Douwe Osinga's Blog: 2007

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Airline Security



Airlines like to start sentences with ‘for your own safety…' even if they don't mean it. It is pretty common knowledge by now I guess that cell phones don't actually interfere with the navigation systems of a plane and that they just want you to turn them off because it might confuse the networks below. I'm sure to tell us about the lifejackets to make us feel safe; if you do crash over the Atlantic, I am not sure how much of a difference a lifejacket will make.


 


But it seems it is getting sillier. I recently bought one of those iphones and was listening to some music, when a flight attendant asked me to turn the music off. I explained to her that I had turned off the phone function and that everything was fine. I really had. It saves batteries. No, she said, the playing of the music is the problem. It interferes with the computer systems. To be fair, after I looked at her in a stern way and told her that this was stupid, she backed off and moved on to annoy other passengers. In a way this is weird too. If she really believes it might take down the plane, you'd think she'd insist. There is something for her in it too if we don't crash.


 


On the way back this scenario repeated itself when my wife was looking at the pictures we'd taken on her camera. The flight attendant again asked her not to do that. ‘Oh', said my wife sweetly, ‘is it because it might make the plane crash?' You can imagine the headlines already. ‘CIA foils terrorist attack. Al qaeda operative was going to look at digital pictures in bathroom'


 


But it does make me wonder why Airbus and Boeing tolerate this kind of misinformation. They go all the way to build planes that are as safe as possible, try to convince the public that really these massive steel boxes actually can fly and here the airlines come along and say, well, yeah, but don't play your iphone or everything might come crashing down.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beenda.com

Of all the projects I've done on this site, Visited Countries no doubt is the most popular. People have over the years requested all kinds of features, one of my favorite being to split Canada in provinces, but merge Germany, Italy and France, since that's all the same anyway. One thing I had been talking about with Hans-Peter and Richard since a long time, is to build something with a better granualarity then just countries. Today we're happy to anounce beenda.com.


We've put together a list of the 100 most important destinations in the world. How? Well, this is just what we think. As a user, you can pick the destination you've been to and get a score and a map. There are lots of features to be added. Right now the map only shows you stars of where you have visited, it would be nice if it showed pictures and if you could add a little comment, but I think it is pretty nice.


Check it out at: beenda.com


 

Monday, June 25, 2007

Little Big Cloud

Here's a fun little tool my brother seems to be involved in Little Big Cloud. Each url on the domain is a tag cloud - if you go there you're prompted to provide more tags and they automatically link to each other. I think the concept is great. Add typed links and you have a semantic web on one page. I think it is a little annoying it keeps asking me for keywords everytime I go to the same page (I'd rather see a seperate url to add, also from a search engine perspective) and some filtering for double keywords from the same user would make it less spamable, but other than that I think it is a nice little hack.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Amtrak discounts

We're in the US. Among other things, the US in the country of coupons – pieces of paper you can cut from a newspaper that get you a discount. Nowadays, these things are online too, usually in the form of a code that you can enter when you want to book online. We wanted to take the train from New York up to Niagara Falls and I found this discount code that gave me 10% off. 10% is nice of course. The code was V185. I looked around on the Internet whether I could find any other codes. I could, but they were all outdated. One thing struck me though, they where all of the form Vxxx, where xxx denotes a number.


So in theory you could jus go to the form and try all numbers between 100 and 999 and see which one would give you the biggest discount. I tried a few and it seems that there was something to this theory. Sometimes it said invalid code, but often it said something like, code not valid for this date or code not valid for this region. Hmm, what could try 900 codes without getting bored?


So I fired up my python editor and wrote a small script. This turned out to be slightly more complicated than thought – the site needed a cookie and stored in the cookie some of the route information. Weird. Also it, seemed to generate the form on the fly based on I don't know what. But I had my little firefox developer toolbar, converted the post form to get, looked at the cookies I had and pasted it all in my Python script and after 20 minutes or so it actually worked. I added a sleep statement to the script to not send out all queries at once (I'm trying to get a discount here, not to annoy the server) and let the script run for another 20 minutes.


Result: It is not just V185 that gives you 10% off. V311 also gives you 10% off! Oh well, at least now I know for sure.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Social Markets

Unemployment insurance is a tricky thing. You want to give people something they can fall back on when they get fired, but at the same time you don't want to make freeloading an attractive option. In the Netherlands we have (had?) an employment office that was supposed to take care of the whole process, from finding out what you were good at, finding you a matching job and paying out your monthly unemployment money. It was only the last thing that they really succeeded in. Governments in general are better at taxing and spending than finding jobs for the needy. So can we use the free market to solve this problem?


It seems tricky since Social security is meant to take the sharp edges of the market, but there are some options. For example, the temp offices in the Netherlands turned out to be much better at finding jobs than the employment office ever was. They make money on it of course, while if you want to be cynical, the employment office becomes more important the more unemployed people there are. So what if we would let these temp offices grow out to become a replacement of the employment office, including them offering unemployment insurance? It would nicely align the interests. These employment companies would get a cut of the salary of the people they insure (as unemployment insurance premium) just like the temp offices do (as a service fee). If the people lose their jobs, they would have a strong incentive to find them a new job (because they no longer get the premium and now have to pay out unemployment money instead), so they would take an active interest. Also, since the money they make is a percentage of the income of the people they insure, they have an incentive to find the best paying jobs for ‘their' unemployed. They won't just ship them off to McDonalds just to get them off the books and if they do, because right now there is nothing else available, they will keep their eyes open should something better come along.


It's a nice scheme, I think, but it suffers from some of the problems that market based health insurance has too. One is that most people don't think that much about bad things and left to their own devices might just go without insurance (which happens a lot in the US) or get very crappy one to save money. The other thing is that the whole solidarity concept is lost. For health insurance this means that some people have to pay way higher premiums than others to the extent that some people won't be able to get insurance at all. Employment offices might charge very high premiums or refuse to insure the vulnerable too, like the 55 year old coal miners. In short we can make social security more efficient by making it less social.


I think both of these issues can be solved if we take the individual out of the equation. It would go something like this. Every quarter, the government would draw lottery-style 1% of all people that need insurance. Their previous insurance will be canceled. This group will be further divided in plots of say 25.000 people. Employment companies can now bid on these plots. The government will say, if any of these people lose their jobs, we want you to pay them 80% of their last salary for 1 year and after that 80% of the minimum wage. What percentage of their income would you want to make that happen? All employment companies put in bids of the form, I take 5 plots for a 2.7% premium, and the lowest bidding companies will get the deals. The actual premiums paid will of course by averaged out, so for the individuals it doesn't matter whether they change plot or not.


The bidding companies don't really know whom they will get, but it is a representative sample of the population, so they can draw up their computer models and work out what they can afford. They'll lose a little money on the 55 year old miner, but make some back on the 25 year old lawyer – exactly what solidarity is about. Since there are multiple providers, prices should be kept near the market minimum. They can also concentrate on the longer term, since they'll have the people in the plot for the foreseeable future, with an attrition rate of 1% per quarter (or whatever the government sets), so they might consider paying for education in some cases if that would lead to better chances on the labor market for their people.


To some it might seem odd that as an individual you just get a letter from the state saying your unemployment insurance is being handled by company X, but that is actually not so different from the statist approach where the government decides which of its bureaucrats will handle your case, only a little better. What happens if any of those companies goes bankrupt? Nothing much really, the plots that they are currently holding will just be resold. Premiums could go up a little if the bankrupt company was underbidding or they could go down if it was overbidding and just didn't know how to run its business.


In interesting option for the employment companies could be to sell their obligations on the capital markets. A more or less steady income stream set against the risk of a general rise in unemployment is something that can be nicely repackaged in the current financial system and would reduce overall risk to the unemployment companies (i.e. they wouldn't all suddenly go bankrupt if the unemployment rate would jump, since they would in effect have reinsured the risk on the capital markets).


An open question is how to handle change. What if the government decides that 80% of the last income is too much and wants to reduce this to 75%? Obviously this is good news for the employment companies, but how good the news is in money is harder to say. A solution could be that the government just pockets the money and from then on starts selling plots at 75%. Within not too wide margins this would probably work out quite ok (it would create a market with different rates, just like the government bond market has right now.


A propos health insurance, you could probably make something like this work there too. Health insurance companies would bid on plots of people to be insured, either for a percentage of their income or a fixed fee. They would then have to provide a certain level of health care, no matter who they happened to have drawn. We could have that way a market driven health insurance system with government set minimum level of service, while at the same time having an equal premium for everybody.


One more area where this principle could be applied in a slightly different way is in government bonds. On an abstract level, the government borrows money now to invest into something and promises to set aside a slice of future tax income to pay for that money. How big a slice is not always that clear at the beginning of course and has gotten many a government into trouble later on. What if the government would just make this explicit? We need 10 billion now to build a new airport and we want to pay off the debt in 25 years. What slice of tax income would you need to give us that 10 billion? The capital markets would have an answer.


Maybe this is the way to solve the looming pension crisis. Lots of countries have pay-as-you-go pension schemes that combined with an aging population lead to hugely under funded pension plans. In other words the slice of tax receipt that needs to spend on these pensions will go up in the future, but nobody knows by how much; more over in effect it is the future generations that will have to pay for the current mess. Instead we could just go to the capital markets and say, if we want to keep this sort of pension scheme running until 2100 or so, what percentage of future income would you require to handle the pay-outs? We might get quite a scare when we see that number. On the other hand if that number is real, better be scared now and adjust the parameters.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Americans

American bashing is one of the least attractive European habits. I guess the US is too successful and too much like Europe and then again not and that tends to irritate. People seem to have no problem calling Americans stupid (I am pretty sure a comment or two with that message will appear below), even though they'd think saying Africans are stupid is racist. I say, count the Nobel prizes. Of course I work for an American company, so I might be biased. Even so, they so the darnest things, those Americans. Here are some striking examples.


 


A while ago there was a thing about Disney wanting to trademark Sleeping Beauty and her friends in New Zealand. I thought this was rather ironic all and all, seeing how a company grown big from copying German fairytales not only leads the troops when it comes to fighting other creative copying, but now wants to rewrite history and make it impossible for others to copy those German fairytales. Anyway, I mentioned this to an American friend and she said “they don't have it trademarked in the US?” – she never knew that all that Disney stuff is based on folk tales.


 


Another American friend told me that when he decided to move to Switzerland, he started paying attention more to the country of course and he found this very curious feature of the English language. There seemed to be two adjectives for Switzerland and he could not figure out when to use the one and when to use the other. Why for example is it ‘Swedish Fish', but ‘Swiss Cheese'? Language is a tricky thing.


 

The last thing was when an American friend was sitting in a Swiss train, passing by the allotment gardens around Zurich, i.e. where people get a small piece of land and can do some gardening even if they don't have a garden. ‘The Swiss are so organized', he said, ‘even the slums look neat'

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Back from the dead

Casual visitors to this site were in the recent weeks greeted by cheery ads for real estate, dating, travel and used cars. The good things in life, so to say. See, my domain was registered with RegisterFly and when the time came up to renew the registration, they took my money and did nothing. Twice. So it expired and what they did do was fill it with spam. I would use the phrase 'mindless jerks that will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes' except for that I don't think they'll make it until the revolution.


Anyway, we're back. How have you been?

Monday, April 9, 2007

Why Rumsfeld was right


By now Rumsfeld has probably gone down in history as the worst secretary of defense ever. But I was thinking whether we shouldn't have another look at his doctrine. Yes, the same guy that said we should storm Iraq without a plan for rebuilding it.


 


The world is not perfect of course. There are bad regimes and there are terrible regimes (and some are ok). Now from a humanitarian point of few there are regimes that are so bad that you want to overthrow them (think Hitler 1939), but usually we don't (think Pol Pot). Why not? Well, partly because it is so unpractical, marching in is only half the work.


 


So what would happen if we would just say, as a dictator you can do what you want, but if it gets worse then X, we're going to kick you out. Now there will be a temptation with some not to just march in, but also to try to make sure that the country becomes a model democracy, but we shouldn't; that will cost a lot more time and is frankly not always possible.


 


Stick with the Rumsfeld doctrine like this and fast-forward a bit. Basically we'll end up with a world where there are still bad regimes, but no longer any very terrible. Initially some invading might have been needed and mostly those very bad guys will have been replaced by bad or not so ok guys, but it would still be an improvement. And once the doctrine has been established the potential bad guys will realize just how far they can go and never become very bad guys, just stay bad.


 

And maybe over the years we can increase the minimum requirements for dictators. The perfect is the enemy of the good or even the rather very mediocre. But considering the qualities of many of the regimes in the world, this might still be worth shooting for.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Simpler Taxes

It is that time of the year again (though to be honest I usually don't get around it until much later): the tax man cometh. The only worse than paying taxes, is not paying taxes, said I guess Mark Twain, but it could have been Oscar Wilde as always with these witty things. It seems though that to a lot of people it is not paying the taxes that is really annoying, it is doing the taxes. Why is that?


I think it is because the government forces you to do work that will only lead to you giving money to them. That's just not right. Sure you can take an accountant (and in some countries you're pretty much forced to), but now I am paying somebody to do work so that I can give money to the government. It seems there is a simple solution here: the government should provide us with accountants that work as hard as they can to reduce our tax bill.


This would have many advantages: it would make paying taxes less annoying, which can only be good. It would also allow the poorer people to take advantages of the loopholes in the tax laws. But mostly it would give the government a strong incentive to make tax laws simpler. See, right now there is no real draw back for a law maker to make taxes more complex: It is you and me who have to do the work or pay the accountat to do the work. If we make the government feel the true cost of complex taxes by having them provide accountants, they migth do something about it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Taxis

To the carless traveler taxis are a distinct mixed blessing. They are often the only practical way to arrived at a destination especially when one isn't comfortable yet with the local geography and public transport. The drawback is of course that taxis are often expensive or their drivers untrustworthy or both.


A lack of dynamic supply keeps prices up in more regulated countries as does a badly working market. As for untrustworthiness, I read somewhere that this is just typical for this sort of market, where buyer and seller usually won't meet again after the transaction and where there is a distinct asymetry in information. The taxi driver knows the city, knows where you are and you don't. I was wondering to what extend universal GPS and routeplanners could change this. Armed with a GPS enabled cell phone our traveler  would know exactly how far his hotel is from the airport and also what the best way to drive there is.


So GPS could fix the information assymetry and untrustworthiness, but I think it could fix the supply and market thing too. If every cab had a GPS/routeplanner on board, it would no longer take a lot of expertise to become a cabbie - just follow the instructions of the friendly lady in the box. Cities could just sell boxes with the whole taxi package in there for a few hundred dollars slashing the barriers to entry in this market considerably. Apart from the GPS, this box would also contain the meter. I imagine it would be attached to the inside of the windshield clearly visible for both driver and passenger.


No for the price setting. We could make it possible for the driver to set the price per km or so and then have our box could display the price on the outwardfacing side of the windshield, but I am not sure that would work satisfactory. If you are picked up late at night by a cab in unsafe part of town, your room for negotiation would be rather limited. Better all our units report back to a central computer whether they are available and whether they are carrying a paying passenger. The computer could then use this information to set a publically readable price. If there is more demand for taxi services, the price would go up and more part time cabbies would take to the road and maybe more passengers would take the bus.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Rental skis

This week saw the European Google Ski trip. The Google Ski trips go back quite a bit and over the years have grown from a few dorky engineers on a hill to a massive invasion of some lucky ski resort. The evolution in Europe has been much the same and if anything has gone faster. Anyway, it was lots of fun with parties, activities and talks and even, well, skiing.


I do own a pair of skis but unfortunately no ski-stocks and neither boots so I settled for rentals anyway. The rest of this post is much about the good, the bad and the slightly disgusting when it comes to rentals, so if you're easily upset by the last thing, you might want to press the next button on your RSS reader.
After a nice morning of skiing there was the lunch. The food wasn't too great, but we were sitting in the sun with a view on the Mont Blanc. That morning I had a bit of an upset stomach. Something seemed to have been going around, but it seemed equally likely it was just the lack of sleep or the nightly entertainment. The snow was great though.


Anyway, I got back from lunch walking vaguely in the direction where I had left my skis, when I realized that I had no idea what my rentals actually looked like. I asked my ski buddies, but they didn't know either. Hmmm, now what. Good things we had engineers at hand. There were nine pairs of skis roughly in the target area. Five of them were rental skis. I tried them on, only two fitted my boots. I ordered another espresso and decided to wait it out. After half an hour, only three pairs of skis were left and only one of them fitted my boots. I quickly put them on and sped off – explaining to someone that you're not actually stealing their skis, you just couldn't remember what yours looked like is something best avoided I was thinking.


Problem solved. Well, when I returned the rental skis, the guy of the shop looked at me, put his hands in the air like only Italians can and exclaimed, you! You-uh, change-uh the skiiis! At the same time he pointed at another pair of skis with a sticky yellow note on it. One of the pairs I swore didn't fit.


And the good and the slightly disgusting? Let's just say that squat toilets and ski boots make for aiming from high distance and the added circumstances of an upset stomach cause you to take comfort in the fact that the boots are rentals.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ecuador Notes

Back from Ecuador. I took my phone and made random notes. I am not sure how interesting they are to all of you, but I figured what they hell. It is not that often that I post something. Also, commenting should work again.


One of the nice things about the fact that the airlines seat first- and business class travelers first, is that economy class people like me get to pass through their section of the plane when disembarking after the luxerati have left: you get a chance to hunt for second hand magazines. Time, Newsweek and the occasional National Geographic is the usual fare, but sometimes something more exotic turns up. We took a many legged flight from Frankfurt to Quito, Ecuador and collected many magazines.


I picked up a Conde Nast Traveler. It looked glossy and a little too much hotel oriented but I figured they might have a geheimtipp or two on those up and coming new destinations you sometimes hear about. My conclusion so far: you can safely leave it in the plane. I don't care much about hotels so that invalidates half of the magazine i guess, but the rest of it was all badly written dribble. I wonder if they actually pay their writers to visit these destinations or that it is all made up with a little Internet research thrown in to make it somewhat real.\


Rick Moody writes on Iceland. He 'discovers' Gjain, his idea of what the Garden of Eden looked like, ''if presse to come up with a real-world analogue''. How is the Garden of Eden real world? And how is this Paradise if it misses as Ricky goes on to describe shrubs and trees and only has a bunch of wildflowers? He goes on to say that ''to say that it was in the middle of nowhere would be to understate the case comically'' I don't know how that is comical or how the middle of nowhere cannot be an overstatement, but I am sure that anything reachable froma european capital in two hours is not. Elsewhere in the magazine Jennifer Boylan discovers that Easter Islands isn't a desolate Island struck by environmental disaster, but on the contrary has luxury accommodation and first class scuba diving.


Enough magazine bashing. I am just surprised that an obvious fancy magazine like this doesn't try a little harder to get decent writers. Did they miss the whole Internet publishing revolution? If I was an editor of such a magazine, I'd just go to Google type in blog+travel and look around. There are so many well written blogs about traveling with lot's of clever insights out there. And if you send those guys an email saying, hey I liked what you wrote about Iceland, I'll pay you 500 dollars if you adapt in for my magazine, lot's of them would be very enthousiastic. No business class air ticket reimbursement required.


In all my traveling I have been robbed/conned/pickpocketed six times, which is not so bad I think. Of those six times, three times our camera was stolen, which is worse. Camera's are of course relatively expensive, not easily replaced while on a trip, but worst of all, they tend to contain lot's of pictures that get stolen too. If only thieves would be as good to upload those stolen pictures to a flickr account.


I am afraid Ecuador was the third country that lost us a camera. We were taking a night bus into the Orient where they keep the remains of the rainforest and just after boarding the bus guy asked us for our tickets and motioned us to put our small backpacks into the overhead storage compartments. We keep some of our valuables in there so we felt uneasy about this, but he insisted strongly. We figured we put the bags up and then when the bus is moving we take them down again and put them on our laps where they belong. And so we did, but it was too late. Camera, make-up kit including the pill and a pair of shorts had left the bag already. The guy who had made us move the bags was gone too of course and didn't work for the bus company (or not officially at least) We asked around and it seems a popular trick with us not the first and probably not the last tourists to fall for it.


Our jungle lodge stay was pretty interesting with the usual fishing of piranhas, wild life spotting and getting to know the local tarantella, though hanging around there four at least four days as the tour company suggested seems like long to me. We left after two and a half days with a satisfied feeling (and a cell phone full of pictures, thank god for the nokia n93), but getting away wasn't easy.


One of the troubles of being married to some one who is nice beyond your wildest dreams is of course that she's also nice to other people. Returning from the Ecuador jungle there were no busses available direcly so we hitched a ride to the nearest biggest town, three backbreaking hours on the back of a truck. We arrived at the airport half an hour before the flight and bought the two last tickets. I learned that there was something wrong with the reservation system and that the seating would be a free for all easyjet style, so I jockeyed for a front position during the boarding. I picked seats somewhere in the middle of the plane hoping this way to reduce the chance of hitting a seat that some one else had a boarding pass for (from before the computer mal function)


It all worked out fine and we were in great shape so see those amazing views of the Andean mountains rising out of the Amazonas, when two ladies were kicked out of there seats by two men who had seat reservations. The stewardess moved in saying that all seat reservations were invalid, but the men wouldn't budge - they were sitting fine. The ladies looked sad and a little scared, so my wife enquired who badly they wanted to sit together.


Five minutes later I was sitting next to the toilet far from any window with rainforest view how small a price to pay this was for genuine niceness.