Douwe Osinga's Blog: February 2006

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.