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Saturday, 28 February 2015

Lying eyes

Last Thursday I was visiting the supermarket for groceries. While I was leaving, a supermarket employee went to one of the cash registers and asked a boy standing in the queue whether he perhaps had forgotten to pay for something. The boy acknowledged this. I was curious and took a look at the boy and noticed some clear body language: a head like a tomato.

Nearly anybody would be able to translate this type of body language into the corresponding emotions: guilt, humiliation and shame. Personally I prefer a close look at someone's eyes to distinguish good from bad. Only 2 persons come to my mind of whom I am still not sure about as my emotion, ratio and subconscious are not in sync. For me most people tend to be in accordance with their eyes, body language and facial expressions.

One of my all time favourite TV series (Lie To Me, 2009-2011, rated 8.0 in IMDB) dealt with this topic: using facial expressions and body language for detecting lies. In essence our face is like an open book for those who are expert in this field. The show is inspired by the work of Paul Ekman, the world's foremost expert on facial expressions.

Paul Ekman (b. 1934) is an American psychologist who is a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions, and who has created an 'atlas of emotions' with more than ten thousand facial expressions, and has gained a reputation as "the best human lie detector in the world". Dr. Ekman has served as an advisor to police departments and anti-terrorism groups and acted as a scientific consultant in the production of the TV series. He is also the author of 15 books, including "Telling Lies" and "Emotions Revealed". Sources:,

Aristotle was the first person to extensively study and record his findings, then the practice became tied to astrology in the medieval era. In the 18th and 19th centuries, face reading techniques (a.k.a. physiognomy) was used to detect certain criminal tendencies, and most recently, it’s been used to interpret mental faculties and character traits. Source:

Remarkably, the USA is also well-known for inventing (1921) an instrument for lie detection, being the polygraph. A polygraph (popularly referred to as a lie detector test) measures and records several physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity while the subject is asked and answers a series of questions. The belief underpinning the use of the polygraph is that deceptive answers will produce physiological responses that can be differentiated from those associated with non-deceptive answers. Source:

The accuracy of Dr. Ekman's method versus the polygraph is rather complicated. Dr. Ekman claims his method has an accuracy of some 80% while the polygraph claims a 90% validity. There is one big difference though. The polygraph validity claims are severely debated and even called pseudoscience while Dr. Ekman clearly does not cause the same degree of debate. The admission of polygraph results in court is limited to the USA. Most other countries view it as unreliable and inconclusive.

Reading people fascinates me. Lie to me. Please.......

Lyin' Eyes - Eagles -

Friday, 27 February 2015

Is There Anybody Out There ?

My Kenyan friends always complain about the weather. When it is below 20 Celsius (68 F) it is too cold. When it is above 25 Celsius (77 F) it is too warm. They can hardly imagine the European temps that range from about - 40 Celsius (- 40 F) to + 40 Celsius (104 F). By the way, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was +58 Celsius or 136 Fahrenheit in the Libyan desert. The coldest temperature ever measured was -88 Celsius or -126 Fahrenheit at Vostok Station in Antarctica. Source:

These temperature complaints made me realise something: the more intelligent life is, the more stable environmental conditions it needs to sustain itself. In extreme conditions (e.g., ocean bottom, polar cold, sky high, volcanic heat) we still find life but only basic, simple, organisms. I suppose these organisms need all their energy to maintain themselves against their extreme environment which leaves no room for developing intelligence. This leads me to conclude that any intelligent life form could only develop within a rather stable and "friendly" environment.

The preconditions for developing intelligent life in a stable (non extreme) environment must be a sun, gravity, water and an atmosphere. That should narrow down the probabilities of intelligent life forms.

Our universe consists of galaxies and systems and planets. Planet earth is in the Earth or Teran or Solar system, which is a system in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is part of the entire Universe. Apparently there are perhaps 100 billion (10^11) stars in a galaxy and 100 billion (10^11) galaxies in the universe, giving something in the order of 10^22 (a.k.a. 100 sextillion) stars.

The Sun is about 4.5 billion years old. Since its birth it has used up about half of the hydrogen in its core. It will continue to radiate "peacefully" for another 5 billion years or so although its luminosity will approximately double in that time. But eventually it will run out of hydrogen fuel. It will then be forced into radical changes which, though commonplace by stellar standards, will result in the total destruction of the Earth. Source:

Our Sun is a star but a very special star that gives fire, light, and is self luminous. How many of such very special stars would there be in the universe? It took me some time to find an answer to this simple question. 

A "habstar" - or solar twin - is a star with qualities believed to be particularly hospitable to an Earth-like planet. Qualities considered include variability, mass, age, metallicity, and close companions. Search conditions: At least 3 billion years old, on the main sequence, non-variable, capable of harbouring terrestrial planets and supports a dynamically stable habitable zone. Search results: one example of such a star is HD 70642. Source:

That search result was just about one of my earlier preconditions (sun, gravity, water and an atmosphere). The other preconditions (gravity, water and an atmosphere) cannot be tested as HD 70642 is a yellow dwarf star in the constellation of Puppis located 92 light years away. Source:

Despite the zillions of planets and stars around us, we may be more unique than we assume to be.

Pink Floyd - Is There Anybody Out There:

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Two new oxymorons - Belgium and female solidarity

I have been living and working in Belgium for 18 months and got a much better understanding of its dynamics than the average Dutch person who usually assumes that (s)he knows the Belgians as they speak Dutch too. Well perhaps the Flemish do speak Dutch but the meaning of the words is often entirely different than the Dutch assume. It's also illustrated by the annual Dutch celebration of the Day of the Dutch Dialect while Flanders then celebrates the Day of the Dutch language.

Some day - while watching the Belgian evening news - it struck me that the Belgian weather only applies to Flanders. The Flemish weather forecast stops at the French language border. Remarkably, the Dutch weather forecasts nowadays includes a part of the former Dutch territory in Flanders. However, I doubt that a Dutch invasion is eminent. That invasion already occurred decades ago when Dutch wealth taxes were still high.

Belgium is divided along 2 axis: language and politics. The North speaks "Dutch" and votes in accordance with its ample wealth. The South speaks French and votes in accordance with its lack of wealth. Some 100 yeas ago the wealth situation used to be reversed. Back then the South supported the North. Nowadays the North supports the South. Usually the North and South fight with each other about anything. There is only one group that is perfectly capable in uniting them: the Dutch.

I had to think of the above analogy when considering writing about female solidarity. The concept of female solidarity feels like another oxymoron to me (Wikipedia: a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction). Usually women fight with each other about anything. There is only one group that is perfectly capable in uniting them: men.

Over the years I have seen the striking difference between male coexistence and female coexistence in the work environment. Men tend to judge each other on input (number of hours at work) and output (results) while women judge each other on appearances (e.g., bags, dresses, hair, make-up, scarfs, shoes). Overdressing amongst women is viewed very different than amongst men. For tips, please see my daughter's blog ( which is entirely on fashion a.k.a. appearances.

I still remember the day that I entered the joint secretary office and only noticed crying women. I was immediately pushed out by my secretary with the clear instruction to come back in several hours. Obviously, I had to know what had been going on as I suspected the worst. Later it appeared that a cat had died that morning. I love cats too but I would not cry over them at work.

In my chats with Kenyan women I quite often heard the classic tragedy that a woman's best (female) friend had stolen her boyfriend. The excuse for that was even mind blowing: if a woman is not able to keep her boyfriend (or husband) to herself then she clearly does not deserve him and thus it is entirely justified to take him away from her. The lack of trust amongst women is beyond imagination to men. Women prefer having men as friends and also as colleagues. Probably as it results in less drama and also as men are much easier to manipulate. In that context it is hardly a surprise that women perceive men as rather simple human beings. I guess we are indeed.

By now I trust this blog article will have achieved Belgian and female solidarity, if only for an hour.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Iron Sky - Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love album (2014)

The Paolo Nutini song "Iron Sky" from the album "Caustic Love" (2014) makes me quite emotional each time I hear it. I felt that it would fit into my blog without knowing why. After reading the lyrics today, I now understand. It feels like a synthesis of various blogs that I have been writing about.

"Iron Sky"

We are proud individuals living for the city,
But the flames couldn't go much higher.
We find Gods and religions,
To paint us with salvation.
But no one,
No nobody,
Can give you the power,

To rise over love,
And over hate,
Through this iron sky,
That's fast becoming our minds.
Over fear and into freedom.

Oh, that's life
Left dripping down the walls
Of a dream that cannot breathe
In this harsh reality
Mass confusion spoon fed to the blind
Serves now to define our cold society

From which we'll rise over love,
Over hate,
Through this iron sky,
That's fast becoming our minds.
Over fear and into freedom.

You just got to hold on!
You just got to hold on!

Ohhh ohhhh oh oh

[Sample from the movie "The Great Dictator" (1940) with Charlie Chaplin:]
(To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair.
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed,
The bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.
The hate of men will pass, and dictators die,
And the power they took from the people will return to the people.
And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men -
Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!
You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men!
You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful,
To make this life a wonderful adventure
Let us use that power!
Let us all unite!)

And we'll rise over love,
And over hate,
Through this iron sky,
That's fast becoming our minds
Over fear,
Into freedom.
Into freedom!

From which we'll rise over love,
And over hate,
Through this iron sky,
That's fast becoming our minds
Over fear,
Into freedom

From which we'll rise over love,
And over hate,
Through this iron sky,
That's fast becoming our minds.
Over fear and into freedom.

Rain on me!
Rain on me!
Rain on me!

YouTube video of Iron Sky by Paolo Nutiti:

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Promise and Fear of Change

Change is a fascinating subject. While nearly every politician around the world gets elected through a promise of change, people are actually afraid of change when it comes to their own environment. Change seems to be welcome when it is general and feared when it becomes individual.

The human fear of change within organisations - or life in general - is a topic of a famous and must-read book called "Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life" (1998) by Spencer Johnson. The book describes change in one's work and life, and four typical reactions to those changes. I found a free PDF copy of that book for you at the following URL:

Fear of change must somehow be age related. Kids, teenagers and people in their early twenties seem to have much less fear (of change) than many others. I still remember that I felt a sudden fear many years ago during kart racing as I had recently become a father. That fact brought new responsibilities that I had not felt before. Responsibilities for others than myself. I also remember feelings of fear during a certain stage of my career. I haven't felt such career related fears for quite some years now.

On November 9, 2014 Lucy Kellaway, columnist of the Financial Times, also wrote on this topic: "Losing the fear can be liberating – and dangerous". She even presented a graph in her column on the very same axis: age and amount of fear. The pattern of the graph is almost the same as I described in my previous paragraph. For those who are interested:

Another famous fear of change is usually referred to as vacation stress. Vacation is supposed to give stress relief but vacation is usually only building up stress. I remember my parents getting stressed while preparing for their 2-3 week vacation and then seeing them return after just 1.5 week and then seeing how they would finally relax (at home). Vacation stress relief tends to take place when people are back in their common environment, either at home or at work.

The fear of change is most prominent in organisations that announce a strategic reorientation (e.g., selling activities, closing down factories or outlets), mergers, cost saving programs or a new CEO. People in the midst of their career have a lot to lose and their new behaviour reflects this.

Sometimes even the welcome promise of a change (e.g., an upcoming promotion) can easily turn into anxiety (e.g., fear of failure).

To me the origin (why) of this phenomenon is far less interesting than the way to deal with it (how). Often fear is denied. I am convinced that makes matters worse. Recognition and acceptance are key in understanding fear. Understanding fear is key to liberation.

I found some remarkable quotes for today's blog:
- "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." H.P. Lovecraft, American author, 1890-1937
- "Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live." Dorothy Thompson, American journalist and radio broadcaster, 1893-1961.
- "Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely" (Buddha).

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Betrayal can only happen if you love. (John le Carré)

The English language has two words for the Dutch word "verraad', being betrayal and treason. Both betrayal and treason are featuring prominently in the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. I think that one of these episodes referred to betrayal / treason as being the worst sin ever. I tend to concur with that as I also can't think of any worse one.

While treason is a rather objective - legal - concept, betrayal is not. Betrayal is a rather subjective concept compared to treason. 

The following explanation that I found is quite helpful: "Treason is a criminal offence of disloyalty to the Crown, under the Statute of Treason (1351), still punishable in Britain by life imprisonment. Treachery is a character defect, associated with unreliability and violence. (It also used to be a criminal offence, 1940-1973). Betrayal is the act of breaking a promise or a duty of loyalty". Source:

As betrayal is a rather subjective concept, it is entirely possible that people FEEL betrayed although others would entirely disagree with that feeling given the context or circumstances.

I think my daughter feels betrayed by the divorce of her parents. Yet she was the one who opened my eyes in 2008 when asking "Why don't you get a divorce???" after another parental fight. Also see my earlier (Dutch) blog of 8 May 2014. My former girlfriend once made an intriguing remark by saying that my daughter feels betrayed by me as she feels that I "divorced" her too. 

Somehow I also feel betrayed by my daughter. I feel reluctant to list the many incidents we had during my attempts to reconcile. Many of them felt like a slap in my face. I think that I have tried nearly every tactic but all in vain. Since several months I am fully ignoring her. It is also mutual.

I get lots of outside pressure to reconnect. Everyone has an opinion how I should handle this. Usually I get suggestions for things that I already tried. I have chosen to ignore such suggestions. Mostly, as it is my responsibility and not theirs. Secondly, as I (used to) know her and they do not.

Betrayal is a complicated and strong emotion that has several layers. Even when trust would formally be restored then another, deeper, layer of suspicion would still linger. 

The solution is in the adjective 'subjective'. It would require making the mental leap that betrayal has never taken place. Only one's ratio can convince one's emotion. The ratio of others could assist in creating a reasonable doubt that could (re)start the inner struggle. Yet any fight between head and heart is time consuming and the winner is unpredictable. It took me 10 years to decide to divorce. I doubt that the outcome of my inner struggle was predictable to anyone.

The assumption is the mother of all mistakes. (Eugene Lewis Fordsworthe)

Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love. (John le Carré)

Friday, 20 February 2015

Google - our new digital butler

Remember the word PDA or Personal Digital Assistant? It used to be the predecessor of the smartphone. The term PDA was a little exaggerated compared to nowadays smartphones. The name smartphone is more of an understatement. A smartphone is more like a personal digital assistant to most people. Wherever you go or look, you will see heads bent down towards that device.

Another ginormous PDA is slowly and gradually evolving and it is called Google. Yes, Google. It is not a single device this time but mostly a large number of apps. I am convinced that it is Google's aim to become our digital butler or PDA in daily life as it would probably make them indispensable.

Our daily life has a certain cycle: infotainment (information and entertainment), communication, transportation, work, home, eating / drinking, and sleeping. In most stages Google has rooted itself firmly or is rooting itself as we speak.

The Google search engine (1998) used to be a mere functionality in 3rd party browsers like MS Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. Mounting pressure from MS resulted into a new web browser called Google Chrome (2008). The Google search engine is now the undisputed leader and through Google AdWords also the cash cow for developing everything else. YouTube was acquired by Google in 2006 and is rapidly replacing TV based entertainment amongst young people.

Gmail has become a vital part in our communication. Yesterday's update of the Google Translate app makes it huge ambitions even more clear. Another communication tool is Google+, the FB copycat.

Google's investments in transportation are phenomenal. It started with products called Google Earth (2005) and Google Maps (2005) and by using satellite images. The ability for zooming in was largely depending on the quality of those satellite images. Several years ago weird-looking vehicles suddenly entered the streets of many cities and a product called Google Street View (2007) emerged which enabled further zooming in. Google Maps has turned from a "simple" street map into a massive information database and will no doubt be the launching platform for Google's newest product: the Google (driverless) Car (2012). Google Maps is like the brains of the Google (driverless) Car.

The future Google Glass (2013) may well connect the categories infotainment, communication and transportation. It might become a tool for mobile (!) navigation, browsing and also an online-realtime translation tool. In such case it would become indispensable in metropolitan multi-lingual areas.

The Google products for the work environment are still rather modest compared to their other products which is probably due to the inherent immense diversity of business software / products.

The Nest acquisition by Google demonstrates that Google is also interested in our home environment which makes perfect sense as more and more home appliances are enabling wifi and remote control.

The final (?) step will be the introduction of a human-like interface with all Google products and services and that has the ability to talk, think (through AI) and execute human commands. In that context, the acquisitions of several - if not many - robotics companies (e.g., Boston Dynamics) by Google makes perfect sense, again. The Google Personal Digital Assistant is emerging.

To me the strategic blueprint behind Google's acquisitions is mind blowing. The formal absence of the blueprint and the enormous speed of their developments explain - to me - the continued lack of serious opposition to their plans. So far everything they do looks mostly unrelated. Smart guys.

Thursday, 19 February 2015


Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship. This is a famous quote by the Irish poet and writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). This quote is also the leading theme in the famous Rob Reiner movie When Harry Met Sally (1989) with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. The movie isn't famous for the theme but for its restaurant scene in which Meg Ryan proves to Billy Crystal that women can indeed fake orgasms.

Friendship between men is rather common. Friendship between women is that complicated that it may even require a separate blog rather than a separate blog article. That complicated friendship between women is one of the reasons why women look for male friends, especially gay male friends. Latter already supports Oscar Wilde's earlier quote.

I once saw a YouTube video on this topic which is quite enlightening. I did some effort finding it again and here it is: Go see it as it's hilarious. This video underlines Oscar Wilde's claim but also makes very clear that women and men have a totally different view on this subject.

Friendship is an illusion. It's a title of a hit song by the Dutch band Het Goede Doel (in English their name would be like The Good Cause). The composer, Henk Westbroek, made some interesting comments in an interview on male friendships. The following is a (best efforts) translation of his remarks: "Friends split for the most trivial reasons. Friendships dilute as people move, fight about money or one of them gets a girlfriend with whom the other cannot deal. It may sound a little gloomy but it is the truth. I am able to mention ten to twelve persons with whom I no longer have contact but of whom I assumed that our special connection was forever. I think that many people will recognise this." Source:

Indeed I recognise this. After my 2010 move to Belgium, my 2010-2014 divorce (court) battles, and my 2013 burn-out, I have few friends left in my life. It's okay as I also made an error in judgement by assuming that business friends would be personal friends too. Well, they are not. And some friends actually were just acquaintances. A divorce implies that friends and acquaintances feel the need for taking sides and my moving to another country did not help in that process. I also found out that some people assume that a burn-out may be contagious. Well, that's almost funny. 

Quite often I get female friendship requests through social media. Either the underlying motivation is a long distance relationship or they look for a male-like friendship. I am not interested in either one. 

I only believe in friendship between a man and a woman when they are in a relationship together. Communication in a relationship is vital for making the relationship sustainable. Intimacy is the other key ingredient. Friendship within a relationship allows communication to be open and transparant without being afraid for getting punished for that.

Let me finalise with some hilarious Oscar Wilde quotes:
- I see when men love women. They give them but a little of their lives. But women when they love give everything.
- Men always want to be a woman's first love - women like to be a man's last romance.
- Women are made to be loved, not understood.
- How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Victim role - politicians, bankers and corporate bosses

Many people adopt the victim role, albeit unintentionally, because they are afraid of their anger, deny its existence in themselves, project it onto other people, and anticipate aggression or harm from them. With this expectation and a high sensitivity to anger in others, they may even distort other people’s facial expressions, imagining that they have malicious intentions. The anger that they would have experienced in response to frustration or stress is transformed into fear and distrust of others and into feelings of being hurt or wounded. When people tie their feelings of frustration to the expectation that someone is obliged to satisfy them, victimised, paranoid feelings inevitably arise. Source:

I went through some serious issues in my life and consider myself as knowledgeable when it comes to playing the victim role. Although we usually refer to the word 'playing' it is quite different for the actor (either male or female) of the victim role as (s)he usually firmly believes in that role. Unlike some others I was determined escaping that role as my sulking in negativity became overwhelming.

Acceptance and forgiving are the key issues for migrating from victim to survivor. Acceptance that the suffering that you experienced happened for a reason beyond your control. And forgiving - rather than continue blaming - the other person for what that person did to you (at least in your view). This time consuming process is easier said than done. Relentless willpower is essential. As in Peter Gabriel's magnificent song, featuring Kate Bush: Don't Give Up.

The FT of 16 Feb 2015 featured a very interesting article on victim roles in politics: "Politicians, bankers and corporate bosses have joined the swelling ranks of the oppressed." Below some excerpts.

"At the top of this tree stands Vladimir Putin. Some might see the Russian president’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine as a pretty straightforward act of aggression. Not a bit of it. Mr Putin and his chums in the Moscow kleptocracy are victims of a US-led conspiracy to humiliate and weaken Mother Russia. Seizing Ukrainian territory, while denying all involvement, is a perfectly understandable response to this injustice. Do not laugh. There are plenty of Europeans who insist Washington and its allies carry the burden of blame." Source: FT, 16 Feb 2015

"The Russian leader is in plentiful company. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has built himself a presidential palace that puts Versailles in the shade. But Mr Erdogan too is a victim. Even as he chips away at Turkey’s still-fragile democracy, the president is assailed by more conspiracies than you could count — the western media, foreign non-governmental organisations, the CIA, the Turkish military, the EU, the US government and the Gulenist religious sect are just a few of those determined to do him down. Who can blame him for the turn towards authoritarianism?"

In my view, both are using an intriguing combination of two powerful tools: creating fear in order to unite people against 'foes' while obtaining personal affection (rather than the usual pity) for their continued leadership in these troublesome times.

Individually, the victim role and fear management do not last for years. People get fed up by a person who continues playing the victim role. Some day they realise that also this coin has two sides. Fear management requires friendly media and preferably 'foes' that play along. Combined these two elements may however last much longer.

Nevertheless, I always paraphrase Abraham Lincoln who once said: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. 

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Game Theory and EU/Greek negotiations (to be continued)

Yesterday the negotiations regarding the extension - and its conditions - of the EU bail-out loans to Greece collapsed. That was not a surprise. However, a surprise did emerge: a united eurozone. The entire eurozone is of the opinion that Greece should honour its obligations albeit that the conditions might be relaxed. Greece's proposal for a huge haircut on the bail-out loans is not an option.

A united eurozone is not in the interest of Greece but it is the result of the game theory that they are applying. Divide & Conquer has probably been the most successful strategy for thousands of years. The Game Theory seems to achieve the opposite of the Divide & Conquer strategy: Unite & Lose.

I have been contemplating about the reasons why the Game Theory does not work in this situation and have come up with some ideas below.

Politicians are used to power games like Divide & Conquer. Yet these games are not publicly played because it is in nobody's interest to publicly humiliate the other politician. Revenge is sweet. Public humiliation will cause more public humiliation which - again - is in nobody's interest. Consequently, politicians do not like to enter into the Game Theory in order to avoid public humiliation.

Finance Ministers are like bankers who hate second haircuts to existing files. Greece has already received a favourable treatment after the first round of bail-out loans appeared to be inadequate. The second round of Greek bail-out loans caused a lot of voter - and thus parliamentary - disapproval. A third round of even more relaxed Greek bail-out loans may cause too much disapproval. Politicians like to stay in power and thus prefer avoiding early elections especially on these topics.

Greece wants to be treated like an equal party. Yet they are not. Playing the Game Theory with your back against the wall and your hands and feet tied does not provide realistic bluff to the game.

Greece would set a precedent to others and such a precedent is likely to accelerate EU disintegration.

The Greek Syriza led government plays an unconvincing victim role. The Syriza government claims Greece has been placed under a German jackboot. It makes no difference that fellow eurozone debtors such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland are more adamant than Berlin that Athens must play by the rules of the single currency club. We must put aside the long history of clientelistic and corrupt governance in Athens. Greece was invaded by Adolf Hitler’s Germany; ergo Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, must be held responsible for all today’s ills. Source: FT, 16 Feb. 2015

The Greeks are biting the hand that feeds. The logical human counter response is a slap on the wrist or - worse - a slap in the face.

Despite all the valid arguments above, the Game Theory does not apply in this situation as you need at least 2 actors to play a game like in Tom (Cat) and Jerry (Mouse). If one of the actors refuses to play then the game is dead. Greece wants to play but the EU is stonewalling them into submission. It is either bend (into submission) or break (out of the eurozone). I still expect that Greece will opt for a breakout of the eurozone.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The Game Theory - macro and micro

Last Friday the Financial Times (FT), my favourite newspaper, mentioned an interesting fact with respect to the current negotiations between Greece and the EU about relaxing the conditions of the EU bailout loans to Greece. The newly appointed Greek Finance Minister used to be a university professor teaching his students about the economics Nobel Prize winning Game Theory.

But what kind of game are he and his eurozone colleagues playing? “The simplest way of thinking about it is a game of chicken,” says George Tsebelis, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. The two sides resemble drivers heading for a single lane bridge from opposite directions. Each knows that if they swerve first, they will concede the bridge to the opponent. However, if neither swerves, the result will be a collision, and each hopes to intimidate the other by refusing to swerve. “In these scenarios, each side has an incentive to show he means business,” Mr Tsebelis says. Source: FT, Friday 13 February 2015.

Game theory is the study of strategic decision making. Specifically, it is "the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers". An alternative term suggested "as a more descriptive name for the discipline" is interactive decision theory. Game theory is mainly used in economics, political science, and psychology, as well as logic, computer science, and biology. The subject first addressed zero-sum games, such that one person's gains exactly equal net losses of the other participant or participants. Today, however, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations, and has developed into an umbrella term for the logical side of decision science, including both humans and non-humans (e.g. computers, animals). Source: Wikipedia.

Remarkably, yesterday evening the same subject appeared while discussing my son's study results. 

My son has been complaining about school since he joined at 6. Ten years later he still says that it is boring. We never had his intelligence tested so I have no clue what his official IQ would be. Yet over the years many of his teachers have said that he is very intelligent but that he lacks the will to show it. His sister and I always worked hard for good grades. He didn't and still doesn't. The why escaped me until now.

In a similar discussion some years ago, he rhetorically asked me why he would obtain good grades when the bare minimum is sufficient for passing to the next level. Back then I assumed that his response was a mere "sign of the times". At that time I already made an implicit reference to risk management by arguing that higher grades at least provide a buffer. For 4 years in a row he passed to the next level though never with convincing grades. The last 2-3 years he only passed after a joint teacher discussion regarding his study behaviour and results. 

According to a recent letter of his school, his grades have now most likely become insufficient to pass to the next - and final - level which he admits but does not worry about. In his view he has a zero % chance to fail again next year. Moreover, despite missing a full year of future earning capacity, he does not value his wasted time. He may even consider going to university after graduation.

Yesterday it appeared to me that he - either consciously or subconsciously - applies a rare form of extreme risk management combined with frivolity and high intelligence. The form may be rare but the combination of the 3 elements surely is not.

I told him that it looks like he is applying the Game Theory. He denies it's a game to him. I suppose it's more like an intellectual exercise to him. To me the difference is semantics. 

When departing I asked him whether he would mind mentioning this in my next blog. He didn't. I think he is looking forward to my analysis. Somehow I even feel proud of (t)his experiment.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

US healthcare and mandatory (measles) vaccination

Last Friday the Dutch 8 PM news had a topic about a US measles outbreak amongst others from exposing a child with measles to others in Disneyland. Later it appeared that many of the victims had not been vaccinated. Now the interesting question in some US States is whether vaccination should be mandatory or voluntary.

Unfortunately, many people tend to approach voluntary issues with common sense while mandatory issues often result into heated principle based discussions in which common sense often no longer prevails.

Proposing to make something mandatory in the USA is like asking for trouble. If you want to kill an idea then you better propose a mandatory implementation. Formerly non-political issues suddenly become highly political and often with the help of friendly media.

The protesters against mandatory vaccination do have an issue though. Even in Europe mandatory vaccination is rare. Religious objections are accepted. The discussion in the US is slightly different though. It is more of a political than a medical discussion. Some politicians even argue that parents should be free in their decision whether or not to vaccinate their (legally incompetent) children.

In most civilised and knowledgeable countries there is no debate about the use of preventive vaccination for notorious children's diseases. It is just common sense to prevent your children from highly contagious infection diseases.

The rights of an individual should not outweigh the rights of a group, let alone general public safety. Also, denying a child preventive vaccination and then bringing him/her to hospital for remedial medical treatment does not make any sense.

Some Americans now propose to sue the parents that did not vaccinate their children. In a country that is lacking collective and affordable healthcare, that may indeed be the only option left as US medical bills could well imply personal bankruptcy.

Preventive vaccination - especially for children that cannot yet decide for themselves - should be the norm. Exceptions can only be allowed on religious grounds and only if such people would also deny future remedial medical treatment. Stupidity and ignorance of parents can never be a reason for exempting (legally incompetent) children from preventive vaccination against highly contagious diseases.

I have never even understood parents denying preventive or remedial medical treatment to their children and then referring to God's wishes. The Bible clearly teaches us using our talents for the good of others (Jesus and The Parable of the Talents). Hiding knowledge by "digging a hole in the ground" was - and is - clearly not the way forward. If we were not supposed to use knowledge to our advantage then we would still be living like cavemen and hunting for animals.

The situation in the USA may require an additional approach given the absence of collective and affordable healthcare. From a public safety angle, preventive vaccination should be expensed by the US government rather than by uninsured individuals in order to protect the general public. Why would they even care about a possible future disease while hustling for today's food and bills?

Prevention now is far better and cheaper than future expensive remedial medical treatment.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Big Brother, Big Data and the Presumption of Innocence

Gresham's law is an economic principle that states: "When a government overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation." It is commonly stated as: "Bad money drives out good". Source: Wikipedia.

Several parties are very interested in reshaping the retail banking market: Apple Pay, Bitcoin, Google Wallet, Telecom operators, and no doubt several others of which I haven't even heard yet. These parties are interested in the same data that ING Bank was considering selling to third parties: consumer banking transaction data.

I believe that most of these parties have no interest at all in becoming a retail bank. Their only interest is becoming an integral part of a consumer payment transaction in order to compile and aggregate consumer banking transaction data. Apps like Apple Pay and Google Wallet will ensure that such consumer banking transaction data will become personalised rather than anonymous.

In 2014, Cambridge University built a computer model that could tell, with 60% accuracy - based only on a person’s Facebook “likes” - whether their parents divorced before they were 21. It could also tell, with 88% accuracy, whether a man was gay. The model was based on people’s Facebook likes, as well as their friends’ comments and tags. And it doesn’t only work for people who overshare on Facebook. "Often, the less active you are, the more informative is what you do.” The study underscores the power that computer models have in finding patterns where humans can’t. Source: PBS, Frontline, Sarah Childress, The future of digital marketing is you.

Analysing consumer behaviour and building predictive models is the future of digital marketing. Apple and Google already know where we are at each moment of the day through the apps we have installed in our smart phones. Combining location with consumer (payment) behaviour would lead to personalised offers from stores within a close proximity. The Google Now functionality is already an interesting experiment as it even activates your smartphone by sending warnings / notifications based upon your next agenda appointment and current traffic conditions. It also tracks your whereabouts and attempts to translate that into additional information (e.g., home and work locations).

We're entering the age of Skinnerian Marketing. Future applications making use of big data, location, maps, tracking of a browser's interests, and data streams coming from mobile and wearable devices, promise to usher in the era of unprecedented power in the hands of marketers, who are no longer merely appealing to our innate desires, but programming our behaviours. Source: the Atlantic.

The combination of our web browsing activities, our personal information, our social media behaviour (e.g., FB or Google+ likes, comments, tags, tweets), our payment behaviour and our location would enable computer models to predict not only our next purchase but also our potential, likely, probable or actual violations (e.g., civil, criminal, terrorist, traffic).

Steven Spielberg's movie Minority Report (2002) shows how Big Brother and Big Data could turn out. In the year 2054 crime is virtually eliminated from Washington D.C. thanks to an elite law enforcing squad called "Pre-Crime". They use three gifted humans (called "Pre-Cogs") with special powers to see into the future and predict crimes beforehand. Tom Cruise heads Pre-Crime and believes the system's flawlessness steadfastly. However, one day the Pre-Cogs predict that Tom Cruise will commit a murder himself in the next 36 hours. Worse, Cruise doesn't even know the victim. The movie is based on a short-story by Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), an American novelist and philosopher. His work turned into several major Sci-Fi movies: Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). Source: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The presumption of innocence principle (i.e., one is considered innocent until proven guilty) is already challenged as we speak as mere intentions are nowadays already adequate for severe verdicts. Most of us will not mind in case of terrorism. Most of us would mind if it would concern us.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Mergers between countries

When this topic entered my mind, my initial thought was that it might be too academic. After some research it became clear to me that this topic is far from academic and has been tried multiple times in history, both successful and unsuccessful.

The idea of country mergers entered my mind given the small size of our country, intended de-mergers (e.g., Belgium), and the increasing likelihood of EU disintegration. It is better to consider a merger while not standing with your back against the wall.

The most recent - successful - merger is the one between East and West Germany into Germany (1990). Some other more or less recent country mergers are: North and South Yemen into Yemen (1990), North and South Vietnam (1976), Tanganyika and Zanzibar into Tanzania (1964), Malaya and North Borneo and Sarawak and Singapore into Malaysia (1963) although Singapore left 2 years later, Canada and the Dominion of Newfoundland into Canada (1949), Ukraine and West Ukraine into Ukraine (1919), and lastly Queensland and New South Wales and Victoria and Tasmania and South Australia and Western Australia into the Federation of Australia (1901).

These successful mergers clearly have some common features: they were split-up in the past by others (e.g., Germany, Vietnam), they have the same language (e.g., Germany, Australia), they share a similar territory (Australia).

De-mergers also have some common features: earlier forced upon (post-war) mergers by others, no common language. Examples: Czecho-Slovakia (1918-1993), Yugoslavia (1918-1991). Clearly Belgium also qualifies for a future de-merger at it is also a country based upon a forced post-war merger with no common language (i.e., Dutch, French and German).

Could a merger between Germany and The Netherlands become successful?

Such a merger would be voluntary and thus not have an in-built destructive mechanism. The languages are not entirely common but have a high similarity. The Netherlands shares most of its borders with Germany. Many foreigners do not even understand the difference between the words Deutsch and Dutch. Both countries share a common minority being the former famous Frisian tribe. The Dutch and German economies are highly intertwined. The main trading partner of Germany is The Netherlands (source: Post WW-II sentiments would probably be used against such a merger but they may no longer be effective. However, it is quite likely that the Dutch would prefer Angela Merkel above Mark Rutte (or any other Dutch politician).

In respect of size The Netherlands would be the 3rd largest state of Germany (12%). Only Bavaria (20%) and Lower Saxony (13%) would be bigger. A combined Flanders / Netherlands would even be the second state of Germany (15%). Little would even be changed as every German state has its own government, parliament and cultural identity. The only serious change would be our passport.

Even without a disintegrating EU such a merger would probably be beneficiary for both countries.

Wishing you a happy Friday the 13th !

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Powerful People and Eyes Wide Shut

I have always loved Gino Vannelli's 1974 song Powerful People. Stanley Kubrick's movie Eyes Wide Shut (1999) with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman was fascinating. Yet I had trouble believing its topic. The rather public bunga bunga sex parties of the former Italian PM did not change that belief. The court case against the former chairman of the IMF - and his admissions so far - feels like proof however.

The movie is about Tom Cruise who learns about a secret sexual group and decides to attend one of their congregations by using the password supplied by a friend. He gains access to the party which is held at a remote mansion on Long Island. The party features cloaked and mask-clad men and women performing quasi-religious pagan like rituals of pornographic nature, before retiring to watch or participate in a variety of sexual acts in other rooms through the mansion. However, Tom Cruise quickly learns he is in well over his head and finds he and his family are threatened (source: IMDB).

The beautiful term "eyes wide shut" feels like an intriguing combination of amazement, humiliation, shame and secrecy. In a more political connotation it would feel like tolerating (sexually) erratic behaviour of powerful people in business and politics.

There is a history full of powerful men and sex scandals. Hence there must be a relationship. What is it that drives these men towards their imminent fall?

There are two sides to this story. The one that is often talked about deals with the entourage surrounding powerful people. Like groupies to a popular band. People change their behaviour towards powerful people. Power attracts sex though I prefer the beautiful Dutch phrase 'macht erotiseert'. Power has some kind of mystical erotic element towards the people not being in power.

The more interesting question is why powerful people become receptive towards such temptation. Why engage in illegal, immoral or unethical activities that may lead to your fall from power into disgrace and oblivion?

Reasons may be the abundant availability within the entourage, or it's just basic human (sexual) behaviour, or it's like stress relief from overly demanding jobs, or that power is like a drug that clouds your mind. While all these explanation make sense, none seems to be prevailing.

Apparently even science has difficulty explaining this topic. Yet at least science ruled out that it is exclusive male behaviour. The same behaviour applies to women in power. 

I feel that prolonged power makes people feel untouchable. Relative power transcends into a feeling of absolute power. Partly resulting from submissive behaviour of subordinates, partly resulting from the privileges that naturally come with power. In this permissive environment powerful people get the perception that they are like gods, kings or emperors who indeed had absolute power.

Unfortunately, powerful people tend to forget that they were chosen or elected and that such a process can be easily reversed. Using violence is no longer required unlike removing kings and emperors in ancient times. Nowadays power is relative and never absolute.

It can't be a surprise that I love seeing Game of Thrones (HBO) and House of Cards (Netflix).

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Kazakhstan - Russia's next target

Apparently Mr Putin has once said that the fall of the Soviet Union is Russia's biggest mistake ever. So far I have not been able to google that quote. Nevertheless, it would explain a lot about current and past events.

When comparing Russia with the former Soviet Union then three different geographical areas spring into view:
1. the 3 rather small countries in the south-west: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia;
2. the 6 Baltic and Slavic countries in the west: Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine;
3. the 5 Muslim countries in the south: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan usually referred to as Central Asia.

On 8 August 2008 Russia launched a full-scale military operation in Georgia ostensibly to protect its peacekeepers and nationals who were facing attacks and persistent persecution in Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (source:

Late February 2014, Russia began to send troops and military equipment into Ukraine following the February 2014 Ukrainian revolution and Euromaidan movement, including the contentious ousting of President Victor Yanukovych (source: Wikipedia).

Kazakhstan is by far the largest country of Central Asia and has ample borders with Russia. Late August 2014, Mr Putin said: "I am confident that a majority of its population supports development of close ties with Russia". "Nazarbayev is a prudent leader, even the most prudent in the post-Soviet space. He would never act against the will of his country's people." Kazakhstan, he said, was "part of the large Russian world that is part of the global civilisation in terms of industry and advanced technologies. I am confident that that's the way things are going to be in the medium - and long-term." Nazarbayev had "done a unique thing. He created a state in a territory that had never had a state before. The Kazakhs had no statehood." (source: the Guardian).

It is also noteworthy that the Central Asian region, along with Russia, is also part of 'the great pivot' as per the Heartland Theory of Halford Mackinder, which says that the power which controls the Central Asia - richly endowed with natural resources - shall ultimately be the Empire of the world (source: Wikipedia).  

Kazakhstan has a mixed shiite and sunni population which could be an advantage but is probably a disadvantage as a Russian invasion is more likely to divide and paralyse the Islam world and leave Kazakhstan without support.

I really don't understand why people claim that they fail to understand the Russian moves. Its strategical intentions are clear and its military actions are fully in line. 

Denying presence until proven victory (e.g., Crimea) makes perfect sense to me: if you can't beat them, confuse them.

Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love is a well-known title of a 2006 book by Elizabeth Gilbert and a 2010 movie with Julia Roberts. The full book title is: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. It is about a married woman who realises how unhappy her marriage really is, and that her life needs to go in a different direction. After a painful divorce, she takes off on a round-the-world journey to "find herself" (source: IMDB).

To me this title has a different connotation. To me the 3 words symbolise the different stages one needs to go through after a dramatic - life altering - event (e.g., divorce). In my view Eat stands for the basic needs of life in order to stay alive, Pray is the spiritual stage in which one pleads for hope and direction, and Love is the final - emotional - stage in which one can open up one's heart again.

This topic has been on my blog topic list for a while now. I didn't really know how to approach it but never ever considered deleting it from my list of pending topics. To be honest I think I am still in phase 2 and I have no idea if - or when - phase 3 will arrive. Like in the movie (indeed as I didn't read the book), my defence mechanisms are still fully operational and have reached a remarkably sophisticated level. Few are able to come - and stay - close to me.

Love is a remarkable thing. Despite a marriage of many years and a subsequent 5 year relationship, I never knew the feeling of love until 52. I was lucky to experience it but it also set the threshold for the future. Today I fully realise that I prefer being alone rather than entering again into a new relationship with someone whom I merely like. Liking is just not enough anymore. Loving allows forgiving someone. Liking just doesn't do that trick. It just builds up irritation and frustration.

Ms Gilbert went to Italy (Eat), India (Pray) and to Bali, Indonesia (Love). I have been thinking about a similar kind of journey albeit only for stage 3. Stage 1 and 2 took place at my home although there is some discussion about the extent of my stage 1. I do enjoy food again although I still don't cook. However, eating is no longer a tool to survive.

I am not sure what is withholding me from moving towards stage 3 (Love). Perhaps stage 2 is not yet fully completed although I think it is. Moreover, I don't believe these stages are as sequential as the book and movie suggest. I am quite sure that stages 1 and 2 have been parallel for a while in my case. Therefore, there should be no restriction in my moving towards stage 3. Yet there is.

Something is keeping me "grounded" from embarking on my own journey. It has been bugging me for a while now. I feel I need to stay "here". One could of course argue that if stages 1 and 2 were "here" then stage 3 could also be "here". Yet I feel there is more reason to it.

The last time I ignored my feelings and left on a journey against my better judgement, I fell in love and got heartbroken for many, many months. On top of all other issues in my life at that point. Yes I did find love for the first time in my life at 52 though the price was high, very high, but not too high.

This time I will follow my inner feelings, stay "here", and see where it will lead to. The wind of change is blowing and will soon be arriving. So much is clear to me.

I am not in love but I'm open to persuasion....... (Joan Armatrading, Love and Affection, 1976)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Parliamentary democracy in The Age of Wisdom

An interesting guy featured in my favourite Sunday evening TV broadcast: Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian businessman and novelist (1959). One of his remarks was about intelligence and wisdom: too much intelligence does not create wisdom. Immediately I was reminded of what a headhunter once said to me: the word too - like in too much - never indicates anything good.

Ricardo Semler used the example of today's employee hiring processes that all look for the best and brightest. Nevertheless, most of these companies will turn into oblivion within decades. Hiring the best and brightest may even be a recipe for disaster, he said, while referring to the banking industry. According to him any organisation needs to reflect the ordinary world to maintain sustainability.

Pooling intelligence in organisations that are driven by short term gains will obviously direct that intelligence towards their short term goals. One cannot expect wisdom to appear where greed rules.

Ricardo Semler also wondered when the Age of Wisdom would finally start given the advances in intelligence that we had made. We do admire wise men like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela but would we elect them in office today? Usually we prefer to elect the people into office who promise us the things we want although we know that they will not be able to deliver.

We admire wise men as they provide a moral compass but we may not often listen to their wisdom as doing good and right may be boring. The mere existence of wise men already makes us feel less guilty about our own shortcomings.

The Age of Wisdom will never arrive as long as we keep on electing new people with new promises into office each 4 years. The Age of Wisdom and parliamentary democracy do not go well together. Most other systems have failed too. Usually as personal interests prevail over common interests.

The continued decline in voter turnout in mature parliamentary democracies illustrates that voters no longer believe that voting makes a difference. Parliamentary democracy is on its return yet there is no alternative in sight. A declining voter turnout even allows outliers to gain more relative power than deserved. Hence power becomes more fragmented and governing even more complicated.

The Age of Wisdom may thus well require people to waive their political rights.

In what situation would the majority of people be prepared to do such? Some elements that come up for consideration are a healthy balance between equality and inequality, food, housing, education, healthcare and obviously entertainment. Like in ancient Rome: give the people bread and circuses and they will be satisfied and will not revolt.

The Age of Wisdom may well evolve towards a technocracy, until now a hypothetical concept.

A technocracy is a form of organisational structure or system of governance where decision-makers were selected on the basis of their expert knowledge. Source: Wikipedia.

Although The Age of Wisdom may finally feel achievable, Greed and Power remain its Nemesis.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Environment: probability x impact

One of the issues that keeps amazing me is how people - including governments - apply statistics in daily life's decisions. Probability - also known as chance - seems to be the only relevant factor in discussions. For instance, a probability of 0.05% is an event that may happen once every 2,000 years. A probability of 0.05% is also seen as "statistically insignificant" and a probability of 0.01% even as "statistically highly insignificant".

These probabilities are for instance used in the required height of Dutch dykes to protect us from future flooding as some 1/3 of our country is below sea level. It is my understanding that (most) Dutch dykes are built while using a probability of 0.05% that the height will not be sufficient to prevent future flooding. Hence a probability that once every 2,000 years we have a major flooding.

It is also my understanding that the New Orleans dykes were built while using a 5% (!!) probability that the height would not be sufficient to prevent future flooding. Hence a probability that once every 20 (!!) years the New Orleans dykes would not be sufficient to prevent flooding. We all know what happened in 2005 after the Katrina hurricane hit New Orleans.

The other relevant factor in statistical discussions is Impact. Or in risk management terms: Risk = Probability x Impact.

A probability of 0.05% is also referred to as tail risk or even catastrophe risk. In layman's words it is the risk that a catastrophe may occur once in every 2,000 years. However, it is not necessarily AFTER 2,000 years but the event may also occur AFTER - say - a 100 years. You just don't know. It is like rolling a dice 2,000 times. Once every 2,000 times a certain type of event will occur (e.g., the dice will not show one of its 6 faces but will rest on a corner). That event could happen the first time or the 2,000th time but - more likely - will happen somewhere in between.

Remarkably the Impact factor tends to be rather neglected in environmental risk discussions.

The aftermath of Katrina must have costed a fortune. Unfortunately, by lack of data I am unable to show the penny wise, pound foolish behaviour in building the original New Orleans dykes. I have no clue what risk management probabilities were used in building the Chernobyl nuclear power plant but we all remember the 1986 catastrophe.

While risk management discussions always talk about Probability and Impact, tail or catastrophe risk is strangely enough accepted in cases of a 0.05% probability. Nevertheless, it is certain that a once every 2,000 years a catastrophic event will occur.

The Environment is not only for us. It is also for future generations. We only use it for some 100 years. Next generations would expect us to take their interests into account, especially in discussions that would affect their future interests (e.g., nuclear technology, fracking).

I agree that in most discussions the Probability factor may indeed prevail but only when the Impact is manageable in our lifetime. However, in some discussions Impact should prevail above Probability.

In situations that could and - thus - would involve a catastrophic risk that affects future generations, the Impact should be leading in discussions and decisions rather than its "statistically insignificant" Probability.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Healthcare, medicine mafia and Automotive

Many years ago I was introduced to someone who was busy with setting up a company for introducing a long existing, but out-of-patent, drug which had shown some remarkably positive effects on people with another - but more rare - disease. Apparently this phenomenon is even quite common as many proven effective drugs get alternative applications. He was the first one ever to teach me the word medicine mafia. This term is well known within the healthcare industry but hardly outside. An interesting observation.

The medicine mafia does its very best to restrict market access to newcomers to protect the high profitability of that sector. Every product that gets the label healthcare suddenly explodes in value especially in the case of auxiliary materials. Despite the availability of cheap over-the-counter generic brands, the expensive healthcare labeled products tend to be preferred.

Privatising healthcare is clearly not the solution as the USA should have taught us by now. Their system is extremely expensive compared to ours. Privatisation has caused an incentive for performing - and billing - even more medical procedures as profit is in volume. It is not uncommon in the US for billing unnecessary procedures or even procedures that were never ever carried out. Nevertheless, we are looking at privatising hospitals while they are looking at our healthcare system (Obamacare).

When neither our Dutch model nor the US private commercial hospital model is the solution then it is time to monitor other industries for proven effective cost control solutions.

To some extent patients, hospitals and insurers could be compared with cars, car repair / body shops and car leasing companies. In both cases cost control for the insurers and leasing companies is cumbersome due to the immense volume of transactions.

Nevertheless, Automotive could still teach healthcare some valuable lessons. In many industries the majority of transactions is rather default (70-90%) and the minority (10-30%) is very specific and thus usually expensive. In Automotive, the default authorization requests for car procedures are fully automated. Their reimbursement is also fully automated. For other transactions a manual authorization is required before a procedure can start. If there is no authorization then there will be no reimbursement. This situation brought back cost control in Automotive.

While developing an automated medical authorization and reimbursement system could take several years, the cost savings could be well beyond imagination especially when auxiliary materials would also be included. To some extent an effort in healthcare has already been made many years ago when a price database was built that shows which (generic) medicines are allowed for reimbursement and to what extent.

Obviously there were some complaints in Automotive when drivers - for instance - were refused new tires - shortly before their annual vacation trip - given close proximity to maximum contractual mileage. These incidents were more foolish then serious however.

Ethical questions about refusing treatment to patients - for instance given their very high age - would be a political issue rather than a consideration for healthcare insurers.

Woningmarkt en generatie hypotheken

De term markt in de Nederlandse woningmarkt is misleidend. Een echte markt creëert een gezond evenwicht tussen vraag en aanbod middels prijsvorming. Hoewel we enkele jaren van prijsdalingen hebben gezien, lijkt die periode al weer tot het verleden te behoren. Een structurele mismatch tussen vraag en aanbod, gecombineerd met hypotheekrenteaftrek, zal ongetwijfeld leiden tot de noodzaak van het afsluiten van zogenaamde generatie hypotheken waarbij het aflossen van een hypothecaire geldlening een kwestie van generaties zal worden.

Het doorbreken van het huidige "marktevenwicht" is niet eenvoudig. Waar te beginnen?

De Nederlandse overheid zou kunnen beginnen met het creëren van een eigen versie van Fannie Mae en Freddie Mac. De Amerikaanse Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA), beter bekend als Fannie Mae, werd opgericht in 1938 en is een door de Amerikaanse overheid gesponsorde organisatie waarvan de aandelen sinds 1968 beursgenoteerd zijn. Freddie Mac staat voor Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), werd opgericht in 1970, en is vergelijkbaar met Fannie Mae.

Deze nieuwe Nederlandse entiteiten verstrekken hypothecaire leningen aan huizenkopers en kopen de sociale woningvoorraad op van woningbouw corporaties. Deze nieuwe entiteiten geven zowel beursgenoteerde aandelen en door de overheid gegarandeerde bedrijfsobligaties uit die worden gefinancierd door (Nederlandse) pensioenfondsen die daarmee een relatief goed renderende investering met een laag risico in de boeken krijgen.

De huidige woningbouw corporaties worden makelaarachtige en service bedrijven. De maandelijkse huuropbrengsten worden gebruikt voor de maandelijkse huurbetalingen aan de NL Fannie Mae en Freddie Mac. Exit rentederivaten bij MKB achtige corporaties. Bovendien kan het overtollige eigen vermogen via een dividend achtige uitkering naar de Rijksoverheid terug aangezien het nieuwe risicoprofiel van de woningbouw corporaties een schim is vergeleken met het verleden.

Alle huren worden marktconform middels een door de overheid vastgesteld normatief rendement op de investering. Voorbeeld: veronderstel dat de jaarlijkse normatieve huurprijs 4% is van de vrije verkoopwaarde van 300.000 euro, 4% van 300.000 = 12.000, dus maandelijkse huur is 1.000 euro. Huurders krijgen eenmalig het recht op de koop van het huurhuis tegen vrije verkoopwaarde minus een korting van 30%. Financiering van de resterende 70% geschiedt tegen standaardvoorwaarden bij Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac of anders bij een commerciële bank. Verhuizen is de restoptie.

De hypotheekrenteaftrek wordt afgeschaft, ook voor bestaande hypotheken. Het financiële verlies voor - alleen - bestaande hypotheken wordt gecompenseerd door een verlaging van het op een (1) na hoogste marginale IB tarief voor de resterende duur van de hypotheek. Tezamen met een (maximale) Loan-to-Value ratio van circa 75% zal dit de toekomstige oververhitting van de huizenprijzen tegen gaan. Eigen geld inbrengen wordt weer de norm, net zoals vroeger.

Starters op de woningmarkt kunnen terecht bij Fannie Mae en Freddie Mac die een verhoogde Loan-to-Value ratio accepteren voor starterswoningen.

Huizenbezit is vele generaties lang de beste spaarpot c.q. belegging geweest. Toekomstige generaties moeten we echter ook in staat stellen om zelfstandig een eigen huis te kopen. Dat wordt steeds moeilijker als we de onevenwichtigheden op de woningmarkt niet oplossen. 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Freedom of religion / religious tolerance

The city of Gouda, already famous for its cheese, is getting even more famous - or infamous - for another reason: the plan for building a mosque and cultural centre with a capacity of 1,500 people. Today the municipality of Gouda allowed this plan. People living in that area are now considering whether to take legal action and appeal against that decision.

This topic makes me uncomfortable as 2 different concepts fully collide: reciprocity versus freedom of religion / religious tolerance.

It is unthinkable that any Muslim country would allow building a Christian Cathedral in their country with such a huge capacity. So why should we allow people building a huge mosque in our country?

The only argument could be freedom of religion or tolerance for other religions for which Europe is still famous and the Middle East once was too but a long, long time ago.

Clearly religious tolerance has its limitations in the Muslim world. So why don't we apply similar restrictions? Are we more smart or more stupid? I do have a feeling what the answer would be when asking this question in the Muslim world.

I must suppose that building this mosque is a private enterprise using donations from domestic and foreign origin. While writing this I already feel uncomfortable using the word foreign origin. Perhaps the funding of this mosque may even come from foreign governments, or government sponsored sources, or from very wealthy individuals who may even be under scrutiny by intelligence forces.

In my view, the so called Dutch Bibob law (Wet bevordering integriteit beoordelingen door het openbaar bestuur) should also apply to the funding of projects such as this mosque. If there is any doubt that the funding of this project is from questionable sources then no building permit should be granted. Given the current situation it would make perfect sense to take some preventive action.

Unfortunately this is a legal approach to a matter that should be principle based.

We are good in using legal courts for ethical issues that cannot yet be solved by parliament: for instance the right to end your own life, the question when medical treatment is no longer cost efficient. In such ethical cases politicians are afraid to burn themselves and prefer hiding behind legal verdicts. Should this however be a similar situation??

Perhaps ethical dilemmas should be subject to a referendum rather than party politics or legislation.

I expect that the outcome of such a referendum would be that reciprocity rules. I think and feel that more and more people nowadays are fed up with unlimited / unrestricted tolerance.

I may like to be foolish but I am not a fool.

Outsourcing and Shared Services Centers

I am not an advocate of internal outsourcing (shared services centers) or external outsourcing. In fact I am against it. I wonder who really drives such decisions. I suppose it must be a CEO (BU / division / country / group) as the fall-out of such decisions usually is for others to clean up. As a CFO I have never really seen the benefits of SSC's or outsourcing. Only the mounting irritation and frustration.

Let's start with internal outsourcing or Shared Services Centers (SSC's). While the SSC staff member used to be part of a team in a business unit, (s)he is now no longer privy of daily operations. Information does no longer come naturally but needs to be requested. This works both ways. Ad hoc meetings, reports or questions become cumbersome as it may well conflict with the SSC manager's priorities. A SSC manager is always under attack as gains are claimed by others and pains are blamed on the SSC. Escalation processes are however internally and solutions may arise on a timely basis although grudges may be building and lingering.

Economies of scale tend to be absorbed by appointing supervisors and the well-paid SSC manager. The Business Unit (BU) loses flexibility and starts blaming the SSC, rightly or wrongly. The increasing control at the SSC is eroded by the decreasing communication with and information from the BU. SSC recharges to BU's suddenly become a management board issue even if the cost level is equal or less. The motto usually tends to be "if you cannot beat them, confuse them".

Outsourcing however is far worse than a SSC. Staff that used to be under your control is no longer able to answer questions, attend meetings, or solve emergencies. Everything needs to be formally requested and responses are based upon a Service Level Agreement (SLA). The SLA is the heart of the problem. With the knowledge of hindsight it never covered all the issues that would be arising.

The biggest frustration of outsourcing is the lack of control in the new situation. The biggest deception of outsourcing are the savings. In case the outsourcing partner is smaller than its client then cost control may still be feasible. Once the outsourcing partner is much bigger than its client then cost control becomes an illusion. Finding a workable exit (clause) in an outsourcing agreement may prove difficult. Continued renewal of the contract may be the only option left.

SSC's, outsourcing contracts, and group recharges are usually an obstacle for selling - or purchasing - any business. Fully independent businesses are much more transparent and easier to value.

Outsourcing vital knowledge to countries that are well-known for hacking and stealing sensitive company data, violating patents, and then taking legal action after finding cheap copycats is even beyond my comprehension. How stupid can one be?

The worst possible situation arises when management wants to outsource its internal problems. Outsourcing a problem is sheer impossible. In fact the former problem will come back and turn into a (financial) nightmare. You must clean up your house before you even consider outsourcing.

I wonder why outsourcing and SSC's are still popular themes. Perhaps no one is willing to talk about the failures or exploding cost. Perhaps the outsourcing partner was a related party and the deal not at arm's length. I have even witnessed an - early - extension of a long-term outsourcing agreement only to mask the exploding cost as the attempt to turn fixed cost into variable cost had failed miserably.

If you want to lose your flexibility, communication, cost control, or - worse - your company's sensitive data then please consider SSC's or - worse - outsourcing.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

I have been wondering for a while why I keep on writing these blog articles. I have never ever done such a thing before. I didn't even know that I could write articles although one of my long time desires is writing a book. Since 2014 I have made some attempts writing books but they are still unfinished business in the absence of conviction and determination.

Early 2014, when I started this blog, I got some initial negative feedback that urged me to reconsider what I was doing. Supposedly, it was bad for my career (prospects). More recently I have put much more effort into my blog for the exact opposite reason. I feel that it may help finding a future match. Business wise but perhaps even on a personal level too.

There is however an even more compelling reason why I am writing my blog. I realised that when I saw the 2005 graduation speech of Steve Jobs at Stanford University again on TV. He ended his speech with the words: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. It was his appeal to his fellow graduates as an outlook towards life. The opposite of being absorbed and dull.

I suppose these words have been my driving force since long although mostly on a subconscious level. This blog has made me even more conscious of what actually drives me. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Never stop learning and never be afraid to ask the simplest question of all: Why? Asking once - or even twice - is usually not enough as people tend to hide behind their words.

Writing this blog allows me to focus on the essence of matters that come close to my heart and mind. In a way it even comes close to a legacy. To others, to myself and to my inner peace. Obviously I also hope that it may help others in finding their way. Nevertheless, that is a byproduct. I do not write for others. I write for myself. To better express what I feel is important while using a minimum of words and a maximum of impact. I strongly believe in less is more.

Nowadays I sometimes get a personal response from people reading my blog. Once in a while I get a suggestion for reading an article that may be suitable for a new topic. I really appreciate both. It makes me even more determined to continue.

Most recently I have decided that this period in my life has become my long overdue sabbatical. My hunger and foolishness had been absorbed by a failed marriage, a failed relationship as well as an overabundant loyalty towards a friendly company with a hostile management. For several years anger, irritation and frustration had replaced hunger and foolishness. At times I felt like being one of the grumpy old men Waldorf and Statler.

My past due collision with the notorious brick wall has been cathartic. To be entirely sure I verified with Wikipedia: Catharsis (from the Greek word katharsis, meaning purification or cleansing) is the purification and purgation of emotions - especially pity and fear - through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. This word feels very appropriate indeed.

Today I am able to say that I have never felt better in my entire life. I finally feel at peace, mostly with myself. I have finally accepted myself for who I am. I have become my own best friend and therefore never feel lonely despite being alone for the first time in my entire life. Being a human being rather than a robot, I do have my relapses though, especially around holidays (e.g., Christmas).

Recently someone asked me how do I manage my situation. My answer was: through my overwhelming will to survive. That will itself is based on my belief, faith, trust and religion. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Cybertopia, seasteading and Ayn Rand

Recently I saw an intriguing documentary on TV that was called Cybertopia. It featured the opinions of some very wealthy people from Silicon Valley, California, USA. One of these ideas was to replace future government by cybertronics (hence Cybertopia) as government was not capable of being efficient. Another idea was to divide California in 5 new countries, one of them being Silicon Valley. Another idea was to create a new floating country/city in international waters (a.k.a. seasteading).

I must admit that these ideas had an initial appeal on me until I heard the deeper argumentation. Then my initial appeal turned into some kind of fear. The common theme in their words was less - or preferably no - government. The scary part was in the extreme conviction of these ideas. One of these newly rich compared Government with Evil and was totally serious about it. He is also a supporter of Ayn Rand.

I have heard Ayn Rand's name several times over the past 2 decades but never took the opportunity to do some research on her. Today I finally did and it makes very clear why she is so popular in certain layers of American society. She said out loud what they think but are afraid to say in public. Afraid because of the shame they must still feel in defending such ideas. Some are past that shame and express these ideas in public. I felt a sense of fear while hearing these ideas on TV.

Russian Jewish born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum (1905-1982) outlined her philosophic ideas for future society - which she referred to as Objectivism - mostly in a novel called Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion. She supported rational and ethical egoism, and rejected altruism. In politics, she condemned the initiation of force as immoral and opposed collectivism and statism as well as anarchism, instead supporting laissez-faire capitalism, which she defined as the system based on recognising individual rights (source: Wikipedia).

One could well argue that Ayn Rand's ideas are a clear response to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and to the Russian Revolution that started in the year she was born (1905). She must have heard and seen quite a lot of the post revolution horrors - including WW1 - before she migrated from Russia to the USA in 1926. Those horrors must have defined her ideas.

While Ayn Rand objected to anarchism, her supporters clearly believe in anarchism (Wikipedia: a belief in the abolition of all government and the organisation of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion). They cherry-pick on her ideas to create a society which they fully control themselves through their immense wealth. 

One of their ideas is seasteading which is the concept of creating permanent dwellings at sea, called seasteads, outside the territory claimed by the government of any standing nation (Wikipedia). Just think of a former oil platform with luxury apartments, a park, and a helicopter landing zone. Basically, seasteading is their way to avoid evil taxation and evil government. 

However, a society is more than a tax free life in a luxury apartment in international waters. It involves medical care, an independent legal system (laws, police, judge), infrastructure. Some of this is for sale but not all. I sincerely doubt that cybertopia and seasteading can evolve into sustainable societies. Foremost as the underlying motivation (extreme selfishness) is unsustainable.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Role of Finance

Last week I got a rather simple question: what does a finance manager actually do? The simplest questions (e.g., why, who, what, when, how) may however be the most dangerous of all. Firstly, I had to smile as I thought that the answer would be so obvious. Then I had a second thought: what if the person who was asking really has no clue what finance management is all about? How would and should I explain this role in layman's terms?

Describing the usual finance output (e.g., producing reports and the annual accounts) or describing the usual finance input (e.g., recording transactions a.k.a. bookkeeping) does not really help explaining the role of finance. It does not explain the vital role of Finance which is underlined by the usual CFO role in the management board.

Organisations create added value by supplying goods or services and in that process they buy, sell, produce, maintain stocks, etcetera. Most departments have a functional role in this process: Procurement, Sales, Operations and Warehouse. The only department that monitors and controls the entire value chain (from order to cash) is Finance.

The Finance department records all the transactions generated by other departments: the Accounts Payable dept records the purchase invoices and prepares payment proposals based upon supplier conditions, the Accounts Receivable dept used to record sales invoices before they were automated, they record incoming customer payments and chase overdue debtors. These are the easy examples.

The Finance manager is thus responsible for the entire value chain but still this is not yet the essence.

Any living organism has the will to survive unless it is terminally ill. As organisations (e.g., companies) are comprised of human beings, the same will to survive is found there. It is called different though. Buzz words like sustainability, profitability, liquidity, return on investment (ROI), and solvency are - ultimately - used to describe the same phenomenon: the will to survive.

Living organisms have an instinct to survive. The instinct automatically knows what to do (e.g., run, hide, defend, attack) and is based on the accumulated genetically stored experience of thousands of years. Organisations do not have one instinct but have the instincts of many but usually only the instincts of a few actually matter.

To some extent the Finance manager is the organisation's instinct as (s)he gathers data and information from every source in the organisation and acts like the organisation's early warning system. The Finance manager actively looks for anomalies of any kind, investigates its causes, and then informs and advises the Boss (e.g., CEO) who - ideally - takes remedial action. Future anomalies have also become an important part of the Finance job. It is usually referred to as (Enterprise) Risk Management.

In more simple words: the Finance manager monitors and controls the organisation's profitability (historic, current and future) on an ongoing basis, and ensures that the organisation is having adequate cash for paying current and future debts and salaries on a timely basis. That's all folks.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Vroom & Dreesmann

De neergang van Vroom & Dreesmann (V&D) valt op diverse manieren te benaderen: de consumenten die niet kopen, het middelmatige assortiment, de hoge prijzen, de diverse Amerikaanse aandeelhouders die het bedrijf hebben leeg gezogen. Het enige echte relevante is dat ruim 10.000 medewerkers in 63 locaties mogelijk deze maand (februari 2015) hun baan zullen verliezen.

Onlangs meldde een retail deskundige in het 8 uur journaal dat 33% van alle retail vestigingen de komende jaren zal sluiten. Je zou verwachten dat dit ophef veroorzaakt. Niet dus. Slechts gelatenheid.

V&D is in 1887 als familiebedrijf begonnen. Dit jaar bestaan ze dus 128 jaar. Ben benieuwd of ze hun verjaardag gaan halen. Ik verwacht van niet.

Een doorstart - na een faillissement - verwacht ik ook niet. Dat vereist een commercieel gezonde business case die er niet zal zijn in deze tijd. Feitelijk vragen de verhuurders en het personeel zelf het faillissement van hun klant resp. werkgever aan. Weegt een loonoffer van 5,8% op tegen een werkloosheidsuitkering? In principe niet. Tenzij je verwacht dat V&D toch geen toekomst heeft.

Qua marktpositionering zit V&D tussen Primark en De Bijenkorf. Primark is razend populair met een relatief klein assortiment, zonder merknamen, en hele lage prijzen. De Bijenkorf is gezellig druk en heeft een groot en breed assortiment, met trendy merknamen, en hoge prijzen. Helaas heeft V&D vooral een ongelukkige combinatie: een groot en breed assortiment, zonder (veel) trendy merknamen, en tegen hoge prijzen. Alleen in hun Prijzencircus werd het soms interessant om te kopen.

De V&D winkels zijn dermate groot van omvang dat ik me afvraag welke retailer het lef heeft om een jaarlijkse huur van circa 1 miljoen euro voor 1 locatie te betalen. Het ombouwen van deze prachtige locaties tot appartementen lijkt me veel logischer. In ieder geval veel beter voor de leefbaarheid van de binnenstad. Leegstand van deze omvang leidt tot een snel verval.

Hoogstwaarschijnlijk ligt het lot van V&D vooral bij de banken. De verhuurders werken niet mee aan een huurverlaging. De werknemers werken niet mee aan een loonsverlaging. De Amerikaanse aandeelhouder Sun Capital neemt waarschijnlijk liever afscheid van hun investering van 70 miljoen euro (bron: schatting door dan er nieuw aandelenkapitaal in te stoppen om de voortdurende operationele verliezen te dekken. Laat staan de investering voor een nieuwe toekomst.

De banken zullen wel weer de schuld krijgen. Deels terecht omdat zij deze overnames in het verleden hebben gefinancierd tegen boterzachte kredietvoorwaarden. Meedoen met overnames was destijds belangrijker dan de rentabiliteit van de transactie. Deels ten onrechte omdat het V&D management nimmer in staat is geweest om een commercieel succesvolle turn-around te creëren. Halfslachtige pogingen zijn er echter genoeg geweest. Het bleef echter vooral doorgaan op de ingeslagen -doodlopende - weg.

Ruim tienduizend medewerkers in 63 vestigingen staan erbij en kijken ernaar hoe een icoon van de Nederlandse retail geschiedenis teloor gaat. Helaas zullen er na V&D nog vele namen volgen.

Zoals de V&D kassa medewerksters ooit tegen ons zeiden: "Aansluiten alstublieft".

Are we heading towards a disintegrating EU and a new banking crisis?

Yesterday I saw Podemos on TV. Podemos is the Spanish version of the Greek Syriza. It's the new radical left that is building up in southern Europe. People there are fed up with northern European driven austerity. They are fed up with a lot of things by the way. They want higher salaries and lower pension ages too. And they want the rich to pay for it all. Or Santa Claus. Or other EU member states.

To some - limited - extent I do have some sympathy for the new radical left in those countries as paying taxes only seems to be for the lower and middle classes. The result being inequality and an unsustainable society. While the past decades were driven by greed, a paradigm shift may well be on its way. How would one even justify inequality? By birth right? By colour? By race? By geography?

Rational arguments clearly do no longer apply. Who will be paying for higher salaries, higher unemployment benefits, and lower pension ages? The new radical left's only answer is the rich. Obviously, the rich will be long gone before the new radical left is in power. It is the middle classes that helped putting the new radical left into power that will ultimately pay the bill. The middle class cannot run and hide unlike the rich.

Emotional arguments seem to be winning nowadays. I suppose these emotions are based upon the essential unfairness of too much inequality. On top of that come the privileges for the super rich and the scandals about misuse of power and slush funds. At a certain moment emotions take over from common sense and the pendulum makes a swing to the left. I cannot even blame those emotions.

From an American and even an Indian perspective, The Netherlands is a semi communist country. I will always wholeheartedly disagree with that view. I would concur however that The Netherlands - or Germany - are far more equal societies than the USA or India. Germany and The Netherlands also actively prevent too much inequality. To a large extent that situation is - most likely - derived from too much inequality in a distant past, at least in my own country.

In a way, the European Union is to blame too. Greece, Spain and other southern countries would never have been able to borrow so much money if they had not been in the EU. Borrowing in Euros lowered their interest levels and made them borrow even more. Their lenders must also have known about the "too big to fail" dilemma. As a private equity banker once said to me: the more you owe to the bank, the better it is as when things go wrong it is not your problem but the bank's.

I sincerely doubt that the northern European countries will bail out their overleveraged southern neighbours. The level of empathy or sympathy for our southern European neighbours is far from overwhelming as corruption and tax evasion seem to rule. Emotions work both ways.

I expect a Greek exit (Grexit) from the EU and the Euro as the Greek new radical left government can not and will not surrender within weeks after being elected. The EU cannot accept a precedent of writing off hundreds of billions of Euros as other southern European countries - including France - will want the same favourable treatment. The richer northern European countries will not subsidise the poorer southern European countries. Once a Grexit has been completed then other southern countries may follow its example. Such a situation would then probably result into a northern Euro (Neuro) and a southern Euro like currency. It will take many future decades to merge both again.

The current situation shows the fundamental flaws in the design of the European Union. It is not a Federation that shares its gains and pains like the USA. It's a mere union of sovereign member states and each with its own independent policies. The Euro is binding us but for how much longer?

A disintegrating EU is a recipe for a new banking - and possibly a new global - crisis as not all risks (e.g., EU exits) have already been priced into the market.