The law of large numbers

Coincidence or not?

On 11 November 2017 (11-11) I went to Groningen with my wife and son by car. While driving I noticed the date and time on the clock. The date was 11-11 and the time was 10:35. “Wouldn’t it be nice to look at the clock at exactly 11:11 today because it is 11-11,” I was thinking. Then within a second I noticed the distance recorder standing at 111.1. It had been 111.1 kilometres since the car was last filled up. That is curious. Peculiar coincidences can happen by chance. With seven billion people living on this planet, and so many things happening all the time, remarkable incidents happen.

That is easy to see. Imagine you have five dice. Imagine that a remarkable incident is like throwing five sixes. Such a remarkable incident seems very unlikely. If you throw the five dice only once, the remarkable incident probably won’t happen. On average it only happens once every 7,776 times. But if you throw the dice a million times, it almost certainly happens more than once. You should not be surprised to see it happen 120 to 140 times.

Welcome to the law of large numbers. If we intend to make the case that this universe is a virtual reality running a script, and use meaningful coincidences as evidence, this is a big hurdle. A list of strange coincidences isn’t evidence of a script, even if they are very strange. That is because strange incidents like throwing five sixes happen by chance.

A way around it may be to see if the most important historic events are tainted by peculiar coincidences. That may be more telling for two reasons. First, there are only a few major historic events, so the law of large numbers may not apply. Second, if major historic events are tainted with peculiar coincidences, it would more plausibly suggest that someone is ‘writing’ history because these events are significant. Even then the argument remains problematic. You may need to answer questions like what are the most important historic events and what are peculiar coincidences?

Probability

And we run into another problem. Humans are good at attributing a cause but bad at guessing the likelihood of an event. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with an example. It is about a study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States. The research revealed a remarkable pattern. The incidence of kidney cancer was the lowest in mostly rural, sparsely populated counties in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1 So what do you make of that?

You probably came up with a few reasons why kidney cancer is less likely to occur in these counties, such as a healthy rural lifestyle or low pollution levels. But you probably didn’t think of randomness. Consider then the counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is the highest. These counties were also mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1

The apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that those counties all had small populations. And with smaller populations greater deviations from the average can be expected. Our intuition easily makes connections of causality but our reason doesn’t come into action to check whether or not it could just be randomness. We like to think that some cause makes unusual things happen while these could just be random events.

One might call this the law of small numbers. So if we consider the most important events in history, and use this as a sample to prove a cause like someone ‘writing’ history, we are running into this issue. Perhaps it is not possible to prove that there is a script. It might still be possible to make the case more convincing.

Endless possibilities

In the summer of 1913 the ball fell on a black number twenty-six times in a row at the roulette wheel at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Some people lost a fortune by betting that the ball would fall on a red number the next time. They didn’t realise that the chance of the ball falling on a red number never changed. The ball doesn’t remember where it fell the previous times. If we represent black with a B and red with an R, and assume for simplicity’s sake that there is no zero, it is possible to represent falling twenty-six times in a black number like this:

B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B

The probability of the next twenty-six numbers being black is one in 67,108,864. That’s a long shot. What might surprise you is that the following combination of black and red numbers is exactly as likely to occur:

R B B R B R R B R B B R R B R R B R B B R R B B R B

You wouldn’t be thrilled if that happened unless you became a millionaire by betting on this particular sequence of twenty-six. And even then you didn’t think of the 67,108,863 sequences that didn’t materialise. We tend to consider only the things that did happen, but we rarely think of all the things that could have happened but didn’t. That might explain why events like the ball falling on a black number twenty-six times in a row impress us. And I am even more impressed because twenty-six just happens to be my lucky number.

Try to imagine all what could have happened but didn’t happen. Imagine the probability of you sitting here and now reading this page on a tablet or a mobile phone, but as a prediction from 3,600 years ago. Imagine Joseph telling the Pharaoh: “I see (your name comes here) reading a pile of papyrus pages, not real papyrus pages, but images of papyrus pages appearing on something that looks like a clay tablet. It is named The Plan For The Future. But don’t be afraid, dear Pharaoh, for it will happen 3,600 years from now. But if we don’t set up this grain storage, there will be no Natural Money based on this storage, and this money is required for that particular plan, so we must do it. And by the way, Egypt will starve when we don’t.”

The odds for this prediction to come true weren’t one in 67,108,864, and also not one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 either. Even if you add considerably more zeroes to that number, the odds still remain far smaller. The probability is so close to zero that nobody can tell. Nevertheless you are sitting here reading this text. So how could this happen? The answer to this mystery is that so many things could have happened but didn’t happen, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. It would have been impossible for Joseph to make this prediction unless the future is predetermined.

The licence plate on Franz Ferdinand’s car

So what to make of the reference to the end date of World War I on the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car? There are not many events in history as important as the start and end of World War I so the law of large numbers may not apply. It could still be a freak accident. A chance event helped the perpetrator. Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur took the wrong turn after three conspirators had already failed. This gave the assassin the opportunity to strike. He was hindered by the crowd surrounding him so he couldn’t aim well. Nevertheless he managed to kill both the archduke and his wife with just two shots. This sequence of events is already remarkable.

The licence plate number makes it even more inconceivable. It might be possible to guess the end date of World War I by chance if you know that it starts and when. If you assume that the war wouldn’t take longer than twenty years, a random guess of the end date would be right one in 7,305 times, presuming that you know it will start not more than twenty years before 1918. But something doesn’t add up here. The assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps, so if it was a prediction that accidentally turned out right, it would also imply a prediction of the assassination succeeding, Franz Ferdinand being killed in this particular car, and this act being the trigger for World War I.

That’s really, really, hard to do. And so Mike Dash in the Smithsonian noted: “This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax.”2 And because it isn’t a hoax, investigative minds could have probed other options. The only escape is believing that this really, really, is a coincidence. Conspiracy theorists didn’t take notice either, even though this incident fits into their schemes perfectly.

There is a story about a Freemason named Alfred Pike, who allegedly disclosed a secretive plan of the Freemasons to bring about the New World Order. He predicted both world wars with uncanny precision already in 1871. Alas, nobody ever heard of this plan before 1959. It is hoax. In the Netherlands they call it a monkey sandwich story. The licence plate number could have added some credibility to it. But then again, the truth is overrated. It matters more what people believe.

Seeing meaning when there isn’t any

“Everything is just random,” pundits are eager to explain, “but because your mind is wired to see meaning, you see meaning. AIII 118 is just a random sequence of characters, but you attach meaning to it.” There is a problem with this. This text might be a random sequence of characters too, and yet you think it isn’t. Are you delusional because you read words and see that these words have meaning in the sequence in which they are written? Others might argue: “The language of Austria is German. Armistice in German is Waffenstillstand, so why doesn’t it read WIII 118, or even better, W1111 1918?”

If someone gives you a message, you don’t quibble about such details. If I say ‘hello’ to you, you are not going to discuss with me why I didn’t say ‘hi’ instead. That is, unless you are a philosopher with a lot of time on your hands. Great Britain, the United States and France, which were all major participants in the war, all use the word armistice. It might be better to ask yourself how many sequences of characters with a length of six to eight are possible, and how many of them could refer to date of the armistice ending the war? That’s only a small portion for sure.

The law of small numbers

Everything is random and weird coincidences happen by chance. This is the law of large numbers. Pundits use the birthday problem to demonstrate that weird coincidences happen more often than we think. If you happen to share a birthday with another person in a small group, it might strike you as odd, but the chance of someone sharing a birthday with another person is already 50% in a group of 23. What they don’t tell you, is that the chance of you being one of those persons is a lot smaller. Weird coincidences are likely to happen, but less likely to happen to you. So if they happen to you all the time, that would be hard to explain as mere randomness. Wellcome to my life!

And the law of large numbers may not apply to the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car. It applies to large numbers. How many historic events are out there that equal the importance of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Armistice of 11 November 1918 or D-Day? The answer probably is not many. It is less likely that meaningful coincidences happen to such major historic events. To make it even harder to believe, the licence plate number coincidence may not only imply a prediction of the end date of the war, but also the success of the assassination attempt, and this event being the trigger for the war, at least if it isn’t chance.

Only a few historic events equal the importance of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the end of World War I. Perhaps this is just randomness like the incidence of kidney cancer varying wildly in small population samples. There are only a few historic events of similar importance. D-Day is one of those events, and the scheme surrounding D-Day is even more puzzling. This is a bit like four people out of a population of six suffering from kidney cancer and this population being the royal family of the country. Perhaps it is just randomness, but an experienced physician would consider other options.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was predicted. The coincidences surrounding the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are truly dumbfounding. So if you are God, and you want your minions to notice, then what are your options? Framing the question like this makes the answer appear obvious. Indeed, there are countless other options, but asking why this particular path is chosen is as meaningless as asking why I said ‘hello’ instead of ‘hi’. If you took a certain course of action to a certain aim, there are countless others you didn’t take. So if God wants us to take notice, then we live in interesting times.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.
2. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]

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 of them are equally convincing. Accidents happen all the time so it is questionable to relate accidents to a film, even when several actors of the same film had bad luck. 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 Peck 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 Neufeld was staying in was bombed by the IRA.1

An airplane hired by the studio to take aerial shots was switched at the last moment by the airline. The people who took the original airplane 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 Perhaps most of these accidents weren’t exceptional and perhaps they could be attributed to 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 route N348 to Ommen joins Route N35 to Nijverdal. This location currently corresponds with kilometre marker 66.6 on Route N348. Road signs stating the direction towards Ommen are 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 Route N348, but between Raalte and Deventer near Heeten where Route N348 passes the Overmeenweg. This location corresponds with the 60.0 kilometre marker rather exactly. 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 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 a 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 It appears that Richardson has misread the 60.0 kilometre marker and has taken the zeroes for sixes. The numbers may have been worn out if it was an old post.

Kilometre marker 96.1 of route A28 in the Netherlands
Kilometre marker 96.1 of route A28 in the Netherlands

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 Route N348 with Route N35. He may have noticed the 66.6 kilometre marker there and a road sign stating the direction towards Ommen close to it. 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.

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. It is at least remarkable that the 66.6 kilometre marker is near a road sign stating the direction to Ommen on the same road that was the scene of the car crash, so that I came to investigate the curse, most notably because of what happened next.

When I was compiling my findings after receiving the email from De Stentor, a few curious events transpired. 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 happened on a Friday the thirteenth. 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 because his van had broken down earlier that day. That’s a bit peculiar because that doesn’t happen quite often. He came from Almelo while I live in Sneek. There are two routes from Almelo to Sneek. The first one is via Nijverdal passing the junction of Route N348 with Route N35 and the 66.6 kilometre marker. 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 http://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’.4 The texts on the website were incoherent with a few references to Ommen 66.6 in it. This is noteworthy as I currently live in Sneek and previously lived in Nijverdal while my enquiry uncovered that Richardson crashed into the car of a resident of Nijverdal.

A final tidbit is that my wife had a heart condition that made her visit the hospital in Sneek around the same time I was investigating the curse. The name of her doctor is Oomen, a name pronounced exactly like omen. She had an operation in 2018 and is still visiting dr. Oomen a few times per year. There certainly is something strange about The Omen. It may not be a curse but what happened doesn’t appear to be random accident.

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. [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]
4. Dog training Terry Ommen 66.6km. [link]

Getting used to strangeness

Eleven is the fool’s number in the Netherlands. On 11 November (11-11) the Councils of Eleven are elected. It marks the beginning of the carnival season that ends in the celebrations of carnival in February. In the formerly Roman Catholic areas of the Netherlands, which mostly are in the south, forty days of fasting ended with carnival, a feast of excessive eating and drinking in which people disguise themselves in all kinds of costumes. In any case, in the Netherlands eleven is associated with oddity.

Apart from being the fool’s number, eleven is the first double-digit number. Eleven is like a repeating of the same strange event. This is what a coincidences are often about. Something strange might happen that might make you wonder, but if something similar happens again shortly afterwards for unexplained reasons, that could be amazing.

There have been several incidents of this kind in my life. For instance, once I was making a bike trip. A car door suddenly opened in front of me. I could barely avoid a collision. Only ten minutes later, on the same trip, it happened again, with another car on another road. Coincidences of this kind can happen by chance, but if many happen in one life, that could make you wonder.

My son Rob had two biking accidents in which he was injured. The first one happened near home just before the home of a retired physician who could help him with his injuries. The second accident happened on our holidays just before the home of a retired physician who could help him. If you come to think of it, that is odd, even more so because these were the two only biking accidents Rob ever had.

Just before the discovery of Natural Money a strange accident occurred just before our house in Sneek. A car had crashed on a lamppost. The lamppost broke off. Two men stepped out and hared away. A few years later I realised that the accident may have been a prelude to the strange events that came later on. That same day I biked towards IJlst, a village near home. There I found a broken off lamppost that had been removed. This was remarkable because it was on the same road as our house is on the road to IJlst.

Once I was visiting my father. That day I was driving on a narrow road in the vicinity of Nijverdal where my father lived. An oncoming car hit the rear-view-mirror and it broke off. A few weeks later my father had exactly the same type of accident in his car. As far as I know never before had anyone I knew an accident of this kind.

In August 2014 we were waiting for a traffic light near home in Sneek. In the back of the car before us sat a guy who looked like my cousin Rob. And so I told my wife Ingrid about that. My cousin and I had been best friends for over a decade. We made a funny newespaper together. Immediately after I finished speaking, four trucks from transport company Leemans came from the right. My cousin Rob had once decorated a truck of Leemans. When I was eighteen years old my cousin and I went on holidays together, hitchhiking in Scandinavia. A truck driver from Leemans brought us to Norway.

I had never seen a Leemans truck in Sneek before. They were there because of railroad construction work. My cousin came from Haaksbergen, a village halfway between Eibergen where I was born and Enschede where A******* was born. In June 2015 we were leaving Nijverdal after visiting my father. Haaksbergen was in the news because of a shooting incident.1 Haaksbergen had been in the news a few times before because of electricity failures,2 3, skating,4 and a monster truck accident.5 And so I said to Ingrid that Haaksbergen is in the news quite often. Just after I had finished speaking, we passed a Leemans truck by the side of the road.

In 2014 a woman rang our doorbell. Her father was about to turn eighty. He had lived in our house during the 1950s. As a birthday present she wanted to give him a tour in his old home. She made an appointment to visit us the next Saturday. She showed up with her sister and father and I gave them a tour around the house. A few hours later the door bell rang again. Ingrid opened the door to an elderly woman with her daughter and son in law. They asked if they could see the house because she had lived there in the 1960s. Both groups came independently and they hadn’t spoken to each other.

In July 2014 we went on holidays to Sweden and Norway. My son Rob wanted to visit Hessdalen Valley where mysterious lights have been sighted. Those lights look like orbs and so they are known as the Hessdalen orbs. Some people have claimed they were UFOs. When we were in Hessdalen we went to a viewing point on the top of a hill. Some Norwegian guys were standing there for hours already, hoping to photograph a UFO. We didn’t see anything unusual. We took some pictures of the environment. Only, after we came back we noticed orbs on one of the photos we made. But orbs on photographs are a phenomenon unrelated to the Hessdalen orbs so this is remarkable.

Featured image: Orbs on photograph taken at Hessdalen, Norway (2014).

1. Schietpartij Haaksbergen, politie geeft beelden vrij en toont auto schutter. RTV Oost (7 May 2015) [link]
2. Leger helpt Haaksbergen bij stroomstoring. Nu.nl (26 November 2005). [link]
3. Stroomstoring treft Haaksbergen en omgeving. De Volkskrant (29 March 2007). [link]
4. Natuurijsbaan. Wikipedia. [link]
5. Derde dode door ongeluk monstertruck Haaksbergen [link]

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 to see if it solved the issue.

Instead management turned the situation into 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 so finally they were willing to consider my suggestion. Upgrading the database software ended the crisis. This turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.

The situation provided an interesting learning opportunity. Solving a crisis is more important that finding its cause. In times of crisis you may be forced to try the best option even though you are not sure it will work.

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, in my mind they were 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. After eleven years the main systems of 2005 had become of age and it was expected that they would 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 A*******, the lady who appeared to be God. 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. His first name began with an A too. The account wasn’t illegal but 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 all the opposition,” he said and added that he believed I was the best database administrator. Only, he didn’t take any action so I tried to make him put his promise into writing. Just before he left, he wrote down that I could 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. I had worked hard to get the promise in writing because managers and the human resource department weren’t very 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 was the master of my own destiny. But an ominous incident suggested that I was not.

Featured image: Cap Gemini logo