Illustration for the first edition of Utopia

Welcome to Utopia

Until very recently nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough food to survive. In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicted the life of man as poor, nasty, brutish, and short.1 Yet, a few centuries later a miracle had happened. Nowadays more people suffer from obesity than from hunger while the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, which was the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. And we may soon have nuclear fusion providing us with unlimited energy for free. That may be the end of poverty as poverty is basically a lack of access to energy.

In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was nearly as good as in the Garden Of Eden. The Utopians worked six hours per day and took whatever they needed. Utopia means nowhere but the name resembles the word eutopia which means a good place. The pun may have been intended. His book inspired a lot of writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many of us have more stuff than they need. So why do we work so hard and feel insecure about the future?

The answer lies within the dynamic of capitalism. The capitalist economy must grow. It is not enough that people just work and buy the products they need. They must work harder to buy more otherwise businesses will go bankrupt, investors will lose money, and people will be unemployed and left without income. To forestal this disaster, we are made to believe that buying stuff makes us happy. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind2:

To make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism. Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. Frugality was thus their watchword. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair.  Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.

In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal.

Capitalism brought us prosperity so most of us won’t ask questions like why are there still poor people or are there limits to our desires? It might feel like biting the hand that feeds you. Answers aren’t easy to come by either. Alternatives to capitalism weren’t successful. Perhaps capitalism helped to reduce poverty more than anything else. But the capitalist dynamic of growth appears to be slowly halting. People are going into debt to buy stuff so they can’t buy more in the future.

And there is something else. Before long we may live inside our own make-believe fairy tale virtual realities writing our own life’s stories. In that case we won’t need a lot of real stuff any more. Finally there could be enough for everyone, and perhaps far more than we desire. Machines may do most jobs in the future so most people might become unemployed. That may require a new ethic. In the future there may not be an economy or money but for the time being we may need an economy that can flourish without growth.

Featured image: Illustration for the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More.

1. Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes (1651).
2. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

The curse of The Omen

Rumours go that some films have been cursed, for example The Poltergeist, Superman and Rosemary’s Baby. Numerous accidents have been put forward to support claims that these films are jinxed,1 not all are equally convincing. Actually, most of them aren’t persuading at all for accidents can happen by chance. It is questionable to relate these accidents to a film. Still, the curse of The Omen stands out. This story includes some personal experiences. So, what about this curse?

A guy named Danny Harkins noted on Cracked.com: “No film in history has had worse luck than The Omen. Hell, nothing in history has had worse luck than The Omen.”2 The Omen was advertised on bill boards with a 666-logo inside the film’s title and uplifting slogans like “You have been warned, if something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It may be The Omen,” as well as the cheery notice “Good morning, you are one day closer to the end of the world,” and a conclusion stating “Remember, you have been warned.”

You have been warned. In The Omen the wife of the American ambassador to Italy gave birth to a son, who died almost immediately. A priest then convinced the ambassador to replace his son with an orphan without telling his wife. Mysterious events soon started to haunt them. The child turned out to be the Antichrist. The Omen was first released on 6 June 1976 (6/6) in order to make it refer to the number 666 as the last digit of 1976 is also a 6. The length of the film is a peculiar 111 minutes.

This made The Omen a good candidate for a hefty curse. Two months before the filming started the son of lead actor Gregory Peck committed suicide. When Gregory went to the film set of The Omen his plane was hit by lightning. A few weeks later executive producer Mace Neufeld’s flight was also hit by lightning. Producer Harvey Bernhard was just missed by a lightning bolt in Rome. Later, the hotel Mace was staying in was bombed by the IRA.1

A plane hired by the studio to take aerial shots was switched at the last moment by the airline. The people who took the original plane were all killed when it crashed on take off. An animal handler who worked on the film set died two weeks after working on the film when he was eaten alive by a large feline. Accounts differ on whether it was a lion or a tiger.1

Stuntman Alf Joint was badly injured and hospitalised when a stunt went wrong on the set on A Bridge Too Far in Arnhem in the Netherlands, less than a year after The Omen was finished. He was almost killed when he jumped off a building and missed the inflatable safety-bags that were meant to cushion his fall. Joint told that he felt that he had been pushed even though there was nobody near him at the time.1 These accidents aren’t exceptional. They could have happened by chance.

But the following should make you notice. On Friday 13 August 1976 special effects consultant John Richardson was driving through the Netherlands with Liz Moore. Both were working on A Bridge Too Far. They became involved in a car accident that killed Liz Moore. She was decapitated in a scene that is said to have been eerily similar to one of the most gruesome scenes Richardson had designed for The Omen. The story goes that the accident happened near a road sign stating a distance of 66.6 kilometres to the town of Ommen, a name very similar to omen. And it happened on a Friday the thirteenth.1

This caught my attention. There are no road signs in the Netherlands giving distances in fractions of kilometres. Only kilometre markers use fractions. Near Raalte is a junction where the route N348 joins the route N35 towards Ommen and Nijverdal. This location currently corresponds with kilometre marker 66.6 on route N348. A road sign stating the direction towards Ommen is near this wacky kilometre marker. I am familiar with the location because I lived in Nijverdal as a child. It appeared that this junction could have been the crash location. And so I came to investigate the curse.

Route N348 from Arnhem to Ommen
Route N348 from Arnhem to Ommen

In April 2015 I made an inquiry. A journalist from the local newspaper De Stentor helped me. He did some research and he emailed me on 14 April. He had managed to find a former police officer from the area. According to the police officer, the accident indeed took place near Raalte on the route N348, but between Raalte and Deventer at a distance of six kilometres from the current location of the 66.6 kilometre marker. The police officer told the journalist that he still remembered the car crash very well.3

According to the police officer, the accident happened when he was on service. A man and a woman had parked their car on a parking lot alongside the route N348. When they drove away in the direction of Deventer, they entered the wrong lane and collided head-on into an oncoming vehicle driven by a resident of Nijverdal. The view there was somewhat limited because of two gentle curves in the road. The police officer noted that there was no road sign mentioning Ommen near the crash site.3

The woman was killed on the spot. The car was completely destroyed and disposed to fire station. It turned out that the couple were foreigners involved in the production of A Bridge Too Far, the police officer told the newspaper. He suspected that Richardson, who was used to driving on the left side of the road, wasn’t paying attention. The police officer also mentioned that the accident happened during a weekend.3

In a British television programme Richardson said the following: “It was certainly very odd because it happened on Friday the thirteenth,” and “right opposite the point where the accident happened, was an old mile-post with nothing but sixes on it,” and finally “what spooked me even more was when I discovered it was on a road to a place called Ommen.”3 The 66.6 kilometre marker may have been moved after the accident, for example because the route has changed, or Richardson may have misread the 60,6 kilometre marker.

Based on the current location of the marker and the details given by the police officer, another possible scenario is that Richardson was brought to Raalte or a hospital in Zwolle, and crossed the junction of the N348 with the N35. He may have noticed the 66.6 kilometre marker, and immediately after that, a road sign stating the direction towards Ommen. This may have freaked him out to the point that it became part of the legend of the curse. Recollections of an event that happened decades ago are often not accurate, and this applies to the memories of the police officer as well as Richardson.

It is at least remarkable that the 66.6 kilometre marker is now near a road sign stating the direction to Ommen on the same road that was the scene of the car crash. What are the odds for such a feat to occur if the accident had happened on another location? Alan Tyler, who made a documentary about the curse of The Omen noticed that odd things happened when he was working on it. The strangest thing was that he had two different camera crews filming on separate locations but that all the footage showed the same fault. It did not seem satanic to him, but it made him wonder.

When I was compiling my findings after receiving the email from De Stentor, a few curious things happened. Just after reading the email I took a glance at my stock portfolio. Apart from a few mutual funds I owned stocks of three corporations. One of them was Heymans, a constructor. It had a quote of € 13.13. Another position was Macintosh, a retail company. I owned 500 of these and the quote was € 2.626. Hence, the total value was € 1,313. This was strange because the car crash is said to have happened on Friday the 13th. Meanwhile Macintosh is bankrupt while Heymans stock went down 60% after the company ran into trouble.

This may seem a bit of a curse already and it suggests poor stock picking skills from my part. But there was more to come. That evening I had an appointment with a contractor who was coming to make a tender for renovating my bathroom. He cancelled the appointment because his van had broken down earlier that day. He came from Almelo while I live in Sneek. There are two obvious routes from Almelo to Sneek. The first one is via Nijverdal passing the junction of route N348 with route N35. The alternative route is via Ommen.

Another curious finding was that my search for “Ommen 666” in Google produced a link to a website called www.hondentrainingsneek.nl. At first glance this appeared to be a site for dog training in Sneek, but it was a bit fishy. Somehow “Ommen 666” had been inserted into topic titles such as “Dog Training Terry Ommen 66.6km”. The texts on the website were incoherent with a few references to Ommen 66.6 in it. This is noteworthy as I live in Sneek and previously lived in Nijverdal while my enquiry uncovered that Richardson crashed into the car of a resident of Nijverdal.

Featured image: Film poster for The Omen. © 2002 20th Century Fox. [copyright info]

Other image: Route N348 from Arnhem to Ommen. User Michiel1972 (2007). Wikimedia Commons.

1. Curse of The Omen and other Hollywood hexes. Barry Didcock (2012). Scotland Herald. [link]
2. The Insane True Stories Behind 6 Cursed Movies. Danny Harkins (2008). Cracked.com. [link]
2. Email exchange with De Stentor. Bart klein Ikink (2015). Naturalmoney.org. [link]
3. Curse or coincidence?… ‘Conspiro Media’ re-examines the grisly chain of events connected to those involved in the ’70s horror-flick, ‘The Omen’… Matt Sergiou (2014). conspiromedia.wordpress.com. [link]

Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scroll

A few possible scenarios

The future may not look outrageously inspiring. It may be even a bit scary to think about what might happen. To name a few possibilities, terrorists could spread deadly diseases, governments and corporations may soon know more about us than we do ourselves (they may already), machines may become smarter than people (they may be already), and climate change could make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. In the meantime futurologists have been busy figuring out what the future might look like. If things don’t go wrong then a few scenarios seem feasible.

First, machines and algorithms take over many of our tasks so that humans will become obsolete as workers. That already happened in many fields but until now new jobs have been created that replaced the old ones, mostly in the service sector and the bureaucracy. Soon much of human decision-making can be replaced by algorithms. An algorithm is a rule or a set of rules like “if this happens then do that.” A very simple example is “if the temperature falls below a certain threshold then turn on the heating.” This particular algorithm relieves us from the tedious task of turning the heating on and off. More complex algorithms executed by computers will soon make better decisions than humans in many situations.

In a decade or so we will not be driving our own cars any more. We will just tell them where to go. Cars will plot a route, drive us there, and keep us safe. It may be forbidden to drive a car yourself as human drivers cause more accidents than computers. A few decades ago, when Knight Rider was a popular television series, this seemed a distant possibility, but today the technology is already there. Algorithms are going to make many decisions. We may still decide what we want, for example where we want to go to, or what kind of book we like to read, but algorithms will decide the specifics. You may accept this because the algorithms are better at doing these jobs than you are.

Second, humans will enhance themselves using bio-technology, cyborg engineering and information technology, and evolve into beings that differ from humans existing today. These beings will still be like us in many ways. That is because we think of ourselves as special so we are not willing to alter our precious essence. The ‘improved’ humans are called post-humans because they were created from humans. They live very long, and because algorithms do most of the decision-making for them, they have a lot of time on their hands. Boredom will be their biggest challenge. This brings us to the third option. These post-humans may create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain themselves. And they may live in tubes like brains in vats.

The future is likely to be a combination of the three options. Machines and algorithms will take over our jobs so that we will become obsolete as workers. We will be enhanced with new technologies and live very long. And we will create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain ourselves. If that is going to happen, and the technology to create these virtual reality universes becomes cheap, there will be billions of virtual universes for every real universe. If that is true then we almost certainly live in a virtual reality ourselves.1 And it is a lot cheaper in terms of processing power if the actors in the virtual reality don’t think for themselves and just follow a predetermined script.

Why is that so? If there are billions of virtual universes for every real one then what are the odds of our universe being real? The answer is one in a few billion. Another way of putting it is to say that every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented, until it is invented, and that we are going to create this technology in the next 100 years or 1,000 years maybe. Hence, it will not happen later than that, because by then we will be able to do it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

The owner or owners of a virtual reality may be indifferent towards the fate of simulated humans inside, just like we are indifferent to characters in a computer game. That is not surprising. Animals are more real than simulated humans, but most people don’t care much about animals either, except for their pets. Many people are indifferent to the fate of their fellow humans when they don’t share their beliefs or ethnicity. Yet, the owner or the owners of this universe may play roles in this virtual reality using avatars, just like we can use avatars in computer games. And perhaps, if being an avatar becomes the daily reality of the owner or the owners, she, he or they might still care for us

The verdict is already out. The licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s car testifies it. This gives new meaning to the first chapter of the Bible where God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” And so the old texts drawn up by a few Jewish priests in the fifth century BC seem to strike back with a vengeance. The religions of the God of Abraham didn’t come out on top by accident. But the Jews made up their deity Yahweh. And then this deity created us? Yeah right. How to make sense of that?

Featured image: Dead Sea Scroll – part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 – 59:9). Public Domain.

1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. [link]

The car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed

There is a plan for the future

On 28 June 1914 the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo. It was the act that triggered World War I. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of Austria, which was a large empire at the time. Austria held Serbia responsible and declared war. Both countries had allies so it resulted in a major war. World War I ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. 11 November can be written as 11-11. But there is something far more peculiar about this event. The car in which Franz Ferdinand was killed had licence plate number A III 118. This could mean Armistice 11-11-18.

The assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps. Two conspirators failed to act. A third threw a bomb that exploded below the next car. Franz Ferdinand then changed his plan to visit the wounded from the bombing at the hospital. After learning that the plot had failed, Gavrilo positioned himself near a food shop on the route to the hospital. There he saw Franz Ferdinand’s open car reversing after having taken a wrong turn. The engine of the car stalled and the gears locked. This gave Gavrilo the opportunity to strike. He only fired two bullets without aiming well because he was hindered by the crowd, miraculously killing both the Archduke and his wife.1

Franz Ferdinand had premonitions of an early death. The accounts of these premonitions appear reliable. One relative mentioned that he had told some of his friends a month before his death that he knew that he was going to be murdered. According to another account the Archduke had shot a rare white stag a year earlier. It was widely believed that a hunter who killed such an animal, or one of his family members, would die within a year.1

Indeed, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was beset by some unusual coincidences, for example the car just stopping in front of Gavrillo, the only person still prepared to kill the Archduke, but the most striking one proved to be the licence plate number. Did someone already know in 1914 that Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated in this car, even though a few assassination attempts failed, and that this event would ignite a war that would end on 11 November 1918? The future may have been planned. If there was a plan for the future in 1914, there could be one in place now. This website attempts to make sense of the future. You can join this journey and make some interesting discoveries along the way.

Featured image: Gräf and Stift Double Phaeton ridden by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the time of his assassination. User OlliFoolish (2011). Wikimedia Commons.

1. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]