Douwe Osinga's Blog: January 2007

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


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.