Douwe Osinga's Blog: January 2008

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.