Life in Vragender in 1949

Only two decades earlier

My life has always been comfortable. We had a car and television. There was central heating. But it hasn’t always been like that. The childhood lives of my parents was very different. It was the life most people led for centuries. They grew most of their food themselves. The winters were cold. There was only one stove. They had no electricity, telephone, car, radio or television at first. Water they took from a pump. My grantparents were small farmers.

And that was only two decades earlier. There already was electricity in the cities, and in many villages too. But my parents lived in an area called Achterhoek, which translates to Rear Corner. And they didn’t live in a city, not even a village, but on remote farms. Remote in the Netherlands means that the nearest village is a few kilometres away. And a remote farm in Rear Corner was as remote as it could get in the Netherlands.

What a difference a few decades make. My son grew up with computers, Internet and smartphones. Compared to the dramatic changes my father and mother have witnessed, the changes that came later were rather insignificant. My father likes to talk about the old times. Before he went to school he had to milk the cows. There were lots of chores to do. My mother’s childhood had been like that too but she rarely talked about it. My mother’s family was quiet and reticent while my father’s family was noisy and outgoing.

My mother had three sisters and three brothers. My father had two brothers and two sisters. Both lived on a small farm. My father’s parents grew a few crops. They had a horse, a few cows, some pigs, and chicken. Neighbours were very important. If a farmer fell ill, the neighbours would step in and run the farm as long as needed. After the war my grandfather erected a windmill with batteries. They were one of the first in the area to have electric lights. Electricity from the grid came in 1952.

Then a local shop owner came by and showed them a radio, my father recalled. My grandfather didn’t want to spend money on a luxury item so the shop owner said he could try the radio a month for free. After a month my grandmother and my aunt had discovered a great radio show and wanted to keep it. And so my grandfather was pressed into buying a radio. In the same fashion a television set came in a decade later.

My father recalled when he saw a car for the first time. He was biking with his father. He said: “When I grow up I want to have a car too.” My grandfather then tried to teach him some realism: “You will never own a car. Only the physician, the notary and the mayor have cars.”

By the end of the 1960s the Netherlands had become wealthy. I was born in 1968 and have never known poverty. It may be easy to forget that most people in history have been poor and that many people today still are. But for me that was not so easy. An important lesson my parents taught me was that our comfortable lives come from hard work and that we shouldn’t take it for granted. My father worked long hours as a manager of a road construction company. “To give us a good life,” he said.

He is an outdoors man, a hunter, and well aware of what happens in nature, for instance the struggle for survival in the animal kingdom. Most people nowadays go to the supermarket to buy their food. At best they have a vague notion about farmers, crops and livestock. He grew up on a farm so it is hard for him to accept that city people take the living conditions farm animals seriously. “They know nothing about farm life or nature,” he says. And he balks at the idea of artificial meat.

My father is politically conservative, but he is also innovation-minded and very interested in improving things. He was keen on learning the newest management techniques from Japan about giving people on the workplace more responsibility to manage their own affairs. When the first home computers became available, he bought one for me. “Computers will be the future and you must learn about them,” he said to me. That was in 1984.

The lives of people completely changed in a few decades. It is happening everywhere. Millions of people in China can tell similar stories. In the past people worked with their hands and used their own judgement. Now we sit behind screens and watch graphs and check parameters. And perhaps our lives will be quite different a few decades from now.

But poverty is still on our doorsteps. We are running out of resources and pollution is running out of control. If societies break down, we will not gracefully return to subsistence farming. Many of us will starve. Most people live in cities nowadays and do not have the skills to survive. But perhaps we can fundamentally change our lifestyles in two decades. It has been done in the past.

Featured image: Picture from Vragender where my father came from (1949). http://www.oudvragender.nl.

Clutching at a straw

When I was eighteen years or so I once read The Limits of Growth. That’s depressing stuff, most notably if you’re young and expect to live for another sixty years or so. Doom seemed imminent and I would probably live to see it happen. That was the moment when my views about the future turned grim. Before that I hardly had views about the future at all. A few years later I became an environmentalist and a member of Friends of the Earth in Groningen. Friends of the Earth does research and tries to convince people that they should change their lifestyles. Friends of the Earth also lobbies with politicians and pressures corporations. And sometimes we protested.

One day we blocked the entrance of Groningen Airport to protest against the government subsidies for the airport. The city council felt that Groningen needed an airport but Groningen wasn’t big enough to make it profitable. When we were sitting there, the police came to remove us, and it suddenly became clear to me that activism didn’t help. Politicians will be voted out of office when they are serious about solutions. Businesses will go bankrupt if they take appropriate action unless all other businesses do the same. The required measures are extremely costly and will affect our lifestyles so profoundly that it would never happen in the current political and economic system.

Once being over a cliff, a cartoon character can only clutch at a straw. And only in cartoons the straw might hold. Friends of the Earth in Groningen worked together with the Strohalm Foundation. The meaning of the Dutch word strohalm is straw. According to Strohalm, the economy must grow because of interest, and that’s destroying the planet. It is ‘grow-or-die’ because interest rates need to be positive. Any solution begins with ending interest, they believed, and interest causes a lot of other problems too, like poverty and financial instability. Strohalm’s idea was banning interest and charging a fee on money as Silvio Gesell had proposed, so that it would be attractive to lend out money without interest.

Economists didn’t take interest-free money seriously. If you can receive interest elsewhere then why would you lend out money without interest? And if you can borrow money at an interest rate of zero, you would borrow as much as you can and put it in a bank account at interest. Therefore, interest-free money with a holding tax would never work, at least so it seemed, and it didn’t take long before I realised that too. Only, that wasn’t satisfactory. Accepting doom is like committing suicide. If interest is the root of many social and environmental problems, and may destroy human civilisation, you can’t ignore that. And perhaps it could work. During the Great Depression it had been tried in a small Austrian village and it was a stunning success.

For years I used public transport as much as possible, but at some point I began to realise that it was all pointless. More and more people started driving SUV’s. They didn’t care. It didn’t matter what I do. A car can make your life more comfortable and I had no higher morals than other people.

A few years later, in 1998, I became a freelance IT specialist. I made a lot of money so I had money to invest. My first investments were small and not very successful. That was because I believed that the profits of corporations matter. But investments in loss-making internet startups did very well while profitable corporations did poorly. And so I came to believe that I had to stay informed about the developments in the financial markets. In 2000 I joined the investment message board Iex.nl.

On the message board was a day trader who shared all kinds of conspiracy theories with us. For instance, if the markets were about to collapse, a secret group called Plunge Protection Team would come to the rescue. He was ridiculed, but after the internet bubble popped, markets often miraculously recovered when they were about to crash.

And gold often crashed because of sudden selling. The day trader believed central banks wanted to keep confidence in their currencies. If the gold price were to rise, he claimed, people would lose trust in central bank currencies. This was new to me, and probably it wasn’t true, but I already had bought some gold because I didn’t trust financial markets and the people operating them. I was not good picking stocks, and I was too risk averse to be very successful in the stock market, but the gold turned out to be a good investment as I held on to it for decades.

In 2001 after the Internet bubble had popped I pitched the idea of interest-free money on the message board. My lack of knowledge was eclipsed by my zeal and lengthy discussions followed. On the Internet people from different backgrounds and different knowledge can be in one virtual room and participate in a discussion. I was rebutted time after time, but as these discussions went on, my knowledge of the financial system increased and I became aware of the issues that had to be resolved in order to make interest-free money work.

As a gold investor I became familiar with the Austrian School of Economics. This group questions money creation by banks and the need for central banks. They pointed at the inflation caused by money creation and central banks. At some point all the debt banks create would eventually collapse the financial system and money would be worthless, they believed.

And so two opposing fringe ideas, interest-free money with a holding tax and Austrian School, were challenging each other in my mind, which may be how Hegelian dialectic is supposed to work. In 2008 this resulted in a resolution and the idea of Natural Money was born. The economy can do better without interest so returns for investors can be higher. As positive interest rates are not allowed, the money may rise in value, so that interest-free money can give better returns. Hence, interest-free money was possible, perhaps even inevitable. In the following decade I integrated modern main stream economics into the theory of Natural Money. This research can be found on the website Naturalmoney.org.

Featured image: Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Warner Bros. [copyright info]

Jokers on Files.

Joking jokers

After working for Cap Gemini I became a freelance IT specialist in 1997. In 2002 there weren’t any freelance jobs available so I started as a database administrator at a government agency near home. Most people in the Netherlands know about the agency because it processes traffic fines for the police. It didn’t take long before I was tested. Already on the second day one of the main systems crashed, leaving a corrupt database. After two days of research I didn’t find the exact cause but it probably was a bug in the Oracle software so I advised to upgrade the database software.

Instead management declared it a crisis and to set up a multi-disciplinary task force to deal with it. They decided that the cause of the crash should be found. Every day at 10 AM there was a meeting to discuss the state of affairs. Every day I proposed to upgrade the database software. And every day the proposal was brushed aside. After two weeks the cause had yet to be found. Managers were getting desperate. Finally they were willing to consider my suggestion. And it solved the problem.

It was not possible track what access rights were granted and to whom. At the time it was an urgent issue and nobody was taking action. In 2004 I built an account administration system named DBB that automated granting and revoking access rights for all the main systems based on job roles. Nobody ordered me to do this but there was a business need. Nevertheless DBB faced stiff opposition and red tape. In 2005 it was introduced in a sneaky way with the help of the people who were responsible for granting access rights.

The logo of DBB was a drawing made by my wife Ingrid. It features jokers grinning at a set of file folders symbolising bureaucracy. Bureaucrats considered it a rogue system. For more than ten years they were busy scheming and devising plans to replace DBB. Two projects were started to this aim. The first one was halted prematurely because the complexity of the matter had been underestimated. In 2016 a new project team realised that it was pointless to replace DBB as it was doing a good job and was costly to replace. After eleven years the main systems of 2005 had were of age and were expected tp be decommissioned within a few years, so that DBB could retired together with those systems. Indeed DBB made a joke out of bureaucracy so the logo had been apt.

But DBB was also joking me in a rather peculiar way. In June 2010 someone requested me to drop a user. This was an unusual request as normally DBB took care of that. In fact, this hadn’t happened for several years. The username I had to drop was ELVELVEN. If you read that aloud, you say eleven elevens in Dutch, a reference to the 11:11 time-prompt phenomenon. Usernames were made up of the first one or two characters of the employee’s first name followed by the last name in full. To me 11:11 signals a combination of two related unlikely events that are related. And indeed, the joke had a part two, and it was even more peculiar.

In 2014, when I was testing an improvement to DBB, a test signalled that an illegal account had sneaked into our systems. The username was the first character of the first name followed by the last name of the lady of the dormitory. If she had been employed with us, this would have been her username. And her name isn’t common like Jane Doe so this is peculiar, even more so because it was the only username that popped up. It turned out that a guy with the same last name as hers had been employed with us. He had the same first initial. The account wasn’t illegal. I had mixed data from two different dates for the test, which made it appear that way.

In 2005 my manager promised me a promotion. He believed there should be a senior rank for experienced database administrators. He noticed that I had managed to introduce the account administration system DBB. “You have vision and you make things happen despite the opposition,” he said and added that he believed I was the best database administrator. Only, he didn’t appear to take any action so I tried to make him put his promise into writing.

That became quite a challenge. I feared I would end up with nothing. I asked him a dozen times to put his promise into writing. Just before he left, after putting some pressure on him, he wrote down that I could only get a minor wage increase, not the promotion he promised earlier. A few weeks later when he had already left, I was summoned to the human resources department. A bureaucrat had come up with a technicality so I couldn’t even keep the minor wage increase. Having it in writing didn’t help. My manager had left and his temporary replacement didn’t care.

When I arrived at home that evening Ingrid told me that a freelance agency offered me a job. This was the first time in a long time. And I was angry. With the benefit of hindsight it was rather peculiar that the agency called exactly on this particular day. I had worked so hard to get the promise in writing because managers and the human resource department weren’t dependable, which the incident demonstrated once more. And so I made a rash decision and resigned. It didn’t take long before I started to have second thoughts. There weren’t many jobs for database administrators near home. There were issues with my son and my physical condition didn’t allow for long travels. There was a new manager and he accepted my change of mind. After a few years of bureaucratic wrangling, the senior rank was established and I was promoted.

Master of my own destiny?

Early 1993 I started to look for a job. My first application was for an IT traineeship at Cap Gemini. There were sixteen vacancies. Some 2,000 people applied and 200 of them were selected for a series of tests. At the tests other applicants were telling stories about assessments, tests and job interviews. The economy fared poorly so there weren’t a lot of jobs. Many graduates were already searching for a long time. It was discouraging to hear their stories so I expected to remain unemployed for quite a while.

That wasn’t meant to be. The tests went well and I was invited for an interview and some more psychological tests. In the train on my way to the interview I a guy who had lived with me in dormitory 389-second-floor came sitting on the seat in front of me . He asked me why I was wearing a suit. I told him about the interview. Then he started to laugh loudly. “Your tie is a mess,” he said. “Let me put in order for you.” He arranged the tie correctly for me.

If this event, which appeared mere chance at the time, hadn’t happened, I may not have been hired. The interview and the tests went well. The misfortune during my student years because of not fitting in groups had made me investigating culture and cultural differences. And so it wasn’t hard for me to translate the expectations of Cap Gemini with regard to its employees into test answers. The test results made it appear as if I fitted perfectly into the corporate culture of Cap Gemini. And so I was hired and sent to a junior programming class to prepare for my first assignment.

My self-confidence was low and I had manipulated the test results to make it appear that I fitted in. I was afraid to turn up and felt unfit for the job. But these feelings receded once the class had started. We learned about programming. I was often joking about a programme I was planning to write. It was named DoEverything as it was meant to do everything, which is a remarkable coincidence. Later I discovered that a programme like that may already exist and that we may live inside it.

My classmates were discussing what type of car they were going to drive once they were on the job. I was the only one planning to use public transport. I was not a model employee. One classmate named Ad, who was a cheerful guy coming from the Eindhoven area, expressed his amazement about me having passed all the tests.

The first assignment was a project at the Groningen office of Cap Gemini. For months we had nothing to do. I often went out late and did some additional training. Our project manager was ambitious. He organised project meetings and demanded progress reports tat he could present to senior management even though there was nothing to do. After a few months, the computers and the work came in, so the project manager was busy managing our work. He constantly demanded progress updates.

It soon became clear that we were going miss our deadline at the end of July. Before he went on a holiday, the project manager arranged a new deadline date at the end of August. Once he was gone, things suddenly went smoothly so we were able to meet the original deadline date in July with ease. When the project manager returned, all the programmes were installed. He was praised by his superiors for delivering a month ahead of schedule. Perhaps he was getting a bonus or a promotion too.

My next job was a database job at a telecommunications company. The company had difficulty tracking what their database administrator was doing. I was hired to reorganise one of their databases. This task was taken out of his hands and was given to me, a novice without experience. For that reason he didn’t like me from the start. To make matters worse, I wasn’t following his advice because he was a bungler. That was the reason I was hired in the first place.

There was a fuss because of my disturbed relationship with the database administrator. Cap Gemini sent me to a training called Professional Skills. I was not politically sensitive. It seemed better not to let political expedience stand in the way of doing what’s right or saying what needs to be said. But framing things positively can contribute to a better atmosphere. This is what political correctness is about. Cap Gemini also stressed that I was the master of my own destiny. It was one of their company slogans.

After moving to Sneek I stared to look for a job near home. There was a vacancy for a software designer at an insurer nearby in Leeuwarden. It later turned out that the job included being a project leader. The insurer had split up the IT department in smaller teams that worked on a group of systems for a specific business unit. Every few weeks or so we planned what we were going to do for the next few weeks. The business unit determined the priorities. It worked great because there were few political games like business units competing for resources. The people in the team knew what they had to do so I felt redundant. There is no point in managing something that goes well by itself.

The department was well organised, and unlike anything I had seen before. The atmosphere was friendly. Only I was accustomed to grim conditions so I felt awkward. Even though it may have taken some time I probably could get accustomed to a friendly atmosphere, but not to the job itself. All those documents, meetings, and priorities were boring. Designing and building information systems was much more fun. I had good qualifications for Oracle but the insurer didn’t use Oracle. And so I decided to try my luck as a freelance Oracle developer and database administrator. After all, I believed to be the master of my own destiny. But an ominous incident suggested that I was not.

Featured image: Cap Gemini logo