Douwe Osinga's Blog: 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Meet the Meat!

When you walk around Sydney one thing that draws your attention are the signs outside pubs advertising for Steaks for 12, 10 or even 7 dollars. Mind you, these are Australian dollars, so that’s 3.5 to 6 Euros. If you talk to Sydneysiders they go, yeah, it has all changed. Back in the day, 5 dollars was all that it took.

As it turns out there still is a pub that still does 5 dollar steaks. I went there with a friend who insisted 5 dollars was the only way to go. It’s a 25 minute walk which on a sunny Friday afternoon means that you spend 10 dollars on beer in intermediate pubs, so count your blessings. But it is true. 5 dollars gets you fries, 300 gram of steak and mushroom sauce. And it is pretty good.

It’s not just the steak, there’s 5 dollar sushi lunch, 6 dollar bacon & egg breakfast with decent coffee and even cheaper Chinese food of course. It is quite a difference with the situation in Zurich where a packet of nuts tends to cost around that amount. I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a recent immigrant from Switzerland and he said, here a good steak is 7 dollars, in Zurich it is 25 franks (32 dollars).

I was about to nod in agreement, but then I started to wonder where do you get a steak for 25 franks in Zurich? I asked my friend. ‘ah, the supermarket’, he said.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Picasa Webalbums Face Recognition Rocks

Picasa's Webalbums has this newish feature to recognize faces and it is pretty awesome. You make it run over your photo's and then it lets you match up faces it found with your contacts. I only today used for the first time and I am impressed. Nice example of Clarke Third Law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

In the same vein I suppose that glitches in that sort of technology show that after all it is technology and not magic. If you can fool birds into believing a scare crow is a man, what can you make Picasa believe? I had the photo below in my web album, from last winter when me, my brother, our wives and their children build the best igloo ever in Switzerland.

The wind had picked up ice blocks from the Sihl See and put them all in one corner - excellent building material. With the left over material we build a snow man, because, well snow men is what you build in the Netherlands if there is snow.

Picasa Webalbums liked our snow man. Enough to offer it under the section of clearly recognized faces. Unfortunately I don't have a matching contact and fear the man has deceased since.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Broken Window Theory

When the movers came and brought our stuff to Sydney, they also brought my bicycle. Sydney isn’t the bike friendliest of places, but it isn’t that bad as long as you avoid the roads where cars will hunt you and stick to the pavements where you can hunt the pedestrians. Ah, but where to park?

We actually did get a parking space with our apartment, but then we wanted to rent that one out, so that didn’t seem like a long term solution. In Zurich we had a bike cellar, but then in Amsterdam we didn’t – I just parked outside and in the last 7 years there were no incidents, so why not try that. My wife said the bike would be stolen since there are no other bikes on the street in Sydney. I said that it wouldn’t since if there are no bikes, there won’t be bike thieves either. I was right. At first.

The first three weeks everything went fine. I didn’t use the a lot since I only live three minutes walk away from work, but in the morning it was there. Then one Sunday morning one break cable was torn. And there was a sticky note on it reading “I want to have sex with you, Google!” (there was a Google logo on the bike).

I removed the yellow note (no phone number) but a week later my saddle was stolen! I tried to unlock the bike now since it clearly wasn’t safe anymore, but the lock was stuck and I decided to that a little later with some oil. I didn’t of course. Two days later when I came home my saddle was gone. When I left the next morning for work, the wheels had been taken too!

Now what do I do? Go to a bike repair shop and ask them to fix my bike by supplying half the parts? Luckily I didn’t have to figure that one out, because when I came back home the whole bike was gone. And that’s what they call the broken window theory.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Death and Taxes. Correlated.

90% of creativity is misunderstanding, I sometimes think. Some the best ideas come when you hear something and think, wow, that's brilliant and later it turns out that they meant something else, but it was still a good idea. I think it works because your brain had been working on something similar and seeing it in print, it makes it go click, even if it is about something else.

Anyway, this isn't really brilliant, but still a nice example. I read the headline of this article Death & Taxes Poster. This is about a poster that shows the size of the expenditures of the US government on a poster. It doesn't show death at all

What I thought they had, was a poster that plotted life expectancy against the tax rate for various countries. The good news is that I can now make that poster. Me and the internet. So I quickly copy and pasted two tables of tax rates and life expectancy into a spreadsheet and had them correlated and then plotted the thing. You get this table:

And the graph below. Unfortunately the correlation isn't very strong. If I had had more time, I'm sure I could have massaged the numbers a little more, but I'll leave that to someone else. In general it seems that countries with higher taxes in general have higher life expectancies. Or really, the graph becomes more dense towards the higher taxes. In other words, it is possible to have low taxes and high life expectancy, but almost all countries with high taxes have also high life expectancy.

Make of it what you want. Oh the x-range is the (highest) income tax-rate. The y-range is the male life-expectancy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

In defense of colonialism

We’re just back from a quick trip to Hong Kong for a wedding. Hong Kong is an impressive city in many ways. Here you have this most unmerciful capitalistic society of all with lots of public green and excellent public transport. The world freest economy ruled by the communists in Beijing. Most of all I think Hong Kong shows the wonderful results of mixing two cultures, in this case British and Chinese. Not withstanding all the cruelty and unfairness of British rule, it shows that colonialism can have it good effects too, I think.

I think we should bring it back. Not the canon boat type of the nineteenth century, more something akin to the Greek colonies. A bunch of people go somewhere else, build a city in a country with a different culture and the exchange of ideas and customs makes everybody richer. Maybe a better way of describing this would be country franchises. The Netherlands would for example build a city in the United States, but as part of the Netherlands, just like an embassy.

Dutch companies or persons that want to operate close to the US, but not under US law for whatever reason, could settle there. If there is enough demand for something like that, then a Dutch colony in the US would clearly enrich the US. If not, well, then there is nothing special on offer.

Saudi Arabia could build a city in the Netherlands with Sharia law. If it turned out that that would really work much better it might inspire people in the Netherlands to do the same. People in the Netherlands that believe it works much better could try to move there. If it turns out that it doesn’t work so well, then that would be clearly visible too.

Something like that would make the exchange of ideas between countries much easier and allow citizens to vote with their feet without changing continents.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Bank Robbery. In Reverse.

From reading the news you might believe that the financial crisis that we’re in is one of the banks. Banks might have caused some of the problems, but right now they need all the help they can get, even if that means chipping in tax payers money. Look again though. Since the beginning of this year, according to domain-b, the banking sector is down 32.5% since the beginning of the year. Sounds like a lot, but the S&P, one of the broader indexes went down by almost exactly the same percentage since the beginning of the year. To me that doesn't seem right. If this industry is on the brink and needs all help, shouldn't their investors be punished more? Apparently they think it is not so bad.

Or more likely, that whatever crisis comes, the banks will be bailed out, while other industries will not, so banking shares might actually be safer than others. According to the BBC Business Editor Robert Peston the world has now spend 5 trillion pounds on saving the banks. That's 7.8 trillion dollar. The same article on domain-b mentions that the total value of the banks went down from 8.3 trillion to 5.7 trillion. It also answers my question why if they need more money and belief in the free market they don't just increase the interest rates they pay on deposits. They don't need the money that much and can get it for free just by saying that if they'd blow up it would be Really Bad so hand over the cash.

So what do we do? We can't really call their bluff, can we? I think to some extent we can. The government should announce that from now on, no more money will be pumped into banks, no more interbank loans will be guaranteed, nor any bad assets being bought by the government. However, the government will buy all bank shares that drop to 17% of their current value. After a bank is nationalized and only then, will the government guarantee the loans etc.

Now step back and let the market do its work. Mass panic will be avoided since there clearly isn't any systemic risk; the government still guarantees the risks, just only after nationalization. So the market will get to focus on which banks it think will make it and drive the share prices of the ones it think won't make it down, with the 17% a floor. Most likely a lot of banks will never hit the 17% and will just be bought out by others. The total cost of this bailout has ceiling (the guaranteeing of loans less so, but at least it will be the states loans that are guaranteed) and the invisible hand can finally hit the guys that caused this.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Taking from the poor, giving to the rich

Desperate times call for desperate measures and in the 700 Billion dollars to bail out Wall Street certainly falls in that category. The question is whether it will help and the signs aren't so good so far.

A big problem with the whole thing is that the people that get the 700 Billion seem more like part of what went wrong than part of what is right. The guy running the rescue operation made 700 million while at an investment bank.

So I have an alternative plan: give the whole load of money to Warren Buffet. 10% of all the profits he makes with the 700 billion Warren can keep and 1% of any losses he should make, he'd have to cough up himself. Obviously the deal of a life time for mr Buffet, but then again, he has advanced in his life time quite a bit and has promised to donate his money to good will after he dies anyway.

Warren Buffet has a much better track record when it comes to picking winners when investing than the government (duh, I might add). Our chances to see back the 700 billion are just much better with him than with Bush & co. More over since he is quite rich himself, he has a nicely vested interest in rescuing the world economy if for no other reason than that is also his money on the line.

Ultimately I think that just making him king of the world economy would calm down nerves enough to restore sanity to the markets.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Swissest of all cuts

First to get you all up to date: two days ago we moved out of Switzerland. We’re off to India now, where we’ll stay for 5 weeks or so, before going to Sydney and to live there. There are many things I’ll miss about Switzerland and some I won’t.

All cultures have their rituals, the things that make them, well, them. If I had to pick one that defines Switzerland most, I’d say it is the Hauseuebergabe or house transfer. You go through one when you move in, but you miss the essence then. There’s a guy that walks you and the previous renters through your new home, pointing out the various things that are broken or slightly dirty, most of which seem too subtle to notice, so you feel protected and the apartment looks great anyway.

Fast forward three and a half years later. You read up on your obligations during this ritual as the leaving party and it gets scary. You’re supposed to clean it up before leaving as in other countries. Only what is clean to most isn’t necessarily clean to the Swiss. They keep their apartments very clean as is and then when they move out, the lazy ones pay a company 1500 dollars to do the final cleaning.

Real Swiss I’m told, don’t do this. They clean themselves. Not to save money, but because they believe that these companies don’t clean really thoroughly. They only clean as clean as it needs to be to pass the Hauseuebergabe (and they give a guarantee that it will), but only just as clean. What will the new people think if they find a spec of dust somewhere when they move in?

As it turns out, there is another way. Another interesting fact about renting apartments in Switzerland is that you can only quit them twice a year, September and March. If you want to leave at any other time, you have to find nachmieter, or next-renters and if they are deemed suitable, you’re off the hook. And if you find foreigners as nachmieters, the whole cleaning business becomes a lot easier, since it is the nachmieters that ultimately decide whether the place is clean enough.

Our place looked the best after, after we were done with it and our nachmieters were totally happy with it. The guy from the rental company of course thought differently and muttered something about it being a disaster.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Google Share and Chinese Radicals

I am slowly rebuilding my projects one by one, porting them from Zope to AppEngine. I restored Chinese Radicals just now. This is a program that I wrote to teach myself to read Chinese (I didn't want to learn to write or speak it, just read). I never got around learning it of course, but strangely enough some people mailed me saying they missed the program. Hopefully it works better for you guys than for me.

Second is Google Share. I believe this is one of my earliest Google Projects and I wrote it after reading an article by Steven Berlin (now famous for Everything Bad is Good for you). It is a simple, yet attractive idea. You choose a domain, let's say [search], and a number of concepts in that domain, let's say search engines and then you measure using Google the "mind share" of those concepts in that domain.

In other words, you look how many pages that contain the word [search], also contain [google], [yahoo], [msn] or [aol]. This percentage gives you an approximation of how important these concepts are within this domain. The graph below illustrates the point for search engines:

Google Share by DouweOsinga

Interestingly enough, if you wouldn't tell people, I'm sure they'd take this graph as an representation of actual market share in the search market.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Project Updates

Now that is running on App Engine, I am slowly converting my old projects to the new infrastructure. Moreover I am trying to make them a little better so that it actually seems to serve a purpose. This weeks catch:

Visited Countries now supports (and people have asked me for this a lot) a way to edit an existing map. Rather than having to login and edit your map in place, you can just take any url to a visited map, paste it in the box and press restore and you are good to go. So if you had that map but you didn't want to edit it all over again just because you had visited one more country, you're in luck.

Archean Self Organization Before you could copy the state in a comment so other people could try it out, but they would have to copy and paste a weird code. Now you can just save the thing with a comment. Slightly better I would say.

The Next President still lets you pick states and assign them to democrats or republicans and then draws a map, but now it does so slightly more elegant and plots the map immediately. Also it now starts with the map representing the elections four years ago.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Back from the dead part II

Those who check my blog over a feedreader might have concluded I stopped posting for a bit (which is also true). Those who check back on directly, might have noticed that the whole site was gone. Again.

The hosting company I was with send me an email that two hard disks in their RAID array had failed and they'd be happy to restore my site if I had had purchased the backup option, but otherwise I was on my own. I hadn't purchased such an option and my backup was rather old. I can say that I was rather happy I had switched to blogger for blogging a couple of months ago otherwise all posts about India would have gone too.

My site was build on top of Zope, an aging application platform that has the peculiar feature that the whole site is stored in a ZODB file. You can export them and then easily import them into a different Zope instance and that way avoid a lot of installation trouble. Except for that you can't. There are issues with versions and extensions. Extensions allow you to add functionality to Zope and are great, but if your exported version of your site referred to any extension, you now have to dig up that extension, or otherwise nothing works. Also, I could not get my site to work at all in the latest version of Zope (2.11). Finally after a lot of swearing I succeeded in getting it to work on 2.09 (or 2.9).

But it was too late. I realized I should have given up on Zope a long time ago. Django is my new love and as it turns out Googles new shiny App Engine supports Django. So I set out to convert the structure and now we're up and running again.

We're not there yet. On my old instance I had 48 projects. Now I've reinstalled, uhmm, 3. But that's all good. A lot of those projects were dead or dying anyway and the others could do with a lick of paint. So meet the new and improved visited countries.

visited 95 states (42.2%)
Create your own visited map of The World or Try another interesting project

It has Visited States and Visited Countries combined, plus... Visited India. Visited States and Visited Countries now use the Google Charting API, Visited India is native python. If you'd like to see your own country, region or what, ping me. New maps are now easy to add.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nice work if you can get it

India has a billion people and it shows. They are everywhere. The masses of people you find in the street here, one would only find in Zurich if there was a festival of sorts. Many people think that having that many people is a problem, since you have to create jobs for all of them. This is of course not true in a well functioning economy; people create demand and create jobs and all is well. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite true in India.

India might be on their way to become a new IT superpower, but there are still large masses of people with little education who all need (low paid) jobs. Employing these people seems to be a responsibility that falls to all businesses and that goes beyond the normally very active Indian desire to make a profit. So if you order food, don’t be surprised that there will be two guys doing the delivery. One carrying the food and handling the transaction, the other being the ‘come along guy’.

Automation of course poses new challenges to this system. India is modernizing and Indians want to see all the new cool stuff. But it tends to cut jobs and that is something that India cannot afford at this point, which leads to an interesting phenomenon: manned automation.

So today we went to a crafts village around here. They charge a small entrance fee, presumably to keep the masses out – any park like area that can be entered for free will soon be taken over by crowds of picnicking Indian families. They have a little gate where you could swipe the ticket to get in. But it doesn’t work like that. There’s a guy who takes your ticket, looks at it, then swipes it, you walk through the gate that now opens and the guy tears your ticket.

And this is what you see all over. They have the same machine at home in the supermarket to weigh fruit, but there is a lady who does it for you. In the office there is a guy who makes sure that the lights over desks that aren’t used are off – you go to the toilet, you come back and it is dark. You move your hands and he turns them on again. I suppose on some level even the fact that almost any car you rent here comes with a driver is an example of the same principle.

Apparently there when they introduced the first automatic drinks dispenser in India, it was announced with great fanfare. The actual implementation was also very Indian. Not one or two guys were manning the machine, but three. One would take your money and exchange it for a token, which you would then give to the second guy, who would insert it into the machine. The machine would then cough up the drink, which would then be handed to you by the third guy.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Truth in advertising

Advertising tells you a lot about a country. Not maybe so much about what is the case, but about what people dream about. Or at least what the advertisers want people to dream about.

Going on that, Hyderabad is dreaming about real estate. I can’t remember ever have seen ads for concrete in Switzerland or the Netherlands, but here they are all over town. ‘European Style Living’ bill boards are popular too. Nice house, nice family in the picture and this big highway right in front of the house. You’d want a freeway to if you’ve experienced Hyderabad traffic.

There are ads for lower cost housing too. Working Women Hotels have a lot of mural painted ads – though they don’t house working girls of the type naïve Europeans might expect.

The most mysterious ads are huge signs only filled with phone numbers. For the longest time I was wondering what the point was? Indians are enthusiastic and easily excited, but calling a phone number because it is on an ad with no other context, seems even here a tat optimistic. But I think I figured it out. The billboards can be booked if you call the number.

You don’t see that much advertising for travel other than the ubiquous low cost airlines. Jet Airlines now direct to Jaipur. In news papers however you see the odd trip to Europe offered. Obviously the United Kingdom gets a lot of attention; you want to know all about your former colonizers. But for somebody who moved here from Switzerland it is interesting to see that that Alpine country is right there with the Brits.

I’ve been told this is because of Bollywood – originally Hindi movies any good would contain a scene in Kashmir. But shooting there became rather impossible because of the, well, shooting there (sorry, couldn’t resist). So the Indian movie moguls (again) looked for a different mountain scene and hit on good old Switzerland. So now Indian tourists want to go where there movies came from.

Still, see Europe in 10 days, spend 4 in Switzerland, not really the balance I would strike.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Laundry Service

Some people don’t like the fact that you can have almost anything done by somebody in India because of the low cost of labor; they feel it is just not right to employ somebody to stock your fridge with beer – pointing out that the alternative, firing the house boy, isn’t going to make things better for anybody strangely enough not always convinces. Me, I like it a lot. The thing I like most is laundry service. We should have that in every country and where labor is too expensive, technology should make up for the gap.

Laundry service in India changed my life. In a small way, maybe, but it lead to the reengineering of my wash-cycle. I have a stack of t-shirts and am just used to taking the top one until the stack has disappeared, which is a sign that a new wash-cycle should start. Too be honest, in Switzerland most of the wash related activities were done by my wife, but the principle remained the same – reaching the end of the stack means a new cycle is needed.

The problem with the laundry service is that they come by almost everyday. So I wear a t-shirt, put it in the laundry, wear another t-shirt and then the first one comes back all washed and ironed (with coal powered iron irons and therefore smelling slightly like coal smoke), essentially reducing my wash cycle to two or three shirts. The Indian way of washing seems to create more wear to begin with, so a simple fix, taking the shirts from the bottom from the pile was introduced.

Strangely enough this hardly helped. I found myself still wearing the same three, maybe four t-shirts. A little research taught me that my wife was doing some wash-cycle engineering of her own and had been reordering my pile in such a way that the shirts that she deemed ugly would be near the bottom of the pile.

Friday, April 25, 2008

An Old Friend for Questioning

My good friend Hans Peter came visit from the Netherlands. Against all reason he decided he wanted to visit of all places the Andaman Island, so we set off on a journey to these islands barely touched by civilization. It’s a long trip involving changes of planes and a 3 hour boat ride, but I guess that’s what keeps it untouched. Of course Hans-Peter remarked when we finally made it to the palm fringed disturbingly white beaches: ‘well, they don’t have a lot of tourist facilities’.

No matter. If ever the journey was the destination, it was this time. We filled the time with talk, questioned the things we saw and kept our spirits up with the beer we managed to find almost everywhere. Why is it that we know how much crude oil cost, but not how much an acre of land to grow potatoes? What is the beach front premium in India compared to that in Spain? We had a surprisingly fitting theory as to how the world economy worked considering that we were completely sober at the time and a sure-thing plan for a 100 million dollar company.

The one thing we couldn’t crack was waves. If waves are created by wind, which seems reasonable, you’d expect them to go in the wind direction. At sea they seem to do, but when they make it to the beach, they always seem to be rolling on and off the beach. How does the wave know what the orientation of the beach is?

And we missed a lot of transport connections almost, which was all the more exciting since any missed connection would almost certainly mean that we’d miss all other connections too, including HPs flight home. For example, we had one day in Chennai which we decided to fill with a trip to Mamalapuram, for which we arranged for a car. That is, we made a deal with a tout at the airport, whom we presumed to be the driver, but who switched himself at the last minute with a shoeless guy.

The not wearing shoes didn’t turn out to be the worst. He didn’t speak English either, nor Hindi (which wouldn’t have helped much). Moreover he couldn’t drive. On the way there, it was sort of ok, the main challenge was trying to explain where we wanted to stop and where not. The return drive was more of a problem. The traffic was getting busier and we were running out time. Worse, I lost the card where I had written the words ‘go faster’ in Tamil on while swimming.

So we crawled through the evening traffic with rickshaws, motor bikes, cars and busses overtaking us left and right. We could barely keep up with the bicyclists. With slightly less than 25 minutes on the clock we made it to the airport and tried to run in. Not so fast. Indian airports you can only enter with a ticket or a print of your email. We had none. Fortunately they provide for airline offices outside that will make said print (which you then inside can trade for a boarding pass), so we queued impatiently up at the Air Deccan counter. When it was our turn, the guy typed around for a bit and then announced that we were not on the flight.

Not good. We asked him to check under various permutations of names, but nothing helped. We were about to just book a new ticket, when my iphone jumped to the rescue. I quickly opened and the wait started for India’s GPRS to deliver the data. When it finally opened, I could show the guy that we *did* have a reservation. Ha. Only as it turned out not on Air Deccan, but on Indigo, an hour later and which was delayed. So after an apology or two we made our way quickly to the airport bar.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Back in Switzerland

So various people have wondered if I still blog. I do, but more often than not when I don't have access to the Internet and these posts just end up as documents on my computer, waiting for me to post them. I'm going to try to get them out. Some of these posts are somewhat asynchronous, for example this one. We're already back from being back in Switzerland.

And then we’re back in Switzerland. Just for the weekend, but after 5 minutes in our old apartment, it already feels like we never left. Strange how the brain designed to cope with the life of a caveman, is not confused at all about jumping across the planet in airplanes. All the differences between India and Switzerland are nicely summed up when entering the railway station under the airport.

In India there would be hundreds of people battling trying to get to a ticket window and thousands of others just hanging around for no immediately clear reason. We would have no idea which of the 20 windows would be able to sell us the ticket that we wanted, while it would be certain only one would. In order to book a ticket, we’d have to fill in a form, specifying our jobs, our age and the number of the train, which we could find out by first queuing up behind a window marked enquiries. The station would of course be hot, dirty and vaguely smelly.

In the station at Zurich Airport, there were 5 ticket windows, all selling tickets for all destinations in Europe. There was no waiting and no need for forms or train numbers. No crowds at all, the train arrived exactly when it should have, left exactly when it was supposed too. I know it is a cliché to say that Switzerland is clean, efficient and that everything works. But coming back you realize that it is rather true.

After three months in the tropics, I thought I wouldn’t need sunscreen in a meager European spring. One morning of skiing set me straight and left me with a peeling nose and broken lips. And then there is the cheese, the bread, the super fast Internet, the having beer with friends in a normal bar. Life is pretty good, but it lacks the excitement of India with all its colors, odors and above all people everywhere. Yeah, more clichés.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good help is hard to find

Employing people is a fact of live in India for people with a certain income, obviously much more so than for example in Switzerland. Cheap labor does that and even though it might make you feel strange for a bit, it is ultimately good to create jobs, or at least that's what we keep telling ourselves. It is also rather convenient of course.

The colonial feel of it all is not lessened by the Indian tendency not to use euphemisms like staff or cleaning service industry. It's servants and house boys and that's what they call them.

If you have a family, employing 3 or 4 people is quite normal: a cook, a driver, a house boy and a nanny is sort of the starters kit. We are very modest. Google provides us with a pool of drivers to choose from, with 3 meals a day and we don't have children. So a house boy is all that is left. When we talked to the guy that arranges that (there's always a guy), he said we'd have him for 48 hours a week, since that's how it works.

48 hours a week for cleaning really seemed like a lot, considering that all we needed was some cleaning and shopping. The cost of it might have been per month what it costs you in Zurich for an afternoon, but still, you don't want to have somebody sit around in your house all the time doing nothing. So we were happy when we found a co-worker who would share him with us.

Our employee had to think about this one though. Serving two households, that didn't seem right. When he reported back, he said he'd wanted twice the money if he had to work for twice the households. Simple math and he was studying business, so he should know. It took a lot of negotiations to get a more western idea of numbers across, but we're all living happily ever after now.

He cleans, figures out what the other people dropping by are up to and most importantly, makes sure that the fridge is stocked with beer. Now that the temperatures are rising and we're no longer in those wintry high twenties celcius, this is becoming more of requirement.

He also shows how different rickshaw drivers treat foreigners. As noted in a previous post, we have the greatest trouble getting them to switch on the meters and even though the shop isn't far away, I'd be happy if I could get it for 20 rupees. He made it on 8, which is 2 less than the flag fall on the meter. For a return.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Capturing the presidency for the next 12 years

Meanwhile at the other side of the planet the Americans are going through the long process of deciding who will be the most powerful person the next 4 years. I follow this with great interest. Not only is it obviously more important than anything I get to vote for, but it is also with all the warts a relatively open way to pick a leader. In most democracies the two leading parties each nominate one guy and you get to vote between them. In the US arguably this time around there were 5 persons with somewhat of a chance to win.

Of course there are still three left and I am not too unhappy with those three. Clinton, Obama and McCain all look better than any candidate I’ve seen since, well, Clinton. I still have strong preferences, but it is not the usual best of evil kinda situation. For the Democrats it seems this is really the problem. They seem to have great trouble picking the best out of two decent candidates and even run the risk of losing the election this way. As long as they are taking aim at each other, McCain can quietly raise money. So what to do.

Here’s my plan. Bill Clinton already suggested that they should combine and obviously he’s thinking his wife president and Obama vice-president. I’m sure Obama would accept such a deal if the roles were swapped. The solution to that seems simple; they make a pact now that whoever has the most votes at the end of the primary, gets the top spot on the ticket. I have one more suggestion though: add to the deal that in four years time, they’ll rerun with the ticket reversed. So if Obama runs for president now, in four years it will be Clinton with him as vice. And then four years later again, you can switch again.

This way you can’t lose. Both sides have a strong motivation to support the ticket even if their person ends up on the second spot, since is not waiting 8 years and then maybe, but a guarantee for a position 4 years later that is almost impossible to get otherwise. Plus the sniping will stop, which will help both sides. Add up the combined war chests and what’s the Republican Party got to do? If the Democratic Party had played it like this, Al Gore would now be president.

So why 12 and not 16 years? Simple. If you have been president for 8, you can’t be vice president anymore.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Priceless India

India is by all means a lot cheaper than Switzerland. Sure, things in Switzerland are more reliable, cleaner and generally of higher quality, but it doesn’t close the gap. I think the World Bank puts it a factor 4.5 or so and seems about right. It’s 39 rupees to a franc these days, but if you pretend it is 10 to a franc, prices seem somewhat comparable.

India is not always that cheap though. If you are tall and white, prices sometimes change. Major sites are still quite often dually priced. Locals pay 10 rupees, foreigners pay 2 dollars or 100 rupees (which isn’t the same, but those prices believe in the eternal 1 dollar is 50 rupees). And if you think that that isn’t fair since the income gap between the average Indian and the average American isn’t a factor ten, you are right of course. It is way more.

Rickshaw drivers of course have their own multiplier, or really it seems to be a constant. Usually when I ask they say it is 150 rupees, independent on how far it is. Whether this is because they think this is a nice price for a white guy, or whether they usually don’t really understand where I want to go and 150 should get me anywhere isn’t totally clear to me.

Touts, according to Lonely Planet are another factor that drive up prices. They pick you up at the bus stop or train station and guide you to a hotel, seemingly for free and are paid a commission by the hotel for the favor. Sometimes taxi drivers double as touts too and not just for hotels. Tourist shops do this sort of thing too. Often taxi drivers are quite open about it and agree to knock off a little from the price if you visit a shop for 10 minutes. ‘No pressure to buy, just look’

I thought about whether Lonely Planet is right about that this adds to price. I think it depends on the deal the taxi driver has, that is, if the taxi driver gets a fixed amount per visitor he brings, then the price should remain the same. For the shop the money paid to the taxi is ‘sunk-cost.’ Whether I walk in alone or with the taxi doesn’t matter once I am there; the shop wants to maximize their profit in either case so will do the same thing.

If the taxi gets a percentage of the total price, things are different. Now taxi drivers margin is paid out of whatever I pay, so most likely the price will have to go up (if however the shop keeper makes a deal where the taxi driver only gets a percentage of anything I pay over say 100 rupees, the price might actually go down). The lesson is clear: ask the driver what the structure of the deal is before getting in.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Something does beat Cow

Saying the Indian traffic is like advanced rock-paper-scissors like I did in my last post, sounds interesting, but isn’t quite accurate. In rock-paper-scissor like games there is always a circle. You can’t have a cow sitting on top of the pyramid that beats everything. Just bad game design. As a kid a played a lot of stratego, a game totally based on this principle. You have soldiers with different ranks that you can put anywhere on the game board but your opponent can’t see what is what. Then you move them around and the higher rank always beat the lower rank, with the exception that the very highest is beaten by the lowest rank (spy).

This week I saw an incident that made me realize that Indian traffic is exactly like that. There was a cow running away from a … dog. Nobody had told the dog that the cow was holy and both cow and he vaguely realized that the dog descended from a wolf and the cow from, well, another cow.

So the circle is complete after all. Bus beats Car beats Rickshaw beats Bicycle beats Pedestrian. Cow beats all of those and even a Pedestrian will kick a dog. But dog beats cow.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Getting Around

One thing that is definitely harder to do in Hyderabad than in Zurich is getting around. It is not just the difference in size (Hyderabad has more than 15 times as many people), it is also the relatively underdeveloped road system and the chaotic traffic. Getting to the other side of town with somewhat bad traffic can easily take two hours. A 15 minute walk was Zurich usually the worst case scenario.

Then there is the choice of vehicle. Walking is tough. The distances are big, the air is bad and there are usually no sidewalks and little respect for pedestrians. Similar reasons rule out bicycling. There is of course the bus, thought I’ve never tried that. Obvious advantages are that they are dirt cheap and relatively safe.

Indian traffic is a complicated game similar to rock-paper-scissors and while pedestrian beats nothing, bus beats anything except cow. Nothing beats cow. But other than that, you get out of the way when a beaten-up bus zooms in on you, either to safe your new car or safe your life. The drawbacks are that the routes are rather unclear to relative strangers and that they are packed in a way that would make a sardine feel claustrophobic.

Then there is the car-with-driver. Comfortable and fast and knows where you want to go (even if you don’t – drivers know where the good restaurants and tourist attractions are). Drawbacks are the price (if you can’t get your company to chip in) and guilt. Having dinner while your driver waits outside until you are done and he can go home and also have dinner is not always easy on the western soul (though surprising small tips seem to make the situation for both parties rather acceptable).

This leaves the default choice for many: the auto-rickshaw or auto for short (which to me is confusing as auto is short for automobile in Dutch, i.e. means car). They are cheap, fast since they can easily move around things and usually know their way. The drawback is the meter or rather their utter reluctance to use them. If the traffic is heavy, they don’t want to use them because of the heavy traffic, if the traffic is light they don’t want to use them because they won’t get a ride back, if it is after 10PM or before 6AM they don’t want to use them since it is night and from the airport or railway station there is the argument of the parking.

If you look like me they always tell you it is 150 rupees no matter where you want to go (or indeed if they haven’t understood where you want to go). Hard bargaining can actually get you a price similar or even lower than what the meter would give, but then you end up arguing in the hot sun at a rate of a few cents a minute.

Last week we arrived at the airport and due to a miscommunication our driver didn’t show. We decided to take an auto. 290, they said. Fixed price by the government, look at the sign over there. There was a sign and a booth. I am guessing 90 is what the meter would show, so we walked on. Outside they went down to 190 and stuck there. I walked threatening in the direction of the road and they broke. One offered 150 and was immediately shouted at by his colleagues when another one offered to go by the meter. This was unheard off, so we jumped in.

When we were half way, the meter broke. It was a digital one and the lights just went off. So we were back to bargaining and we ended up paying 150 anyway. I am wondering whether this was a scheme: you tell the ignorant tourist you go by the meter, you unplug the meter half way and when you arrive at the destination you tell him, well, it would have been a 150. If so, smartness was rewarded.

Monday, February 4, 2008

15 minutes of fame. Daily

One of the weirdest thing of visiting tourist attractions of India must be the fact that people come up to you all the time to take your picture. Two guys pass buy and ask 'take picture' and you say 'sure', thinking they want you to take a picture with their camera of them with the attraction in the background. But no, what they want is two pictures with you and either friend. I've noticed the same thing in Pakistan but nowhere else.

Yesterday we went to Warangal, a city not too far from Hyderabad and a once capital of a mighty kingdom (which seems to be the case with most towns we visit here and that I hadn't heard of before) with an interesting fort and temple. Our driver also dropped us off at a fort that wasn't in the guidebook build on top of a weird rock and overlooking a nice lake. We walked around for a bit until we were spotted by a school class. It was like Beatlemania all over. Everybody wanted to shake my hand (and know my name & country)

The headmaster succeeded in calming the masses of 14 year old girls and boys and asked us to have a little speech about our countries, why we came to India and how much money we make. The usual things you want to know of people you just met. Tonja rose to the occasion quite nicely and I said also some words, keeping the number a secret though. After that there was more handshaking and boys coming up to me with banknotes and the request for me to sign them with the odd group of girls thrown in giggling at me that I looked very smart.

So what's this all about? I used to think that getting a picture of a Western person with an attraction on it could prove to the people back home that the attraction was really famous all over the planet, but our reception by this school class did go a little beyond that. I still don't understand it really, but now I am guessing that you don't really get to see that many Western people in India. Sure in Hyderabad you do see them occasionally (though they tend to be drowned out by the millions of Indians), but a lot of these Indian tourists (I am guessing) do come from smaller towns where a majority of Indians live.

Why it would be so attractive to take a picture of me still is a puzzle. In Africa if you visit a village where Western people never come, mothers hide their children, which given history seems only sensible. One Indian guy said that I looked like Brad Pitt. I really don't. Maybe this is 'oh they all look the same anyway' with a positive spin?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The End of the World

When I was growing up in the Netherlands, shops would close during weekdays as 6PM, with the sole exception of Thursday night, which was fittingly called Koopavond or Buying-Night. Since both my parents worked, this was really Buying-Night for our family. None of us kids were much interested in grocery shopping (and to be fair, neither was my Dad) so we were usually dropped of at the local library to browse for new books to borrow that week.

Reading the Byte, a leading computer magazine at the time, was one of the highlights for me and I remember reading one time about this crazy idea. Somebody had figured out that you could by changing the master boot record on a floppy disk a kind of a program that would spread itself from floppy to floppy and automatically install itself on any computer that booted from any of those floppies. It was just like a virus, but then for computers. A computer virus, you could call it. An interesting idea and the writer went on to argue that nobody in his right mind would of course write a program like that, so it was mostly a theoretical possibility.

We all know what happened of course. Computer viruses developed into a real menace and the worst thing of it is that not all of them are build to steal your bank account information. That’s pretty bad too, of course, but those viruses have some sort of point. There are lots of them that don’t. Written by bored teenagers or frustrated mid-life crisisers, these viruses just wreak havoc because the author can. Ha, ha, look at that, I just killed a million computers.

Last week a team of scientist announced that they were one step closer to artificial life. When I read that I thought, so this is how the world is going to end. Right now, it takes a crack team and lots of research money to get a little closer to build a bacterium from scratch, but this will change. Progress will makes things easier and cheaper. Rogue regimes might get there hands on biological weapons and probably already have, but I am not too scared about that.

I think the real problem will be the pimpled 17 year old who in 20 years time buys a biology kit that is supposed to be safe and figures out how to build a new virus. He’ll release it just to punish the next door girl for not wanting to date him. And wipes out humanity in the process.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Life is a beach

The first time I was in Goa is now more than 15 years ago. Back then the only Indians you'd see on the beach would be the skinny fisherman bringing in their catch or the waiters serving said catch. A lot has changed. Goa pretty much has been taking over by, well, Indians and skinny they no longer are either.

A big sign over the beach tells us not to litter, smoke or abuse children. This seemed rather scary to me, since I did see a lot of littering and smoking going on. It also warned against drinking and swimming, since 'your loved ones are waiting for you at home.' I guess in India they tend to. Whereas you typical European beach seems to be filled with families and couples carefully carving out a bit of beach using towels or sand, in India the beach goers mostly are made up of groups of young men that just stand around, talking and waving. You don't bring your wife or children.

An Indian friend probably had observed the same thing, because he asked me what Western people did when they went to the beach. It seemed they mostly just laid around. No water sports, not social interaction. Jet-skiing and para-sailing are rather popular activities for the locals here. I suppose partly this has to do with the fact that getting a tan is still part of the reason why people go to the beach in Europe and this is usually not a priority in India (rather the reverse), so standing up makes sense.

And they just like crowds. My Indian friends would dismiss a beach because there was nobody there, while in Europe that would be a good reason to go there. That also probably goes back to whether you see the beach as a group/social activity rather than a family/solitary thing. In Europe dismissing a bar since nobody goes there is perfectly normal.

One thing that hasn't changed is the fact that it is all still pretty cheap. Back then my brother and I lived on 10 dollars a day and got drunk every night. 15 years of that would set you back slightly less than 55 000 dollars. Maybe those hippies were on to something after all.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dirty Country

If cleanliness is next to godliness, then India firmly is on the side of godliness; there are temples, churches and mosques everywhere, but keeping things clean is not the countries forte. Yes, and this might come as a bit of shock to some, Switzerland wins this round. It is not for want of trying; you see armies of cleaners everywhere. The impact often just isn't great.

I realize that keeping things clean the way the Swiss do, is a bit of a luxury. If a significant portion of your population lives at 1 dollar a day, you want to take care of that before removing the last plastic bag from the street. On the other hand there is something to be said for clean water for example; millions of children die each year because of contaminated water. In Zurich the lake is officially clean enough to drink from; In India the tapwater is definitely not.

Two days ago we visited Mamallapuram, a town famous for its 7th century temples and rock carvings. It is a lovely typical travelers town at the beach filled with guesthouses and cheap eateries. 'So this is where all the hippies went, when Goa was taken over by Indian tourists' I was thinking when we entered. But it is also dirty. The beach is full of litter, even though the town has a clear incentive to keep it somewhat clean, given how much they rely on tourism for there income.

Tourism here of course has a second leg in the form of the temples and they are kept clean. In a way. I was waiting for my wife to finish some flower photography before entering one of the temples and had an empty coconut in my had, so I asked the guard where there was a dustbin. He pointed to the inside of the temple, but wouldn't let me in until he had punched my ticket, which he only wanted to do two at a time. I asked him what I should do with my coconut meanwhile then. He took the thing and threw it over the wall build around the temple complex. 'Gone' he remarked.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

There's always a guy

India is a guy country. I don’t necessarily mean the fact that it is very much male oriented. It is, though then again in surprising ways it isn’t. When feminists in Europe were burning their bras, the world largest democracy was run by a woman. We got to talking to a group of Indian women in saris that turned out to be civil engineers building bridges. What I mean is that when you need to arrange something, there is always a guy.

I suppose it explains why relatively few things can be done over the Internet here; you just call your guy and he takes care of things. We wanted to go to Chennai over the weekend and I tried buying tickets online. There is a decent website that kinda slow, but it lets you find trains and make reservations but only if you have a local credit card.

Then I read this Google leaflet for new expats and it mentioned there was a guy you could txt in situation like this. I did and he replied he would arrange for it the next day (it was past 10PM by then). The next day, he gave me a call and said there would be another guy waiting at the parking lot at Google.

I gave this other guy our details and some money and all was arranged. Strangely enough this way we got reservations on a train that the website had said was full. Guy beats web, I suppose

Monday, January 21, 2008

India goes where the EU stumbles

A couple of years ago, the European commission set out to solve the electricity problem in Europe. No, not the generation, transport or associated green house effect issues. They wanted to unify power plugs across Europe. It was felt that the fact that if you unplug your computer in Italy, travel to Germany (or indeed a different part of Italy), it was unacceptable that you wouldn’t be able to plug in again in your new locale.

The European Union has many different power plugs in use, indeed, but since France, Germany and the Low Countries all use the same type of plug, it might seem obvious that if you want to standardize, you might as well go with the on in over half of the union. Not so. See, that would give some an unfair advantage over others, so the commission set out to design a new standard that would be equally bad for all. Luckily people saw that madness of this proposal and it disappeared soon into the drawer where it belonged.

India has similar problems. There are maybe three standards of plugs, but in a center of IT like Hyderabad, the number rises quickly to 5 or 6 if you count the different plugs all those foreigners bring in. So in Hyderabad the sockets just have many, many holes and will fit just about any plug, like a universal power adaptor that you can buy on the airport at excessive prices. It’s brilliant and really the way to go for the European Union. Don’t solve the plugs, solve the sockets. Universal power sockets would allow anybody from any country to plug in in any country.

Now, who again do you call when you want to call Europe?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Flying in India

I went to Bangalore on Wednesday to check out the office there and to chat to a bunch of people. India has a thriving low cost airline industry these days (though they still serve food and drinks and they don’t seem to have a very scary yield management system in place). The one thing that is really different is how the security checks are handled.

Everybody lines up to have their luggage checked, but nobody bothers emptying their pockets of metal objects. You just step through the little port and the beep goes off and then there is a guy who gives you a personal scan. Women are helped by women and men by men, so the whole thing is sex separated, with the lines labeled using the familiar man/woman pictures familiar from toilets.

I of course like a good European did put my wallet, cell phone and all that in my backpack before the scan and was because of this the only person for whom the beep didn’t go off. Not that that mattered, nobody pays attention to whether the metal detector goes off, since it always does and I got the personal treatment anyway.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Non public transport

Every time I arrive in a new city by plane, I wish one of those drivers holding up those signs would be waiting for me. Not that it really matters that much, taking the train from the airport into Zurich Haubtbahnhof is simple enough and just as fast as taking a car, but still. When we arrived in Hyderabad, there was a guy though, organized by Google, which was kinda nice as it turned out that the guesthouse that we were supposed to stay in was locked up and dark and our newly acquired driver somehow knew about another guest house where we could stay. All that was required at the end of the ride was a signature on a rather unclear form, but what the hell.

Traffic in Hyderabad

The next day we woke up rather late with the time difference, the long flight and the not sleeping the day before and all. So we found us a rickshaw and went to check out the old town. It was all very Indian with whole families traveling on motorbikes. Getting back was harder as it turns out that Indian addresses are, well, different. Like a colleague later explained, western addresses are declarative, Indian ones are procedural. They don’t tell you where something is, but rather describe how to get there, something like, the Jubillee Hills, in the area near the new shopping centre, opposite the big sign for Kingfisher, with any of the more common terms removed, which can be rather confusing as opp. McDonalds can mean opposite the McDonalds, but could just as well be talking about a big advertisement for McDonalds.

The next day, getting to the office was even worse. We had the full official address of Google, but this didn’t mean anything to our rickshaw driver (not that it stopped him from taking the ride) or any of the 12 people he asked in between. It is apparently quite acceptable in India to flag down a car to ask if they know where a certain location is, which I suppose further undermines the need for precise addresses.

When we finally got to the office it turned out to be a holiday (festival of letting the kites fly or some such) and there were very few people there. One guy volunteered though that he’d come into the office and show us around and said we could use ‘our car.’ Hmm, our car, we didn’t have a car, we said. He said he’d check on that too. When we got downstairs, the guy that had picked us up initially, apologized profusely about missing us yesterday and this morning. It turned out he was our driver, not just a random cab driver.

Monday, January 14, 2008

On my way

My latest trip to India started out just like first trip to the sub-continent: by pulling an all-nighter cleaning the apartment.

Back then I was a student and wanted to go with my brother to India, overland. Initially we just looked in an atlas and it seemed possible and exciting, so we went to a bookstore and discovered that there were actually people doing this and writing guide books about it. A little publishing house Lonely Planet seemed like it had pretty much cornered that market.

Of course this was in what I am sure they call at the Wheeler’s the good old days when Lonely Planet wrote for people with little money and exotic destinations. ‘Hitching is only for the hardy’ they advised for transport across the Arabian Desert. The grueling 28 hour bus trip to Zahedan in Iran was described as ‘It’s a long and dusty trip, but it puts an awful lot of desert behind you’. Quite.

Anyway, way back then we made a plan and applied for the relevant visa, non of which posed much of a problem except for Iran. It wasn’t that they had special requirements or that it was particularly expensive; it required a return telex from a ministry in Teheran which usually took 3 months. And then the visa would be valid for only one month from the day of issue.

So we waited. And just when we were getting a little nervous, we received a letter in the mail from the Iranian embassy that the visa had been granted and could we drop off our passports. We quickly organized all the other things, booked a bus to Istanbul and set off for the Hague, where were told that yes we had the visa, but the actual stamping of the passport would also take a week.

We changed our bus ticket and a surreal week of waiting followed. We basically spend our time equally between sleeping, watching the tour de france on tv and waiting for the tour de france tv coverage to start. Until the last day when we got the visa and decided to increase our changes of sleeping on the bus by not sleeping the night before, but do some serious cleaning instead.

Last night was the same, except for that now we weren’t afraid of not sleeping on the plane; we just needed to do a whole lot of cleaning.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Year, New Blog, New Plans

My posting frequency has recently almost flat lined; In 2003 I think I had a few weeks where I had a post everyday; Q4 of 2007 saw one post. It will all change now! Of course many blogs have a last post saying something like this; how they haven't posted in a while but that that will be different from now on.

First of all, I changed my blogging platform. My blog has been running on something homegrown from the beginning, but ultimately it just isn't worth writing your own thing, so I switched to They support subdomains, so you hardly see it (blog runs now on I imported the old posts but haven't gotten around importing old comments. Bloggers API is pretty neat, except for the fact that it doesn't support posting more than 50 posts a day, but doesn't report errors.

The other thing is that we're off to India for six months. I'll keep working for Google, but now in Hyderabad. If that change doesn't keep me blogging I don't know, so do check back.