Saturday, December 29, 2007

Google and Microsoft

Some people say that Google is the new Microsoft. They usual do not compliment the business success or benefits to the users, but they mean a new, big monopoly, that will, to put it economically, extract the surplus from you as much as possible.
Google is indeed successful. Google dominates market for search, text ads, has a strong position in mail. Google offers wide range (and fast growing) of services ( list here, just take a look, you would be surprised how many. And Google enters the Instant Messaging market (GTalk), Phones ( Android) etc.
Most of these service benefit experience users, but their simplicity and well-thought design makes them attractive for low-end consumers, too. For example, Wal-Mart is selling $200 PC with Linux preloaded with many Google applications (like Google Documents instead of Microsoft Office suit etc.), and has a big success with it.
As we all know, you cannot please everybody, so some people are scared and are getting angry. Google has access to so much information about you, is becoming so strong and big that it is not hard to imagine it will become (almost) a monopoly, like Microsoft. And such monopolies are not good for consumers (nor even for security, as everybody without firewall, antivirus, anti-spyware and malware running Windows can probably testify).
Having such monopoly in information services would probably be disastrous, right?
No, not really. The reason why Microsoft is a problematic monopoly while Google is not is in the "networking" properties (in economic sense) of their services. Microsoft is building things that you want to use because others are using them. You cannot switch because your documents will not be accessible to others, you could not download as many programs as there are for Windows (who would write them for operating systems nobody is using, right). With Google, this is not true. Not only most services do not have network benefits (like Gmail - you can read your emails anywhere you want, even if I send them from Gmail; you can search with Yahoo and I can search with Google and there is no big problem for either of us because of that), but they are designed to be open. For example, Google Documents allow you to export your documents to wide range of formats so that they are accessible for you colleagues. That is something Microsoft was never serious about.
OK, it is possible that Google is doing the second part (openness) only to enter the market and will stop when it has its monopoly positions. Maybe. But the first part will be still true. I can use any Google services I want and you do not benefit (nor you are harmed) by using other services. Moreover, it is very easy to switch - the only thing it requires is for you to learn some new things (shortcuts, commands etc.) It does not require you to convince your boss that Microsoft Word is really not a good format for in-firm documents.
Therefore, I'm not particularly concerned about Google. Moreover, the part when Google would be fighting with Microsoft over the world dominance would be long (they both had cash to burn) and fun (for the consumers).

GM food and EU

Genetically modified plants are highly regulated. They are tested in a very, very thorough way. They are often beneficial. For example BT corn has a gene that allows it to generate toxin that prevents some pests to eat it ( NY Times ). Thus, there is no need to use pesticides to kill these pests. This saves other plants and beneficial insects, bees and what not.
Even though there is some theoretical danger that the special gene will "transfer" to other plants and thus create a nasty pesticide-producing (or pesticide-resistant) plants, no such even was ever recorded. Laboratory testing shows that such events are possible, but very unlikely. I also do not think that such transfer would be a disaster, even though it is not something you would like to see.
Precautionary arguments were used to forbid planting genetically modified plants. The citizens of the EU are being scared by GreenPeace and other organizations painting GMO as the biggest threat every (even more dangerous than nuclear plants, imagine!).
Because of the enormous benefits that genetic modification offers to the farmers and eventually to the consumers, the EU is probably the last place on earth where GMO are not being grown.
Of course, no "disaster" caused by GMO ever happened and it seems that the level of testing and principles of the technology are such that nothing will ever happen. The fears of the EU seem stupid, and possibly economically disastrous in the future.
Yet, I have a strange feeling when I think about the "prohibition" being abolished in the EU. You never know, something may happen (it is after all cutting edge of the technology), we do not understand everything. It is not a bad idea to have place when you do not grow GMO just in case something goes terribly wrong. Unfortunately, such precaution comes with a very price (taxes on agricultural imports and subsidies for farmers). Given that nobody really knows what the dangers are and what is the price we pay (the latter probably easier to estimate than the former), it is not clear what the policy decision should be.
[As far as I understand the technology, the best combination for us would be to allow imports of GMO products but not to grow them here. If we do not import seeds, we should be safe.]

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Obviously, the future is closer than I thought. I'm not sure whether I want to go with the flow or try to resist it and end up like some of these loser in the science fiction stories...

PF 2008 from San Diego

Posted by Picasa

Monday, December 24, 2007

Ivy league

The schools in Ivory league (and a few more) are successful school. Not necessarily in the education they provide, but in getting money from their students and graduates. They are actually so successful that some of them have endowment exceeding $1,000,000 per current students.
I never quite understood why they hoard such huge amounts of money (Harvard has about $35 billion) instead of spending them*.
BTW: the endowments and profits of (non-profit) schools are untaxed. It is not really surprising that some people want to take such advantage away from them. And so they should.

* My Fulbright application to spend a year at Harvard was rejected despite the (promised) fee $8,000 to the school, invitation letter and basically minimal burden I would be (no, you do NOT get an office when visiting Harvard. You get a chair in the library). Instead, I went to UCSD, for free and met much friendlier (and better, as far as I can tell NOW) faculty. The reason for me not going to Harvard was a fight between faculty and department of economics about space, reconstruction (and who knows what else) which lead the DoE to reject visiting students as much as possible (exchange programs between Ivory league schools had to keep going, otherwise H. students might have trouble to be visiting elsewhere). There seems to be something rotten in the kingdom of Harvard...

Christmas abroad

These are my first Christmas I'm not spending in Czech Republic. I don't miss the people in the supermarkets, buying presents, fried carp or bad weather. I enjoy beautiful weather (though it is cold during night). I can finally relax, just with a book, something good to eat and enjoy UPS truck passing our window, driven probably by Santa Claus, because they deliver presents.
I'm not shopping for any presents - yeah, not even for you :-) However, I bought myself a present I was dreaming about during my childhood. It's a ham on a bone - yes, the one from movies. It exactly like in the movies - small white bone inside huge amount of red meat.It is not salty and as good as it looks. It is also surprisingly cheap - about $1.2 per pound, which is about 50CZK per kg.

Designing an information system

[This is not a San Diego related post, even though I was inspired by the comparison of information systems at UCSD, CERGE-EI, and MUNI.]

Governments collect information about everything they can. You have no way to know what they have about it in their databases. Moreover, they sometimes loose some of this information.
The trouble with a loss of information in the USA (or West in general) is bigger than in Czech Republic, because what you need in the US to do things is just the information, but in the Czech Republic, you need papers.
Yet, it is clear that the future is in the databases. Government need and (unfortunately) will need information, it is easy to get and cheap to store... The question is how to manage it so that the people do not object too much. The design of such governmental information is an interesting, though purely hypothetical question, for now.
One has to consider how information is generated, how it is stored and how is it accessed (by whom etc.)
Such system would contain basically the same information that governments already collect
1. Name, birth, info about parents and children, address
2. Driving license, car, insurance...
3. Property (houses, land,...)
4. As a plug in, one might have access to information about health insurance and expenses
5. Social security (benefits), pension.
6. Taxes,
7. Personal ID and passport renewal
8. Education achieved
9. Criminal record

The best selling point of such database would be (online) access to such information. Not only each citizen could access and verify such information, but it is very easy to get rid of most stamps and bureaucracy. Any "official" transcript could be easily printed (with some ID code that would allow verification).

Making such system secure would not be easy. I would like to see password (changing portion of it would be required during login), finger print or iris scan, which would authenticate user against the system.

From the governmental perspective, users should have access using separate (dedicated) network (i.e. not from computers on internet), physically only from their offices. Each officer would have access only to a portion of information relevant for his job. Each access would be logged and will be accessible to the person in question.

[Many small things would need to be done about security...]

Even though such system would simplify access to governmental service, it will take a long time before it could be the only access. Thus, people still would need to able to have physical access. Yet, I would be great to have such system. And it would be fun to develop details of such system...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Magic pill

Finally, there is a FDA-approved weight loss pill. It has one small glitch that make it VERY effective indeed. The pill works by blocking absorption of fat in your intestine. The glitch? The lower part of your intestine does not expect the fat to come, because it should have been absorbed in the upper part. This has seemingly unpleasant effects like "oily gas" and "uncontrollable oily discharge" which is exactly as bad as it sounds.
This makes the pill the ultimate treatment: to suppress the negative effects which follow the blocking fat, you need to stop eating fat.Thus, you will loose weight. Problem solved. In fact, at the end, you do not even need the pill! Just stop eating that fat!

Wow, I wish I figured that out first... Unfortunately, the idea that not eating fat helps is, as experience showed, ridiculous. The fat is substituted with corn syrup and starch, which add calories. But hey, it is fat FREE!