do. And if they do, there isn't a sidewalk.

I'm of course not much of a car person and this part of California has clearly been developed with the car in mind. In New York most cars that you see are actually cabs and people still rely on public transport to get from one place to another. The result is a metropolis with a human scale (and cramped, expensive apartments) versus the huge, machine scale of small town Mountain View, Ca.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Read-only Chinese

With the Chinese economy showing no signs of slowing down, it seems everybody is trying to master their language, whether from a general interest perspective or a just in case they do take over the world. I am afraid I have to admit I have joined everybody. However, after having looked around a bit on what's available to learn Chinese and finding current methods lacking, I have decided to design a method to learn Chinese first and then use that method. That might sound odd, but bear with me.

See, the thing is, I don't want to learn to speak Chinese, or understand it. I don't want to learn how to write Chinese either. I just want to learn how to read Chinese. The unique thing about Chinese is that it actually consist of 13 different languages/dialects (about as different as the Latin languages I hear), that are all written using the same characters. Each language pronounces the characters differently, but the meaning is the same in each language. I want to add a fourteenth language to the set, namely English, or something close to it.

Learning the meaning of each character should be simpler than learning the Chinese word for each character and the meaning, not just because it is less work (which it obviously is), but also since the characters in Chinese aren't completely random. Learning to read Chinese should make it possible to browse Chinese websites, so that is an immediate pay-off; learning to speak Chinese needs a Chinese person near by to be useful. Learning to write Chinese is probably not so useful; typing is definitely the way to go and learning to write English is probably also something on the way out.

So here's my method. First, I want to learn all radicals in Chinese. All Chinese characters are grouped under one radicals and radicals are combined to make Chinese characters. There are only 215 radicals or so, so that shouldn't be so hard. Once I have mastered the radicals, I will learn the 1000 or so most common characters and the words that can be made with that. After that I hope to be able to read simple text and will extend my knowledge from there.

In order to learn those radicals, I have written a simple program that projects the radicals and asks the user to enter the name of the radical. You can find the program under the Chinese Radicals project on this site. Should I learn all radicals and switch to learning the top-1000 words, I'll post again and add a new program for that too. Meanwhile, if you want to learn the radicals too, try this.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Music Everywhere

This is one of those blog posts where I am going to complain about how something doesn't exist but at the same type hoping that somebody will step up and say, no you are wrong, this things has been in the shops in Korea for 5 years and it is not even that expensive. What I want is simple: the same music playing in different rooms.

When we lived in Amsterdam we had this more or less; I had a splitter on my stereo that split the signal four ways and thus controlled for sets of speakers. Each had a button and I had wires running from the stereo to four different rooms. But this kind of wiring is unpractical; I drilled holes in multiple walls and still it was a lot of wire sticking out everywhere. It worked though. Here in Switzerland I decided to go the wireless way. I started out with wireless speakers.

The first pair worked for a while pretty well, then started to degrade and then no longer worked. I bought a new pair and the same thing happened. Maybe I should have spend more money, maybe the thing interferes with the Wifi networking going on the same rooms, I don't know, but I wasn't happy. Today I bought a Terratec Digital Audio Receiver, a little box that lets you stream music from your computer to any room within Wifi range. It is nifty, but it requires a server running on your main PC and you can't as far as I know play the same music through the speakers of your computer as through the Terratec. Partly this has to do with latency (it takes a little time to encode/decode the music that is streamed), but this seems fixable.

It struck me that a much simpler solution would be to use the electricity network. While shopping for the DAR I saw that they have network cards that reach 85Mb/s over the electricity network, so the capacity is there. You would have a sender module that has a digital sound in and a 230V connector. It would take the sound in and put it on the wire. You could then have as many speakers as you wanted anywhere in the house that just have a 230V connector. Plug'm in, select left/right (or of course from a wider x.1 scheme) and you're up and running.


Monday, February 6, 2006

Are you there God? It's me Mohammed

Yesterday I was watching an old South Park episode with the title 'Are you there God? It's me, Jesus.' It is quite funny. Jesus is enjoying the increase in attention he is getting because of the millenium and wants to do something great. He ends up organizing a come back concert for Rod Stuart. It also made me wonder whether the Danish embassy torching protesters aren't secretly working for Bush. Muslims burning down Scandinavian buildings helps the cause of the Christian right a lot more than demanding the shut down of South Park.

I'd like to be sympathetic to the Arabs. They've had a bad last thousand years and again this century doesn't look like it is going their way either. They've had bad luck with their governments (or isn't that luck?) and they've been cursed with oil (only the Norwegians seem to handle that reasonably well). Two years ago or so I posted on that the Buddhist in Tibet weren't such nice guys either and I compared that with the image that Moslims have. The post was widely misunderstood and a lot of Moslims posted on that Islam is a compasionate religion all about peace. I believe that, but man, these guys really need to get their stuff together.

I've read the articles about how the caricatures in the Arabian press are very offensive too, mostly towards Jews. But that is hardly the point. With so many things wrong in your country, the Danes seem an unlikely source of discomfort.

As for all the news outlets that don't want to republish the cartoons because they would offend Muslim readers, they should think back to the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, which apparently was offensive enough to some Americans to fine the broadcasters. But very few newspapers thought that their readers should be spared that offense - here the public clearly had an overriding right to know what the fuzz was all about.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Heidi Song

At the end of every Friday at the Google campus in Mountain View, Larry or Sergey present TGIF. A nice look back at what has happened last week with nice food and some drinks. In the Zurich office, we didn't have such a thing, mostly due to a lack of executives. Since I am never the guy to miss an opportunity to have drinks with people, I took it upon me to organize the Swiss Google TGIF. This post is about how the Heidi Song became instrumental in that and how it surprises our new neighbours.

Heidi is of course the story of a little girl who lives in the Alps with her grandfather. Moreover, there is a Japanese cartoon version of the story that has a rather terrible theme song. Now, the thing about people in general, and busy Googlers especially, is that it is not easy to make them stop what they are doing. It is always, oh, let me finish one more email and such, even if there is beer available and the fact that I usually did a presentation on what had happened helped surprisingly little in getting these people to move. So I had to come up with something.

The answer was the Heidi song. Swiss as anything else made in Japan and irritating enough if played at higher volumes to make people move. I would just play it on the speakers in the lobby and people would come. Of course this was when Google Zurich was small enough to be sound covered from the lobby. We are now in a bigger building with multiple floors, but luckily enough also with an intercom system.

Since we are with so many more people now, it is less important to get them out of their offices - there are always enough people ready for a quick game of Foosball or a TGIF starting beer, but it has become a tradition, so every Friday I walk down all the stairs to the lobby of the building, turn the volume on my laptop as high as it goes and play the Heidi song into the microphone of the intercom system.

The thing is that since two months or so, the first floor including said lobby are rented out to another company. And this is the weird thing, every Friday I basically walk into this company and start playing this very kitchy Heidi song as loud as it goes in their lobby. They sometimes look a little surprised, but nobody has ever said a thing. I suppose by now they know that I am just the Heidi song guy. Does that every week. People accept anything as normal.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ikea hacks

A lot of the furniture in my home in Amsterdam was more or less self build. I like working with wood and designing something and then actually building it, especially if it can be done in a day or so. Another advantage is of course that you'll end up with stuff that maybe isn't the prettiest (straight & right angles), but fits the available space or is even mounted in the wall. Of course when we moved to Switzerland this advantage turned into a disadvantage. The self made stuff was left behind or was thrown away and here we started a new. Ikea entered our lives.

The thing is of course that if you're new to Switzerland, Ikea seems like the only place with somewhat reasonable prices. Add to that the fact that if you need a lot of stuff, it is pretty much the only choice. So we ended up with a whole lot of furniture that looked quite the same as the furniture of other Googlers that had just moved to Zurich. Some of them might be millionaires, but we're still cheap.

Anyway, the room we use as a study is sort of oddly shaped and it was hard to find a right desk in there. So we put our old kitchen table in there (which was transported from Amsterdam, but which we had bought there in the Ikea - replacing the hanging kitchen table design of mine that had served me well from my student years on). It was a nice enough table, but it didn't fit very well.

Last weekend I set out to buy wood to build something better. Unfortunately in mideuropean fashion, the wood shop closed at 16 00 and the project had to be canceled or so it seemed. I stared a little longer at the kitchen table and then I realized that I wouldn't have to change that much really to make it into a perfectly fitting desk - the table was 140 x 100 cm and we needed 70 x 200 cm, so that's two minutes on the electrical saw. The legs needed to be moved around and the frame needed to be refitted, but the whole project was relatively straight forward and took only two hours or so.

And then it struck me how 'Ikea hacks' would be a great book in the O'Reilly's series. The book would show you how to build all kinds of furniture out of Ikea stuff. For each project you would have to order one or more Ikea products and it would involve some light or more heavy modifications. Build a vacation home out of 14 Billys and 2 Bjorns, that kinda thing.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Penguins and children

Long time no blogging. I switched servers - which was more painful than I thought, because basically everything stopped working. Plus I had a mild attack of blog spam - I put back an old version of this site to make it go away, so if your comments got lost that way too, I am sorry, but it seemed the easy way out. I've also installed a little thing that makes it impossible to post [/url] in comments, which is something these blog spammers tend to do. Heck, and I always thought that writing your own blog software would isolate you from these guys. Oh well.

So I saw this movie today about penguins on the South Pole. Now, I've known that penguins live there for a long time, but this movie showed me how bad they really have it there. Like my wife said, no wonder they look so happy in the zoo [ducking for animal right people throwing things].

See the problem that penguins have is that if they would lay their eggs in or near the water than the sea lions would eat their young in a big penguin meat fiesta. So what the penguins do instead is march off into the inland of Antarctica. There they mate in the autumn - they live in strict pairs at least for a year. When the eggs are laid (one per pair) the female carries them around for a bit on her feet (the ice that is everywhere would soon freeze the embryo inside) and then transfers the egg to the feet of the father. She then marches back all the way to the ocean and lives a life of leisure in the warm water (slightly above freezing) with lots of food (and the random sea lion of course).

Meanwhile the guys are left standing there, in the polar winter storms, with an egg on their feet for three months. It is dark, this being the arctic and they have no food, again this being the arctic. They can't move much, since they have to balance the egg on their feet to keep it warm. At some point it becomes spring, the chick comes out of the egg and the mother comes back to feed it, after which mother and father take turns marching back to the ocean to catch more fish.

Now my wife and I don't want children - we like children, but just don't need any of our own. What if you are a penguin? You probably don't have a choice, but these guys to get punished a lot for being a father, standing around in the arctic winter for three months instead of swimming around and eating fish all the time - especially if they would realize that instead they could swim to Argentina, where they have penguins too and where it is so much warmer.

Anybody who still believes in intelligent design should take notice - this can all be explained from a evolutionary perspective reasonably well, but the design just isn't intelligent.