Thursday, February 26, 2015

Uber in Bucharest

I saw it all over the news yesterday: Uber launched its service in Bucharest. People are debating now if this is a good choice or not, so here is what information I found so far from a client's perspective.

Good points:
- Uber drivers are required to have a clean judiciary history and clean traffic violations history; cars should be newer than 10 years and insured; 
- from the application you can see the driver's photo, his rating and the registration number of the car;
- once you set your start point and the end point you get an estimated fee for the trip you plan to do;
- the payment is done automatically from your card and you don't ever tip the driver;
- you can rate the drivers, but the driver can rate you too, so behave :)

Questionable points:
- I would have liked Uber to ask also for the maintenance records of the car; you may have a newer car, but if you never check your brakes... This may be an issue in Romania where I still see many cars on the street which do not look well maintained; I think regular taxi drivers are required by law to check their car every 6 months, so even if they skip some tests the basic systems of the car should be in reasonable state;
- you have to put all your card details in the application (including CVV2 code) and they store in their database; this leaves you exposed in case their database is ever hacked; somebody mentioned that card companies say it is forbidden for a trader to store the CVV2 code of your card;
- I'm not sure what happens if you are stuck in traffic, do they have a waiting fee like regular taxis?
- can you change the route from the one computed by the application? for example if you know a less congested one;
- I understand Uber takes a cut from the fee (5%-20%); do they pay taxes in Romania for their profits? do the drivers pay taxes for the money they make? If the drivers have to file by themselves a form to the tax authorities to declare this income I'm sure nobody will ever pay taxes on the money they get;
- the minimum fee is 6 RON and if you cancel an order before getting into the car you will still pay the minimum fee;
 - for now the reported fees are slightly bigger then the ones of regular taxis, but the price may decrease as more drivers join the system; and supposedly you get a better service;

Two more issues you have to pay attention to: if there are big events like soccer games or rock concerts the fees will probably increase because Uber has an algoritm which automatically increases the fee if the demand is high in a particular area like in this case. Make sure you put the correct destination address; if you put another city by mistake you may end up with a $900 bill like in this case.

Overall I think the idea of the Uber service is good, but let's see how the execution looks like. I don't like that the number of taxi licenses are limited by the local authorities, this interferes with the free market for no good reason. But some regulation is needed in this area in order to make people feel safe when they take a ride in the city.

Update: I found out that they also have a waiting fee, similar to the one that taxis have;

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bring Them Down

"Pune-i la pamant" (Bring Them Down) is a song by La Familia (The Family - a Romanian hip-hop band) which was released in 2005, the same year when the DNA (National Anti-corruption Directorate) was created by Monica Macovei and Daniel Morar was named the chief of this agency. They immediately started investigating important corruption cases (not small fishes like the former anti-corruption agency used to do). I remember listening to this song in my car, together with the news of corruption investigations by DNA. I was wondering at that time if they would manage to finalize those cases and get some big fishes in jail. Ten years after it turns out they just did that big time: 13 former ministers (including one former prime-minister), countless members of the parliament, mayors (from all political parties), judges, prosecutors, police and army officers, university professors, physicians, media moguls, soccer referees and business men that got rich from deals with the government, all of them convicted for corruption and serving time in jail. Probably they didn't totally destroy the "mafia" system that took over Romania after the fall of communism, but DNA (one of the most trusted institutions in Romania today) scared them badly for sure. And they will continue to do so for the next years as they now target also confiscating the wealth that cannot be proven to come from licit activities. So, let's listen this song again, from a new perspective :)

UPDATE: two articles appeared in the international press today covering the activity of National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) from Romania. Here is the one on BBC and here the one on The Economist. I'm not sure if they read this post before, I don't see any reference to hip-hop there :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What If Schrödinger's Cat Meows?

While playing with my cat last night it hit me this question: what would happen if the cat in Schrödinger's thought experiment was meowing? You would know if the cat is dead or alive because the meowing would stop. Or maybe you will be in the same superposition with the cat inside the box and you will both hear the meowing and not hear it. Well, technically hearing the meowing is observing that system, so the assumptions of the experiment are not met. But the real question is how well can you isolate such a complex system (you know that cats are complex animals, they can love and hate you :)) from the environment in order to do such an experiment like the one Schrödinger proposed? I googled this and I found a similar question on a physics forum here. It turns out that if a system interacts with its environment (and we are talking not only about meowing, think about gravity influences as the weight of a cat is significant by quantum mechanics standards) then the quantum superposition collapses to only one of the possible options (the term used in physics is quantum decoherence) and you don't have that limbo of a cat that is both dead and alive anymore.
This is the nice part of thought experiments: you don't need to hurt anybody, you just need to think really hard a and you will eventually find your answer :)

P.S. I have to remember to write on how I found out that communism is bullshit via a thought experiment years ago. Remember how many lives were destroyed for this idea, only to learn it the hard way that communism is crap. And some still believe in it...

Friday, January 30, 2015

Global Warming and the One Percent Doctrine

You know how the weather goes: sometimes is sunny, sometimes it rains and sometimes you have extreme weather like heat waves or snow storms. What puzzles me is that even educated people (who understand what statistics means) keep saying that global warming is a hoax and they give as examples a cold snap or a rainy week in Bucharest. Well, a few days ago NASA published their annual report about global temperatures which states that 2014 was the warmest year on record.
In the book I read recently "That Used to Be U.S." (see my earlier post) the author talks about the 1% doctrine elaborated by Dick Cheney, the former vice-president of the United States. This was in the context of preventing terrorist activities in the aftermath of 9/11 and is sounds like this: "Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It's not about 'our analysis,' as Cheney said. It's about 'our response.' … Justified or not, fact-based or not, 'our response' is what matters. As to 'evidence,' the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn't apply."
It is debatable if this is a reasonable way to act when arresting or killing people, but the analogy that Thomas Friedman makes is that we should apply this doctrine when dealing with global warming and climate change: if there is even a 1% probability that climate change will drastically affect our life and society then we should act as if this is a certainty. This is what all naysayers on this subject should understand. This will make much easier our collective action.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

That Used to Be U.S.

"That Used to Be U.S." (or us, as the authors mean it both ways) is a sobering chronicle of the state of the union. But the issues they describe in this book equally apply to any country in fact. In order to be successful nowadays a country needs to have a good education system, to keep the talented people around, to have a functional political system and leaders which are interested in the common good and not in special interests. And the leaders of a country have thorny issues to tackle these days: from budget deficits (which in fact means borrowing money today which will be paid back by our children) to energy issues and environmental issues like pollution and global warming. The book is well documented and has a first part where the authors diagnose the current American society and a second part where they give their opinions and some ideas about how to fix these issues.
So if you care about what happens in the world around you, go ahead and read this book on the American use case.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Imitation Game

I first heard about Alan Turing in my second year of college when I studied the Turing machine, a computational model invented by him. We also studied 4 other computational models developed independently by other people (for example λ-calculus), but it turns out all of them are equivalent. Turing machines are widely used for different proofs because this model has the most intuitive definition. It's amazing when you realize that every computer that we use nowadays it's in fact a Turing machine (well, apart from quantum computers which are a different beast, but are still quite far from doing significant work). Besides the theoretical work that he did in computer science, Turing contributed a great deal to the war effort in the Second World War by building a machine which broke the Enigma code used by Germans to encript their communication. This helped the allies to find many of their secrets from movement of troops or the routes attacked by U-boats. "The Imitation Game" tells the story of Turing and his team of cryptographers. I didn't see the movie yet, but I saw it has good reviews and I recognized in the trailer some actors I like: Sherlock and the new prosecutor from The Good Wife. Not to mention Keira :)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why me?

De ce eu? (Why me?) is a movie based on a real story from 14 years ago. A young prosecutor dares to investigate a judge and a member of the Parliament and he is pushed to suicide by the pressure of his boss and peers. That was the state of the judicial system in Romania at that time. But in the last 10 years it changed a lot: hundreds of members of the "system" (a former prime minister, members of the parliament, judges and other prosecutors, police officers, army officers) were prosecuted and convicted for corruption. The impunity of the ruling class is over and this is just the beginning. I hope that in the next years the level of corruption will continue to decrease in Romania to the benefit of all people. That's what I voted for in 2004, 2009 and 2014: not economic or social policies were my main concern, but the rule of law and the fight against corruption.
The movie will be in cinemas in a few months, but you can see the trailer below: