Jokers on Files.

Joking jokers

In 2002, I started to work as an Oracle database administrator at a government agency near home. Most people in the Netherlands know about the agency because it processes traffic fines. For that reason, it isn’t popular with the general public, just like the Internal Revenue Service. So if someone asked who my employer was, I kept it vague and said the government or the Department of Justice. It didn’t take long before something went seriously wrong. On my second day on the job, one of the production systems crashed after running the batch jobs, leaving a corrupt database, and with the benefit of hindsight, that was a bit peculiar. After two days of searching, I still hadn’t found the exact cause. When I restored the backup of the previous evening, which was still valid, and ran the batch jobs, the database became corrupt again. It probably was a software bug, so I advised restoring the backup of the previous evening and upgrading the database software to the latest version and seeing if it would solve the issue. Instead, the IT director declared a crisis and set up a multi-disciplinary task force to deal with the situation.

The head of the task force was a corpulent project leader who decided we should find the cause, which I hadn’t uncovered. I just wanted to fix the problem. Every day at 10 AM, there was a meeting to discuss the state of affairs. Every day I proposed to upgrade the database software to see if it would help. And every day, my proposal was brushed aside. I would have done it myself, but I was new on the job, and they used VAX VMS, an operating system I wasn’t familiar with, so I couldn’t install software or restore backups on my own. Two weeks later, after our experts had all weighed in and also after hiring a database corruption expert from Oracle, the cause remained elusive, and managers were getting desperate. Finally, they were willing to consider my suggestion. And it solved the problem. It was a harbinger of things yet to come. During a review, they grilled me for not being interested in researching the cause. I said that solving a crisis was more important as it was a production system, and the users needed it to work. And by the way, the upgrade demonstrated that it was a software bug.

A few months later, my employer hired a security officer. Probably the audit department had advised it. He was a guy in a suit who soon began to make our work harder by implementing unnecessary procedures. For instance, we had to lock up our Oracle manuals in a secure location after work and bring the keys to the porter’s lodge. But our manuals were public information like Windows manuals. Today, you can find this information on the Internet. At the same time, Mulder, the system that processed the traffic fines, had a superuser named MULDER with the password MULDER. Everyone knew that and could mess with the traffic fines. I notified the security officer, but being a true bureaucrat, he had more important things to do, such as attending meetings, inventing procedures and making management reports. Other systems had this issue too. And so, I contacted a few senior programmers, and we fixed that problem.

There were other issues with access rights too. As they would say in the course Professional Skills, ‘There was room for improvement.’ If a new employee came in, the service desk made a ticket stating, ‘Create user account X as a copy of account Y,’ and sent it from one department to another. Usually, it took two weeks for the ticket to pass through all our departments, and system administrators made errors. Hence, account X was rarely exactly like account Y. If people switched departments or left, the defunct access rights usually weren’t deleted. Perhaps the audit department had figured this out, as our management soon initiated a project role-based access rights (RBAC).

RBAC works like so. You have a role in a department. In ordinary language, it is your job. For your job, you need access to an array of systems. Your job description determines which rights you need, for instance, reading specific data or changing it. As a rule, employees should not receive more access rights than required to perform their tasks. RBAC is about the rights an employee in a specific job role needs. Business consultants came in and defined job roles and access requirements. A programmer then built an administrative database. But the database wasn’t connected to our systems, so there was no guarantee that the access rights in our systems matched the administration. And if you know how things fare in practice, you know that the administration would soon become stale and pointless. People are lazy, make errors, and forget things. And that would change once the administration and our systems connected. If the administration connected but was wrong, people couldn’t do their jobs properly, so the administration had to be constantly updated.

In 2004, I secretly began building an account administration system named DBB using Designer/2000, leaving the bureaucrats out of the loop because they would probably stand in the way and make it harder for me. Only my manager and a few colleagues knew about it. DBB automated granting and revoking access rights in our systems the RBAC way. It took me nine months as I also had to do my regular work as a database administrator. But when I was ready to implement DBB on the production databases, the bureaucrats became aware of what was happening and tried to block it. In early 2005, I introduced it sneakily with the help of the people from the service desk who wanted to use it. They installed the DBB client programmes on their personal computers. And I was a database administrator, so I could install anything I wanted on any database.

The outcomes were spectacular. The service desk now created the accounts, so the tickets didn’t have to pass through so many departments. We created accounts in one day instead of two weeks. And the service desk could reset passwords on the spot instead of relaying the request to a department, bringing down the time to reset passwords from hours to seconds. And the access rights accurately reflected job roles. So, once DBB was operational, the opposition crumbled, and DBB became a regular application, even though not an official one, and we had RBAC forcefully implemented.

The logo of DBB was a drawing made by Ingrid. She had drawn it for another purpose. It features jokers grinning at a set of file folders. To me, these folders symbolised bureaucracy. DBB joked with the bureaucrats as the bureaucrats considered it a rogue system. Supposedly, I was one of those jokers, so I made one of them my avatar on the web. DBB was my love child, just like Fokker once was Jürgen Schrempp’s. And so, I ensured DBB could survive if I ever left the agency. I produced design documents and manuals and built DBB according to accepted Designer/2000 practices. We had a lot of Designer/2000 programmers, so they could easily have maintained DBB. But I hadn’t followed the proper procedures when building and implementing it, so it never became official. So, if something went wrong, it was not a mere incident, as would be the case with any other system, but a cause to replace DBB. And something went wrong once.

For over ten years, bureaucrats devised plans to replace DBB. Our management started two projects to replace it. The first effort stalled because they had underestimated the complexity of the matter. They might have thought, ‘If one guy can do it, how difficult can it be?’ In 2016, a new project team realised it was pointless to replace DBB as it was doing fine and replacing it was costly. The newer Java systems ran on Postgres databases and used web access, so they didn’t use DBB. And our management planned to decommission the old Designer/2000 systems so DBB could retire by then.

And so, I wondered how bureaucrats think and concluded that it is like so, ‘If I mess things up but stick to the rules and follow procedure, no one can blame me. If do the right thing but do not follow procedure, and something goes wrong, my job is on the balance.’ If something has gone wrong, the government hires consultants to investigate the issue and propose changes to the procedures to prevent it from happening the next time. Sadly, the next time, the situation may be different, and then it goes wrong again. You might think it is better to do away with procedures, but in a government administration, that might not be a good idea. The role of government is to provide and implement rules. Just imagine that every government employee does as he sees fit. Nevertheless, there could be room for improvement.

DBB not only joked with the bureaucrats. The joke was also on me and in a most peculiar fashion. In June 2010, I received a highly unusual request from a system administrator to drop a user account manually. That hadn’t happened for several years. DBB usually took care of that, but for some unknown reason, DBB failed to drop this particular account. The username was ELVELVEN. If you read that aloud, you say eleven elevens in Dutch, a reference to the 11:11 time-prompt phenomenon. Usernames consisted of the first one or two characters of the employee’s first name followed by the employee’s last name. In this case, the user’s last name was Velven. To me, 11:11 signals a combination of two related unlikely events. And indeed, the joke had a part two, and it was even more peculiar.

In 2014, I tested an improvement to DBB. My test signalled that an illegal account had sneaked into our systems. The username was AD******, the first character of the first name followed by the last name of A******* [the lady who might be God and appears to stalk me with coincidences]. Had she been employed with us, this would have been her username. And her name isn’t common, so this was unnerving, even more so because it was the only username that popped up. It couldn’t be her, or could it? It turned out that a guy with the same last name as hers had worked for us. His first name began with an A too. And the account wasn’t illegal. I had mixed data from two different dates in the test, which made it appear that this account had sneaked in illegally. Just imagine the odds of only this account popping up.

In 2005, my manager promised me a promotion. He told me that I had managed to introduce DBB. ‘You had a vision and you made it happen and you overcame all the opposition, and now we have RBAC,’ he said. He added that I was the best database administrator of the lot. I doubted that and said we had a tech genius in our department who was better than me. And then he said, ‘Having the right vision and making it happen are far more important.’ Only, he didn’t formalise the promotion, so I tried to make him put his promise into writing. I asked him several times to do that. And then, he took on a new job somewhere else, so I feared I would end up empty-handed. After all, I hadn’t many friends in high places.

Just before he left, I pressed him again to put his promise into writing. As the promotion had not yet come through, he wrote I could get a minor wage increase, and then he filed it for processing at the human resources department. A few weeks later, they summoned me to the human resources department. A bureaucrat had come up with a technicality. I couldn’t even keep the minor wage increase. That was a breach of contract, plain and simple, but to bureaucrats, only rules and procedures count. My previous manager had already left, so they blamed it on him, and his temporary replacement didn’t care as he also was on his way out. As I had put a lot of effort into having it in writing, and my manager had already fobbed me with a minor wage increase, I walked out of the meeting angrily.

When I arrived home, Ingrid told me that a freelance agency had offered me a job. It was the first offer of this kind since I started working for my employer. And so, I made a rash decision and resigned. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a remarkable coincidence that the freelance agency called me on this particular day. It didn’t take long before I started to have second thoughts. Out of the blue, a strong feeling emerged that it was a wrong decision. I can rationalise it by saying there weren’t many jobs for database administrators near home. And the issues with my son didn’t allow me to work far away from home while my physical condition didn’t allow for long travels. That may all be true, but these considerations were not the real reason. The feeling became so strong that I had no other choice but to reverse course and try to undo my resignation.

There was a new manager, and he accepted my change of mind. He pledged to do his best to restore my confidence in my employer. Due to a bureaucratic error, I missed the promotion again a year later. I began to distrust him and feared he might not make good on his promise. That didn’t happen at the time, but he soon gave the tech genius a higher pay grade and left me out. And several years later, after he had risen in rank, in another remarkable coincidence, he tried to take away the pay grade that came with the promotion when I switched to Java programming. Nevertheless, he was a very competent manager who later played a leading role in improving the IT department. After some years of bureaucratic wrangling, the promotion finally came through.

Slums in Jakarta

Extreme living

Overdoing things

Princess, a friend from the United States, once came to visit me. I took a shopping bag with me when we went to the shopping mall. She remarked on it. I said that getting a new bag at the shop produced unnecessary waste. She then called me an environmental extremist. That reinforced my prejudice of Americans being wasteful consumers. Why should we make things to throw away? But perhaps, she was right. Bringing a shopping bag with you might be a minor inconvenience, but it can be the first step on the road to extreme living where nothing gets wasted. Before you know it, you are separating your waste for recycling. And what’s next? It is scary to think of it.

My mother once said that I overdo things. Buying second-hand is what poor people do, usually not privileged people like me. I have done my best to appear normal, but I can’t help eating scraps others leave behind or using paper towels my son has thrown away after hardly using them. Waste and spillage unnerve me somehow. It is better not to upset others, but I cannot always guess what disturbs them. Once, I wore worn-out clothes at a family party. My father was not amused. It probably reminded him of the poverty in which he once lived. He wanted me to have a better life. But can you overdo environmentalism? Buying new clothes is one of the worst things we can do to our planet. And some people do much more to save Earth than I do.

Indeed, I am a most peculiar person, and the evidence is mounting. Lately, I began having second thoughts about ‘normal’ living again. We are using far more than Earth can provide. The cuts in profligate consumption might need to be drastic, like in the vicinity of 100%. And excessive is anything we do not need. So what is extreme living? You can go out bungee jumping, take a vacation to a far-away country, or indulge in a hot dog eating contest and think that is extreme, but you are just unnecessarily turning precious resources into waste. That is normal living. My great-grandparents hardly ever left the village in which they lived. They had never been to Germany, even though it was only ten kilometres from their home. And bungee jumping was not on their bucket list either. That is more like it.

Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems

Most people in the past led extreme lives, and many still do today, most notably in areas that have not yet developed into consumerist economies. Compared to them, I am reasonably conventional. I do not live in a shed without heating, nor do I grow food in a kitchen garden. Well, I tried the latter. Indeed, there are stranger people out there than me. But my wasteful lifestyle cannot remain a standard for much longer. People like me should drastically reduce their consumption. Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems. You can see extreme living as the destination of a journey. You are not there yet.

There are many things you can do now. And there is always another step after that. And after you have taken action, you might be as happy or miserable as before. The 80/20 rule states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. And so, excessive consumption might only contribute a small part to our well-being. Many of us see that differently because squandering is a virtue nowadays.

In the consumerist economy, squandering boosts profits and employment. Those who do not waste energy and resources are deplorable because they are poor and cannot do what others can. We envy the rich and famous with their extravagant lifestyles. But if living a modest life is a virtue, and we see squanderers as planetary destroyers or wreckers of God’s creation, poor people become less deplorable. And there may be another benefit. A lot of crime comes from people desiring status goods they cannot afford with an ordinary job. But who needs a Rolex watch or Nike sneakers?

Time is money or convenience

Times have changed. We will not go back to the nineteenth century. So what is extreme living today? Perhaps, you think it is living in a car or a cold home, but that is just appearance. It is about saving the Earth and our future. The consumerist economy is about spending and squandering resources and energy. We should stop doing that as we are running out of resources. If you spend less, you save money. We hear that time is money. But if time is money, money might be time. For instance, if you spend half your income on rent, living in a car saves you lots of money. And you may only have to work half days to make ends meet, so it also saves you time. A tiny house is less extreme but comes from the same logic.

Convenience translates into using energy and resources. Advertisements tell us how easy the product is and the time or trouble it saves you. They do not tell you how many hours you sweat for it. Eating out is convenient, but you have to work for it. As a result, you have less time and crave more convenience. Before you know it, you are like a mouse trapped on a treadmill. If you forego ease, you may have time. In the past, people had time, for instance, to grow their food or mend their clothes. That is a lot of work, but food and clothes were expensive because incomes were low. Buying clothes meant more work, so mending saved time. It may not be a coincidence that poor people often have more time than rich people.

Creating wealth

The consumerist economy is about selling stuff. And you work for it. If you do not need a product or a service, the advertising industry gets the order to make you believe you need it. Soon, you may find celebrities flaunting the product on social media. The more you work and buy, the wealthier you appear. It increases GDP and profits, but it harms life on the planet. Businesses make money if you buy their products, while your employer makes money when you go to work. Economists call it creating wealth. That is why time is money. There is no problem with that unless your job or the products you buy are unneeded and use energy and scarce resources. It applies to most people in today’s ‘advanced’ economies, myself included. But worsening the future of our children is not creating wealth. And so, we need a new definition of wealth.

Wealth could be the time we can live off our capital. If you own € 50,000 and need € 10,000 per year, you are better off than someone who has € 100,000 and needs € 40,000 per year. We save to increase our wealth. If we live off the interest, we do not touch our capital. In either case, we forego consumption to invest or live within our means. And even though we do not own it, the most precious resource we live off is Earth. By saving Earth, we create wealth. And so, most activities in the consumerist economy do not create wealth. Extreme living is about saving the planet and providing the children of the Earth with a better future. Sustainable living is living off the interest and keeping the capital intact. Sadly, we live on borrowings and have consumed a significant part of our most precious resource. And so we should restore Earth first. That requires investment hence savings, hence sacrifice.

We prefer a comfortable life, but extreme living could be our near future. And if we do it, we probably will do fine, and it will become normal. If you are honest, you might arrive at this conclusion too. I do not believe we can expect solutions to come from corporations and governments alone. It begins with us. Once we stop buying unnecessary and harmful products, corporations will become less wasteful. And if we do it ourselves, governments do not have to tell us that we should do it. Costs are the best motivator. Low costs inspire us to squander, while high costs motivate us to save. When natural gas prices soared because Russia cut the gas supply to Europe, natural gas consumption in the Netherlands dropped by 30%. My savings were considerable too.

Most of us think saving energy is good, but we do much more if we are rewarded or cannot afford it. High energy prices cause a lot of stress because we are accustomed, or perhaps addicted, to low energy prices. We have to adapt and give up comfort. We have built our lives on cheap fossil fuels. High energy prices cause shock. Some businesses, for instance, bakers, get in trouble, while poor people with high energy bills face stark choices. If energy prices remain high, we have to deal with that and prevent essential businesses from closing and the poor from freezing. But many things we consider necessities nowadays have never been necessities in the past. If resource and energy prices had always been high, we would have different lifestyles and a higher price for a loaf of bread. And it would have been normal rather than extreme living.

Living without a car

My great-grandparents never owned a car. They walked, and perhaps they had a bike. They might have taken the train occasionally. Today, many people work one day per week for their car alone. You can have lots of extra spare time if you ditch your car. You might need that time because the same trip takes longer if you use public transport, but you can ditch that trip too. Why should you go there? In the past, people usually did not go outside their village. Back then, if your aunt celebrated her birthday and lived thirty kilometres away, you didn’t go, and she wasn’t offended. There were festivals in your village you could attend instead. Extreme living is about not doing things that cost energy and resources. Does that sound boring? Sure. But think of what you can do instead, for instance, taking a walk or visiting your neighbours.

Your family and friends expect you to emit greenhouse gases to come to their parties. They might be offended if you forego the occasion to avoid contributing to global warming. That is socially unacceptable, so you have to find other excuses, like feeling sick. Few people want to hear that the Earth is more important than them. But you can also cancel trips without offending someone. Nearly every week, I go to the forest with my wife, which is a thirty minutes drive. After that, we go to a pub before returning home. Alternatively, we could go by bus. That would take fifty minutes. In that case, we must plan the trip as there is one bus every hour. Sometimes the bus might not come, and we must wait another hour. It is an inconvenience that car drivers prefer to avoid. But going to the forest is just walking and watching trees. We can do that near home. And there are pubs in my hometown too. One of them has become the theme of a song.

For many years, I did not own a car while having a job that required it. My employer could send me to jobs all over the country. But I lived in a remote city. I had a job over there, or the job was at least 200 kilometres from home, so I had to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment. In either case, I could go to my work by bike. For long trips, I used the train. Using public transport requires some planning, extra time, and sometimes sacrifice. I remember a thirty-minute walk through the snow to reach the Oracle office in De Meern because buses only go there during rush hour. And all that waiting at train stations. But it saved me money so I could buy a house. After all, time is money.

After I met my wife, we often borrowed her mother’s car for trips, so my life was not entirely without a car from then on. And we rented a car if we needed one. Most people can do without a car most of the time, but it requires planning and sacrifice, for instance, sharing a car with colleagues, finding another job or relocating. The proximity to a public transport hub was a reason for me to buy my house. In areas without public transport, there is room for an alternative. When I was on vacation in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, I noticed that van drivers provided this service to the public. They had no timetables, but the driver went off once the van was filled with people. Usually, you had to wait fifteen minutes or so. But the people who used this service had time. In the Summer of 2021, I started using public transport again when travelling alone if it was not too much trouble.

Turning down the heating

My great-grandparents did not have central heating. It was cold inside their home, and it could freeze. They warmed themselves at the stove in the living room, the only warm place in their home. More and more people in the Netherlands only heat the living room. And so do I. A few even turn off the heating entirely and put on a warm vest or a coat. You may not want to go that far, but heating only the living room makes sense. It is the place where you spend most of the time when you are at home.

Others turn down the heating. I do that too. That is healthy for most people, except for the elderly and the sick. I can work at 17 degrees Celsius if I wear extra clothes and thin gloves. Cold fingers are my biggest worry because I work with a computer. If the temperature inside your house goes below 15 degrees Celsius, you may need to ventilate more often. If you feel chilly, you can do some physical exercise. The heat you generate can help to warm the room. In any case, you will feel warmer.

Growing your own food or local farming

There is not much I can tell you about growing food. I have tried it, but it was too much work. The clay soil was not easy to till, and the savings were negligible. If you love gardening, it can be a great hobby, but I do not expect that kitchen gardens can provide for our food requirements. High energy prices may revive farming for local markets and growing crops in their seasons. Agricultural products are bulky. Today, farmers offer their produce to national or even world markets. Transport costs can be substantial. It can make sense for farmers to diversify and grow several crops for local markets.

The distribution of these goods can be an obstacle. In the past, agricultural products were usually sold on local markets. Today, they are sold in supermarkets. Selling local products may require a separate distribution channel, for instance, someone collecting the produce from farmers and running a stand in a shopping mall. For several foods, there are safety considerations and they may require industrial processing. Still, a wide range of foods is suitable for local production and consumption. Governments could relax regulations to promote small-scale local trade, but food safety regulations exist for a reason.

And some crazy things are going on, like growing crops in South America to feed livestock in Europe to produce meat for Asia. That brings us to the damage and suffering caused by meat and dairy consumption. Taking in less is already an improvement if you cannot stop. I forego meat if it is not too much trouble, and I never buy meat for myself. Meat substitutes likely become available that cause not as much animal suffering and damage to the planet. Let’s hope it will happen soon.

Other savings

Compared to heating, you probably use less energy for showering or bathing. I would not recommend turning yourself into a stinky monster, but if you bathe or shower daily, you can save energy and water by taking shorter showers and doing it less frequently. If you do not sweat, you might not need to shower daily. My great-grandparents did not shower or bathe but may have used a washcloth instead. For that, you need to warm a bit of water, add some soap, and there you are. Compared to taking a bath, you use 99% less water and energy.

There are other savings you can make. You can wear your clothes longer and wash them less frequently. Again, if you do not sweat, you may wear your clothes for a week without becoming smelly. You may scrub under your armpits regularly to lengthen the interval between clothing switches and showers. I do these things too, and two or three short showers a week usually suffice. I think there are a lot of tips on the Internet if you consider going more extreme, for instance, doing the dishes manually, cooking your meals shorter or installing solar panels and adapting your electricity use to the sunshine.

Not throwing away

Pundits talk a lot about recycling, but what about not throwing away? Recycling costs energy, and you do not recover all the waste. For instance, glass must be melted at high temperatures. You can recycle glass by throwing it in a glass container, but recycling still costs a lot of energy. And there is so much packaging. And thirty brands sell the same stuff. They call it freedom of choice. Take, for example, shampoo. You go to a shop and buy a bottle. And you throw away the old bottle. That is normal. A crazy individual might suggest that a supermarket should have a tank and that you can fill your bottle there. Once you think of that, you can imagine a wide range of products supermarkets might distribute in this way. For instance, you might bring a bag with you for apples. Some are doing that already.

There are some considerations. It is better not to mix the shampoo with a detergent. And so, there should be different types of bottles for products that we should not mingle. The hard part is, and that is why consumers might oppose it, you must bring these bottles and bags with you. That is an inconvenience if the shop is far away and you have forgotten some bottles or bags. Having thirty brands is also a waste. You need thirty tanks for shampoo, not to mention thirty trucks delivering shampoo to the distribution centre of your supermarket. If you say that, consumers can get angry. Their identity is attached to the brand of shampoo they use. The advertising industry has done its job well.

But there are some really crazy things going on. Recently, I saw a documentary on Netflix about bottled water. There is a multi-billion industry selling a free commodity. Did you know that drinking the recommended eight daily glasses of water from the tap costs less dan € 1 per year? The same water in bottles costs you more than € 1,000. Did you know that Americans use over 70 billion bottles of water per year? The energy to make them could fuel two million cars. And nearly all those bottles are disposed of, creating an environmental disaster.

It is about marketing and brand identity. Cool dudes and gals cannot go without bottled water. That is what the advertising industry told them. But what if they are mere idiots paying a thousand times more and producing waste that ends up as microplastics in their health foods? Water from the tap is at least 99.9% the same. You might consider giving the money you save from not drinking bottled water to a charity that provides clean drinking water to people in developing countries. They often have no choice but to buy these expensive bottles. Talk about exploiting poor people. They can do a lot with an extra € 1,000 per year.

If it is about being cool

Buying bottled water or choosing between thirty different brands is often about being trendy and cool, at least if we believe the word of the advertising industry. But if wasting nothing becomes the new awesome, then we do not need bottled water or brands. And all those salespeople, influencers, brand managers, bloggers and advertisement sellers may have to find a job that contributes to society. Big internet corporations might stop tracking you, but you may have to pay for their services.

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.

Imagine

Inspiring vision

It is hard to imagine that there will be world peace one day. War seems a constant in history. But most people nowadays have never witnessed war. It may seem that ideals and visions did not make things better. The number of people killed under the guise of equality, freedom, nationalism and various religions might be close to a billion. The War to End All Wars didn’t live up to its promise either. John Lennon and Martin Luther King imagined a better future but world peace and equality for all haven’t arrived yet.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

– John Lennon, Imagine

John Lennon and Martin Luther King imagined a better future but world peace hasn’t arrived yet and minorities are still discriminated. It isn’t as easy as it may seem to naive dreamers. Different people may find it difficult to live together because they do not understand each other or do not share the same values. Drugs may seem to make these problems go away. Perhaps that’s why hippies were often on weed or LSD. John Lennon and Martin Luther King didn’t have the power to change the world. Neither do I.

Wars have been remarkably absent in many parts of the world in recent decades. The cost of war has gone up while its spoils have gone down. The elites don’t want a major war any more. It is bad for profits. In the past conquerors could enrich themselves by looting and annexing enemy land. Wealth was material in the form of fields, cattle, oil, and gold. Today, wealth consists of human capital, knowledge, and corporations. They are harder to loot and more easily destroyed.1 And then there are weapons of mass destruction that can easily end human civilisation.

As we increasingly depend on computers and networks, societies can break down if they fail. Just imagine what will happen if your mobile phone stops working. And so cyberspace has become a new domain for warfare by powers like the United States, China and Russia. As you might have learned from experience or otherwise, the man with the biggest gun is always right, even if it is a woman. This proverb is not about gender but about gun size. Neither the United States, China and Russia may have the biggest gun.

World peace

And so world peace may be around the corner. At least that appeared to be the message I received in December 2008. There was a candy vending machine at work. Often I went there to get a Twix bar. One day it malfunctioned. I couldn’t get my Twix. The machine repeatedly misfired. This never happened before and it never happened later on. Other people didn’t have any trouble with the machine. It only affected me. After trying three different options, the machine finally worked after choosing option 22, a Nuts bar. This was nuts, even more so because 22 = 11 + 11, which makes a reference to 11:11.

Aaahhh!!

But it was going to get even nuttier. The next day I bought a bag of potato crisps at the same machine. The machine worked fine but after opening the bag I found a small piece of paper with the crisps. It was a temporary tattoo with the following Chinese text:

世界和平

A colleague knew a Chinese man who translated it. The characters stand for world peace. No-one else did get a temporary tattoo. It was a production glitch. The paper had slipped into the bag and this bag just happened to end up in my hands, just when so many strange incidents were happening at the same time, but that is a different story.

Remarkably absent that day was my colleague Ronald Oorlog. He had fallen ill exactly on that day. His last name Oorlog is the Dutch word for war, a peculiar coincidence as the Chinese characters stand for world peace. It was the only time he fell ill as he was a temporary worker, which suggest that he may have been hired to make the coincidence happen. If you can do this, you don’t have to worry about any weapons the United States, China or Russia might have. You can easily let them malfunction like the candy machine.

So who might that be? You may already have guessed it and I had received a specific hint on that matter a few weeks earlier. A few weeks later, in January 2009, it was confirmed. I was biking to work. Next to the office was the municipal health service GGD. When I looked at the GGD building, perhaps because of all the strange coincidences that happened, a thought poppped up that GGD could mean Great GoD. Immediately I tried convince myself that it was delusional to think that God had put such a sign there. The thought was rebuked on the spot. The next thing I noticed was a car in front of the GGD building. It had license plate number 99-GRG-9 (with the nines being numbers I do not recall). GRG could also refer to GReat God.

This isn’t a joke or is it?

The following incidents may demonstrate that God isn’t joking around and means business. A few days later while I was biking on the same spot near the GGD building, the following thought came up: “Now I found out that God exists, what could happen to me?” Within a second a ran into a flat tire.

I had two close colleagues named Rene. The last name of the first began with E. The other had a last name starting with H. In March 2009 there was an urgent situation requiring the password of a new system. Rene H knew the password but he hadn’t arrived yet. And so I asked another colleague for his number. He gave me the number. I called Rene H on his mobile phone. After dialling his number the phone rang. Suddenly the connection appeared to be switched. There was some switching sound. A woman with apparently the same last name as Rene E answered the phone. I excused myself to her.

Then I said to the colleague who gave me the number: “It appears that you have given me the number of the wrong Rene. Please give me the correct number.” He was convinced that the number was correct. I checked it with a few other colleagues and they confirmed the number. I dialled it again. The same switching occurred. I put down the phone before it was answered. Then Rene H arrived. The number I dialled was correct. His phone was in working order and he hadn’t put a switch on it. Some colleagues then made funny remarks about Rene H messing with the wife of Rene E. So, perhaps God is joking around and world peace isn’t going to happen any time soon, but we can’t know that.

Featured image: Hippie symbol

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

Clutching at a straw

I read The Limits of Growth in my late teens. Perhaps, I was twenty already. I was young and hoped to live for another sixty years or so. And suddenly, a computer told me that I would live to see the end. The evidence and the logic were convincing. For a long time, I had hardly thought about the impending doom. As a child, I sometimes feared the future when hearing the disturbing song Vluchten Kan Niet Meer or Fleeing Is No Longer Possible on the radio. It unnerved me profoundly as it painted a dismal time ahead where nature would be gone. But that faded once I went to secondary school. After finishing my studies, I became an environmentalist and joined a local Friends of the Earth group in Groningen in 1993.

Friends of the Earth is an international environmental organisation known in the Netherlands as Mileudefensie. They had local groups of activists, most notably in student towns like Groningen. The organisation researches environmental issues and tries to convince people they should change their lifestyles. Friends of the Earth also lobbies with politicians and pressures corporations. Our group was a hodgepodge of students, people with a job, unemployed, activists and ordinary people led by a woman in her thirties, who acted as an Akela at the boy scouts. A 22-year-old student was her boyfriend.

We were not militant like Greenpeace, but sometimes we protested. One day we blocked the entrance of Groningen Airport to protest against the government subsidies for the airport. The police came and told us to leave, which we did. I then concluded that activism would not help. We will not give up our comfortable lifestyles and vote out politicians if they are serious about solutions. And businesses will go bankrupt if they do more to save the environment than others. Their products would be more expensive, and we wouldn’t buy them. And so there were underlying economic and political issues to address. We organised ourselves around themes, for instance, vegetarianism, air pollution, and economic issues. And these caught my interest.

We were short of money, but that changed when I became the treasurer. I took measures to make expenses match income, but I also had some luck. Every year, we obtained a small grant of 2,500 guilders from both the Groningen province and the Groningen municipality. But when I became treasurer, the provincial administration had just denied the allowance we had received the previous years. And so I wrote an appeal to the Appeals Commission. I then went to the Provincial House to discuss the issue with the official responsible for the grant. He explained that it was because we had been late filing our request, and the money jar was already empty. And so, I asked him whether there was any point to the appeal. He said no. It was a done deal. Then I received an invitation for a hearing at the Appeals Commission. I decided not to waste my time by going there, so a commissioner called me that evening, asking me why I hadn’t shown up. And I told him. That probably touched a nerve, as I gave him the impression that no one took the Appeals Commission seriously. And so, our appeal was granted, and we received the subsidy. As I had made a budget that did not anticipate this money and had implemented budgetary discipline, we ended up with income exceeding expenses.

Once over a cliff, a cartoon character can only clutch at a straw. And only in animation pictures the straw holds. The Dutch saying clutching to a straw means grasping to your last hope. On economic issues, our local group worked together with Strohalm, or more precisely, Rinke. He lived in Groningen and was actively engaged in Strohalm and their ideology. As I remember, he was on social benefits, and working for Strohalm and Friends of the Earth was his job. He was serious about it and worked hard. The meaning of the Dutch word strohalm is straw. According to Strohalm, the economy must grow because of interest, and that’s destroying our planet. It is ‘grow-or-die’ because interest rates need to be positive. Interest charges also cause escalating debts, poverty and financial instability. And in the end, the scheme will collapse because the interest adds to the principal until infinity. Any solution begins with ending that, they believed. And as you may have inferred already, I was into sound accounting, so this made me think. Strohalm aimed to ban interest and charge a fee on money, as Silvio Gesell had proposed. You didn’t have to pay the fee on money lent. In this way, it could be attractive to lend money without interest.

In those days, Strohalm started a LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) in Groningen. We exchanged goods and services using fictitious currency. We had a camp to train our persuading skills as environmentalists. Rinke was one of the organisers. He praised me several times and called me an example for others. That was not because of my social skills but because I knew what other people thought and how they would react. My parents and some friends frowned upon me joining the environmentalist movement.

I soon realised that there were serious issues. 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 not work. Only, that wasn’t particularly satisfactory. If you accept doom then you might as well commit suicide. If interest is the root of many social and environmental problems, and can destroy human civilisation, you should make it work. And perhaps it could work. During the Great Depression, it had been tried in a small Austrian village and it was a stunning success.

I am concerned about the planet. For years, I used public transport. And I still do it for work. But at some point, I realised it was pointless. More and more people started driving SUVs. They didn’t care about the planet. So if I saved petrol by taking a train, there was only more for those people. It didn’t matter what I did. A car makes your life comfortable, and I didn’t aspire to higher moral standards than others. So, I bought a car in 2003.

In 1998, I became a freelance IT specialist. I worked for a small bureau named Betamax, led by Martien, a retired manager. I made lots of money, so I had some capital to invest. My first investments were small and unprofitable, as I believed that profits matter. At the time, loss-making internet startups did very well in the stock market, while profitable corporations did poorly. But I had trouble understanding it. And so I thought I had to stay informed about the financial markets. In 2000, I joined the investment message board Iex.nl. At the time, I still said occasionally, ‘With SuperBart,’ when taking up the phone. That was fun and it sometimes caused hilarious moments, for instance, once I expected a call from Ingrid, but it turned out to be Martien. And so, I chose this name as my avatar.

Later I changed my avatar into niphtrique after someone noted that SuperBart sounded arrogant. And since then, I never took up the phone anymore saying, ‘With SuperBart.’ I didn’t need that to feel better anymore. A strange thing about avatars is that you somehow become this person, SuperBart, on the Internet because people do not know you. And so, I introduced a few other avatars to be someone else and have some fun. Most avatars didn’t last long, except dikkevettebeer, or plumpy fat bear, who believed the stock market would crash to zero and the gold price would rise to infinity.

A colourful investment fund manager, Michael Kraland, ran the message board. He also wrote commentaries about his investments. At the time, he rode the hype of the internet and telecom bubbles. His strategy was risky and not sound advice to inexperienced investors. And because he was a bit of a boaster, he received nasty negative comments on the message board, including unproven accusations of wrongdoing. And perhaps also because he was a Jew, which might not be accidental, as he worked in finance. And even though, as far as I know, he never did anything illegal, I nevertheless found him a dubious character.

After some time, a day trader named Cees joined the message board and began sharing conspiracy theories with us. He found them on US message boards and websites. If the markets were about to collapse, a secret group called Plunge Protection Team would come to the rescue. A stock market crash could undermine confidence in the financial system run by Wall Street, so they didn’t allow that to happen. Many readers first ridiculed Cees. But after the internet bubble had popped, and even more so after 9/11, markets often miraculously recovered when they were about to crash. And so, his credibility gradually rose. And the gold price regularly cratered because of sudden selling at peculiar times when most markets were closed. Cees believed central banks were behind this to promote confidence in their currencies. He wrote that if the gold price were to rise, the public would lose trust in our money. When there is little trade, you can sell a bit of gold to make the price drop. The trick was to break a trend. Trend traders, called technical traders, would then join the bandwagon by selling more gold, bringing down the price even further.

That was new to me, and perhaps it wasn’t all true, but there was ample reason to be suspicious. I had already bought some gold for other reasons. I didn’t trust financial markets and those operating them. Those people make a living from your money, so these stories intrigued me. They might be pulling out all the tricks to keep the Ponzi scheme of interest-bearing debt going. After all, debts continued to grow, as did interest payments, so there could soon be a day of reckoning. And I had read The Limits of Growth, so I feared collapse was inevitable. And if the sky has come down on you once, you worry it might happen a second time. Hence, I was constantly on edge concerning my investments, which was not helpful for profits. And I was not good at picking stocks. And so, I bought gold as a long-term investment. I also hoped that gold ownership could help me weather a financial collapse.

I bought my first gold in 1999 before I joined Iex.nl when I learned on the news that the gold price had reached historic lows. And so, I went to my bank to open a gold account. They sent an investment advisor to talk me out of it. He said, ‘No one does that anymore. I know a man who has a silver account with us for two decades. And silver has gone nowhere all that time. Gold mines are making losses because the price of gold is only going down. You should invest in the stock market instead.’ I smelled apathy concerning the precious metals and concluded it could be the beginning of a long-term trend of rising gold and silver prices that might run for decades, which indeed has happened. And so, I pressed on and opened a gold account. Perhaps, they had a good laugh that day at my bank office.

In 2001, after the Internet bubble had popped, I pitched the idea of interest-free money on the message board of Iex.nl. My lack of knowledge of the financial system didn’t deter me. Everyone can participate in a debate on a message board, and you can exchange thoughts with people you would never meet otherwise. Others rebutted me time after time, but I didn’t give up. Lengthy discussions followed, and they took several years. As these discussions proceeded, my knowledge of the financial system increased. And with the benefit of hindsight, debates on the Internet can be more fruitful than academic debates, which often occur in closed circles, because you get more perspectives.

In theory, interest-free money is a sound idea because fixed-interest payments destabilise the financial system. But practical issues stood in the way. The supporters of interest-free currencies didn’t address them. And economists never took interest-free money seriously because if you can receive interest elsewhere, you will not accept interest-free money. Via gold websites, I became familiar with the Austrian School of Economics and their adherents. They question money creation by banks and the need for central banks and point at the inflation caused by money creation. Some hoped to limit money creation or to return to a gold standard. Usually, they were libertarians who saw the government as the root of all evil. And unlike St. Paul, they saw sound money and free markets as the root of all blessings. They were a most peculiar and fanatic bunch, and even though they were on the opposite side of the political spectrum, a comparison with communists is most apt.

Both ideologies are like religions. Like the communists have their prophets, such as Marx, Lenin and Engels, libertarians have them, like Mises, Hayek, and Rand. And both religions have holy books. Communists have Marx’ Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto, and libertarians have Rand’s Atlas Unshrugged or Ludwig von Mises’s book The Theory of Money and Credit. If their ideology fails, communists blame the capitalists, while libertarians blame the government. They appear to see money as a goal, not a tool. If you held alternative views like me, they might accuse you f being Keynesian, which seemed worse than being Satan himself. To me, these people seemed misers obsessed with money. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that their hero, after which they named their website, is Ludwig von Mises. So Mises for misers, if you didn’t get it already. And even though Wall Street is much eviler than they are, they represent the worship of Mammon in its purest form. They believed they were always right, so they tried hard to convince me I was wrong with my ideas about interest. And so, I learned as much from the Austrians as I learned from Strohalm. And if you come to think of it, perhaps it is also not a coincidence that the miracle of Wörgl happened in Austria.

Two opposing fringe ideas, interest-free money with a holding tax and the Austrian School view of hard money, challenged each other in my mind. It is how Hegelian Dialectic is supposed to work. It was not so that I was constantly brooding on this issue, but I also couldn’t let it go. In 2008 this resulted in a synthesis, Natural Money. In a gold standard, you need positive interest rates to get the economy going. As a result, you end up with unsustainable debt levels that you can never repay in gold, so you must leave the gold standard. But when you do that, the sky is the limit, and debts can escalate to infinity. But limiting the interest rate to zero can curb money creation too, and stop irresponsible lending. If the money supply is stable and the economy grows, prices drop, including the gold price. And so, a well-managed currency with a holding fee could be stronger than gold. As the economy can do better without interest, interest-free money can give better returns. That was the beginning. In the following decade, I produced a more comprehensive theory with the help of modern monetary economics.

Latest revision: 30 January 2023

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