Saturday, March 15, 2008

Religion

It is widely believed that religion has a positive impact on society. Allegedly, people who believe in God behave nicely to each other.
Does it imply that people need somebody to tell them to behave and threaten them (weekly) with Hell?

Number of the day

Since 1999, Chinese imports of soybeans and crude oil grow 35 times. (By The Economist, March 15, p.4. of special report on China's quest for resources).

Corn

UCSD catering is now serving drinks in the plastic cups made from corn. This makes the aluminium cans with sodas the only thing NOT made from corn.

EU and Czech Republic.

IDnes - Czech news website has decided to completely ruin its already poor reputation by publishing this piece called "End of the old times". Author, Petr Kostka, claims to be an economist and seems to aim to join a group of "economists" around Vaclav Klaus (he will appoint couple of Board Members of Czech National Bank, so it's good to be a member of such group) by his article that tries to criticize European Union.
Unfortunately, the author does a very poor job at what he is doing and some of his claims seem to reach level previously rarely found even in the worst articles. For example, he claims that EU resign on military power and that USA, who twice sacrificed millions of its soldiers and citizens may not do so again. (I leave this pearl of wisdom without further comment).
He is weak in other arguments as well. He criticizes strong over-bureaucratic center, which is not unusual (and may be even correct), but does not tell us anything else. He also criticizes that the internal market is not free enough.
It is not clear what Petr Kostka actually wants. Part of the article seems to want EU to do more, some of it want it to go away.
And this is the core of poor Czech criticism in general. We are there, EU is not going away. Plenty of things are wrong (some of them are great), so let's fix them. Occasional proclamations like "too much bureaucracy" without any additional detail certainly won't help.
P.S. Those who know me probably remember the time I was criticizing EU. I still disagree with many things it is doing, yet I have come to accept the good things. Thus, I want to criticize to improve it, not to destroy it. Because that would be the return of old times we certainly don't want to see.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The best sentence of the day

Czech politics edition. A mistress of current prime minister* has some bodyguards and a car with a driver, paid by Czech taxpayers. She does not have a right to have them, so it has a special category. When asked why she has these benefit when she does not deserve them, a boss of security at the Government (Bureau of G?) replied

"Jde o prevenci. Lidé by ji na ulici pořád obtěžovali s různými otázkami," řekl MF DNES ředitel ochranné služby policie Lubomír Kvíčala.


which could probably be translated to
"It's a measure for prevention (precautionary). People would bother her with questions on the streets." told MF DNES a boss ...


Yeah baby, if you are a politician, people might ask you something on the street. Surely this is the reason why we pay a couple of thousand dollars a months to protect you.

P.S. A mistress adds to your political weight in Czech Republic, so at some point, president, prime minister and the boss of main opposition party had one. It did not help much.

Privacy

Daniel Docekal, a Czech IT journalist (of sorts), does not like Google. He also does not like Google and DoubleClick deal, ie., the fact that Google both No.2. firm selling banner to complement its business of contextual ads.
He does like it because the deals might allow Google to be able to "identify" us, to say exactly who we are. Sadly, he does not explain why, except for the fact that when more websites are monitored, more is learned. DoubleClick is too small to make a difference, anyway. But there is a more important question (two of them, actually) which DD does not ask.
First question is what the identity is and how it can Google (or Microsoft, - I believe Google more than Microsoft, but substitute for Google name of any larger IT firm in the following text) learn. In the non-IT sense, identity is simple - it's the proof that you are who you are. I have to do this whenever I need from Czech government and it requires my ID, which was issued by government. It has some information about me and my picture. Such identity does not exists online. For some transactions it could be replace by electronic ID (secret key/token, which allows you to sign documents you intend to send to the government who has the public key), but that's not what the Google is after. They want to know "who you are". It means what you like, where (approximately is enough) you live, how much money you have/earn, what makes you spend them (and when). For meta-analysis, it might be useful to know to what kind of advertisement you react or even know that you don't is useful (special price could be offered to you).
The ultimate goal of all this is to offer you a perfect ads (by Google) and make you pay as much as possible (by producers/sellers). Surprisingly (for some), "as much as possible" may be less than the list (usual) price - if you can't or don't want to buy Porsche at current price, maybe 5% discount will make you change your opinion. If this discount is aimed just at you and it is worth doing for the seller, you purchase the car and both sides are happy. Eventually, very well aimed ads could replace general price discrimination tools (like coupons, annual sales etc.), but that's long future.
Right know, Google wants to know as much as possible to serve you the ad you are most likely to click on. In the near future, Google wants to serve you an ad that will make you do something on the advertised sale (register, compare products, buy them...). He does not need to know who you really are to do that. Your name, precise address, your Social Security Number ("Rodne cislo") and plenty of other characteristics are irrelevant. Most of the characteristics are irrelevant for most of the advertisements, at least for now. But even if all these characteristics (all websites you visited, content of all mails you sent) identifies you as a very specific person, is it a bad thing?
That's the second big question. Should you be afraid? Well, some politicians certainly want you to be afraid (so that they can offer you a great solutions if you just vote for them), but you probably should not. But it depends.
If you read all my email, you can probably easily identify me. If you check all websites I visit, you will have harder job, but you still can do it. But what do you actually learn? My name, school, possibly address, occupation, age, financial status... All these things are on my homepage. You don't need to do a sophisticated analysis. This may be atypical, but plenty of people post many things about themselves on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube or their blog. By reading these sources you can learn more than by checking websites I visited last year.
Still, somebody (something) out there can link your online activities with a real person and thus find out it's hobbies. So what?
I can imagine couple of evil uses of this information if it ever reaches Googles hands or G. turns evil. For example, one could tailor spam using this information (spam seemingly coming from a friend from high school would get more attention). One could launch a real-life scam by using this information to choose you. Somebody might store this information and blackmail you with it later.
All this might happen, but it does not really scare me. I expect people that rarely know me to try to scam me and I don't think one should be any more trusting in real life than online. I don't think I can be successfully blackmailed (surely not now). One certainly get's some exposure that moves him from anonymous person to somewhat know person (like not-well-know politician). But your blog or homepage does much more damage. The information that Google has is mostly useless for anything else than the advertising and it is highly guarded secret. Your blog and Facebook page reveals your tastes, hobbies and friends to everybody.

Intelligence

A friend of mine asked me once whether I consider myself "smart" and I answered "No". She explained to me that it means that I'm very smart. Allegedly, people smarter than average but not really smart consider themselves very smart and are proud of it (why not). Very smart people are aware of the fact that they are smart but also realize that there is a plenty of people much smarter then them.
After that explanation, I'm ready to answer the question about my intelligence by saying something like "yes, but not much". Nobody asks anymore.
I have recently discovered another measure of intelligence. It makes me look smart so why not to write about it. It relates your intelligence with the number of people you know who are so much smarter than you that you hardly understand them.
I did not know anybody like that till I came to San Diego (That's the part that should make me look good). I of course knew plenty of people smarter than me. With those people, however, I was able understand their reasoning, even if I was not able to think that fast or clearly myself.
This is different - you hear someone saying something, it makes perfect sense yet you know that the person means more than you understand. It's a strange feeling. I would like to have an opportunity to see whether I will eventually be able to understand or whether the difference is so big that I have no chance.
P.S. The guy I have in mind is probably the only person who (I think) qualifies or will qualify for a Nobel prize and did not get it yet. He is too young.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

USD/EUR/CZK

When I was leaving Czech Republic, about 6 months ago, you can get a dollar for 21CZK. You need about 16 CZK right now. If I was getting my stipend in Czech Crowns, I would be getting about 25% more dollars. I, of course, am not. Still, it feels like getting a 25% discount.
I still remember that I though that the dollar cannot get any weaker. How wrong I was teaches me that you can't really tell what the markets will do next. Right now, I'm quite certain that the correction has to come.

House of dreams

Many people in Europe dream of living in a house. Most people in the USA do. After living in both worlds for a while, I think I understand why.
In cities in Europe (from which I know mostly Czech Republic, but it is similar elsewhere as far as I can tell from traveling around), there is a plenty of public spaces. The forests and hills in the countryside are mostly open to public (not true in UK, for example) and there is a plenty of historical places to visit.
In Czech Republic in particular, I takes me 20 minutes on bike to get to a forest, where there are no cars, no people and basically no rules (no signs every 20 meters). It takes an hour by train to get basically to anywhere around Prague, with trails for hiking everywhere. There are historical things to see (castles, churches,...), hills to climb, just things to do. If I need to get out of the city, I does not take much effort. Of course, since there is so many of them, the density of people is low. If you have one (Central) Park in the City (there are more, but you get the point), no surprise it is full of people. Since there is so many of them, there does not need to be special rules (more people, more rubish) and some of the people in Europe have to habit to take their trash with them, not to drop on the ground, which limits the need for the rules.
Thus, the need to have your own private place is not nearly as strong. Everybody would prefer to own a house, because you don't need to think about neighbors, it is even closer to the nature, air is cleaner and it is less hot in the summer. But you don't need the house as a place where you spend most of the time because there is nowhere else to go.
In the US, it is rather depressing if you don't have a house. There are no places to go - most places are private, only parks are accessible and there is plenty of people and rules. You want to have your own place without any rules, where you can hang out outside.
Of course, there is more space in the US, which makes it possible for everyone to live in a house, and people are richer so they can afford the house (mostly, of course not in NY). Since so many people are able to afford a house, almost nobody lives in an apartment. In Czech Republic, most people do (about 2/3, if I can remember correctly).
The consequences of this difference are enormous. First, you cannot provide public transportation for low density areas at reasonable costs. Which means everybody needs a car, which means you need plenty of roads. Even poor people need cars because they cannot get to work otherwise.
You need car to visit public offices, to shop even at a grocery store (till I was 25, I never went to a grocery store by car and I was shopping for my family till I was in fifth grade). Car is a luxury in Czech Republic, used over the weekends to get out of the city. It is a pure necessity in California.
Low population density makes other things more expensive and harder to do - elections, services (like cable TV, internet connection, garbage collection and recycling), mobile phones. It makes it much harder for police and firedepartment to cover large areas.

After this experience, I will still dream about my house. But I know that the fact that I (and the rest of the citizens of Czech Republic) spend 2/3 of our lives in apartments is not such a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why CEOs are paid so much?

This question comes back every now and then and there does not seem to be an easy answer. The ratio of CEOs pay to workers wages is increasing (this guy is not probably trustworthy, but claims it grown 12 times over the last couple of decades), one might say escalating.
Presumably, this should be bad, but I don't really see why. Anyway, there IS a simple explanation:
Now, more than anytime in the history of the world, there is both plenty of capital and unskilled labor force. There is probably also plenty of skilled labor force. What is scarce is the ability to manage this resources effectively.
Maybe there are some obstacles in entry (education, manners, persistence, pragmatism are obvious candidates), but I'm more and more convinced that most people are simply bad at management.
That's why Scott Adams has such an easy life making jokes of the managers - most of them are indeed bad, but there is nobody better!
So if you think you've got the potential, go for it. The rewards are unlimited.

Public transportation

I have already written about public transportation in San Diego. It is pretty depressing reading and today's trip to get a drive license documents it well.
First, the line has changed, so it does not stop where it did before, but nobody bothered to cover the number on the bus stop, and nobody told Google. After finding the right stop, it took me about 20 minutes of waiting for a bus with 15 minutes intervals. On my way back, it actually took 30 minutes of waiting. Then two of them came. Both were unsurprisingly empty.
The drivers in general (and this one in particular) cannot drive. That's an interesting (side?) effect of a regulation. If you want to get a permit to drive a bus in Czech Republic, you need to drive a large truck (lorry) for a couple of years. Not so in the California. Anybody can get a license pretty easily and it is not unusual to see students driving (UCSD) school buses. The outcome is tragic. Moreover, the buses are probably not well suited for local roads and they have to fulfill rather strict conditions, which is good because they don't smell, but it is also bad because they are terribly noisy.
But that's still not the worst. The biggest problem is that there is very few lines and intervals are long, so traveling anywhere is a hassle. Thus, nobody rides a bus. Thus, it does not make sense to have buses (or PT in general).
I was wondering whether there is a way out of this vicious circle (no) and what is its cause. The cause is surprisingly simple - low population density.
Even in a largish city like San Diego, there are virtually no apartment buildings as we know them from Europe. Everybody (except students and tourists) lives in a house. It does not matter how small and badly build is the house, how small is the parcel (1m stI have already written about public transportation in San Diego. It is pretty depressing reading and today's trip to get a drive license documents it well.
First, the line has changed, so it does not stop where it did before, but nobody bothered to cover the number on the bus stop, and nobody told Google. After finding the right stop, it took me about 20 minutes of waiting for a bus with 15 minutes intervals.
The drivers in general (and this one in particular) cannot drive. That's an interesting (side?) effect of a regulation. If you want to get a permit to drive a bus in Czech Republic, you need to drive a large truck (lorry)ripe around the house is ok).
I will explain in later posts why I think this is so. The point is that in low density area it is extremely (prohibitively) expensive to have a reliable public transportation. And that's why there won't be any in California. (Yes, even LA looks like houses randomly placed between highways).

It's coming

And it looks big: Merrill Lynch: Recession to Be Worst Since 1970s.

So, are you ready?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sinful behavior

I'm happy to announce that there are seven more deadly sins. It makes a nice comparison to the "old" seven deadly sins.
I'm fascinated by religion in general - it's very well thought-through mechanism how to achieve and sustain control over large mass of people(who may even be smart) and how to keep the previous fact (reasonably) secret.
Occasionally, however, the pope (yeah, the guy from Hitlerjugend and former inquisition) or his subordinates, slip and do something and reveal their true intentions. They have a huge team of people who make sure that this does not happen too often or too visibly, but it does happen.
Like in this case - birth control is bad, so girls, you better risk pregnancy (that may ruin your life) or sickness (that may kill you) that a deadly sin by using - oh G., a thin layer of rubber. Or even worse, you scientists, don't you dare using a tissue from adults (not sperms, not eggs) to treat blindness, Alzheimer, heart diseases etc. What would the religion be good for if you eventually treated all of them?!
This is probably more sinful than anything in this post yet (even though I think free speech is on their secret list at the top, too), but I cannot resist: I don't believe there is a God, but I hope there is one and that we will have a long, entertaining talk (hopefully after I die) what is this (bible, Jesus, Pope) all about. I think we both could learn something new.
P.S. It turns out that the "news" were somewhat distorted. My apologizes.

Surprise

There are people who are in it for a big surprise ( Story in Czech only). I'm wondering which ones.

P.S.My posts sometimes don't make sense intentionally. However, chances are they will, eventually.

What's wrong with these people?

There is an interesting story going on here (in NY, to be precise), where a long-time fighter against prostitution was proved (and he eventually admitted) to have a sex with a prostitute. (See summary and a nice comment here.)
Of course, this starts the (usual) debate whether the prostitution should be illegal (it is in the USA) and whether it is a private matter of a politician who fights against it (not).
What is much more fascinating to me is the need to use a prostitute in the first place. He has a wife, he is not eighteen (or twenty something), he could probably get a date or something, so why does he need to pay couple of thousand dollars for a girl, several times?
I could understand him watching porn (that's legal anyway), or have an extra-marital affair. But I don't understand getting a prostitute - the gap between these things seems so huge to me.

Love

When the cat creeps into the basket with your dirty cloth, lies down comfortably and begins to pour loudly, you know you are being loved.