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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Whose side are you on? Matt Bianco (1985)

Yesterday evening I got a remarkable question from 2 girls (15+12): what do you think of terrorists? I preferred their second and final question: how did you meet our mother? Their first question came as a surprise and I had to consider from which angle to approach this question. At first, I stalled for some time by asking whether they were serious as it might be a provoking joke. Well it was not.

Firstly, the concept of terrorists depends on which side you are on in any conflict. Secondly, whether that side is winning or losing. Lastly, whether the winning side controls the government. In other words: terrorists can become freedom fighters and then become revolutionaries. Obviously, the same can happen the other way around. We have seen that process several times over the past decades.

In 1948 the United Nations decided to grant the surviving Jews of World War II their own state to be safe from future harm. A noble gesture combined with poor execution. That gesture has become the root for many acts of terrorism since 1948. Depending on which side you are in that conflict, those acts of terrorism can easily be construed as freedom fighting. Both sides refuse to resolve this dilemma as they would then need to share power. Perhaps Pope Francis can make a difference.

The island of Cuba was claimed by Christopher Columbus for Spain in 1492. After the Spanish–American War of 1898, Cuba gained nominal independence as a de facto U.S. protectorate in 1902. The fragile republic endured increasingly radical politics and social strife. In 1952 this resulted in a dictatorship by former president Fulgencio Batista (Wikipedia). The terrorists Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro received more and more popularity and emerged as freedom fighters and revolutionaries (1959). While Castro became Prime Minister (1959) and President (1976), Che Guevara always remained a terrorist-freedom fighter-revolutionary until he was killed in Bolivia. 

Egypt is even a more interesting case. Since 1952 the country has been ruled by the military (Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Tantawi, el-Sisi). For a brief period (28 November  2011 - 3 July 2013), the formerly considered terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood were in control of the government. Ironically, by a wave of massive widespread protests, Mohamed Morsi first gained control (25 January 2011) and then lost control (3 July 2013). The military is now firmly in control again and many members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been given a death sentence. (Wikipedia)

The Russian government backed terrorists in the Ukraine have been winning so far (e.g., Crimea) which allows them to present themselves as freedom fighters rather than as terrorists. Now they have set their eyes on Odessa. A future Russian military alliance with Greece would put Turkey in a difficult spot. The Russians haven't forgotten on whose side Turkey was in WWII.

Northern Ireland was created by the British in 1921 as that region had many Protestant descendants of Great Britain. The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland preferred to be part of (Catholic) Ireland. Since the 1960s, Northern Ireland showed some thirty years of intense violence. (Wikipedia) The former terrorists are now in government and relations between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK are normalised. This outcome shows that negotiations are the only way forward to peace. 

Whose side are YOU on? Song by Matt Bianco (1985)

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Why do we yawn?

Arguably the first studier of yawns was the Greek physician Hippocrates nearly 2,500 years ago. He believed that yawning helped to release noxious air, particularly during a fever. “Like the large quantities of steam that escape from cauldrons when water boils, the accumulated air in the body is violently expelled through the mouth when the body temperature rises,” he wrote. (BBC)

For more than 2 millennia scientists have researched this topic and still there is no unified theory on this subject. Remarkably, I even noticed two articles involving 2014 research by Dr Andrew Gallup which basically repeated what Hippocrates had already said 2,500 years ago. Yet, it was considered newsworthy as anything on this topic is viewed with interest. (WSJ, BBC)

Interestingly, there is a lot of symmetry in the causes and the alleged reasons:
- bonding versus attacking / fighting 
- empathy versus contempt
- boredom / sleep versus (sexual) appetite
- oxygen versus carbon dioxide in the brain 
- heating versus cooling of the brain
- air pressure (e.g., ears) versus brain fluids
- individual's dominance / muscle stretching versus (contagious) group behaviour
Sources: Wikipedia, BBC, WSJ, how stuff works, Psychology Today link 1 and link 2

As always, I am struck by the beautiful symmetry that nature provides us with. I wouldn't even be surprised if yawning has - at least - 2 evolutionary reasons similar to laughter. See my April 30 blog on humour and laughter. In the case of laughter there is an evolutionary component and a social / group component that evolved in very different stages of our evolution. 

Most likely the evolutionary component is still to be seen in animal behaviour and in unborn infants who yawn as of the 11th week of the pregnancy. The yawning and muscle stretching of top sporters before important matches (e.g., Olympics) may well relate to displaying the individual's dominance towards his/her competitors. I do see a pattern of interconnectedness in the above mentioned 7 symmetrical causes and alleged reasons. 

The bonding factor is quite interesting in my case. Lately, I have had quite a lot of conversations by phone and those lasted for several hours. I know they lasted for more than 2 hours as my operator keeps on disconnecting me after 2 hours. When she starts to yawn in those conversations, my (involuntary) yawning immediately follows and also vice versa. The first time this happened she said it was a good sign. Obviously, I asked why. She then said it is not good when the other person does not join the yawning. Actually, she was very, very right in that. Research has shown that yawn contagion appears to be primarily driven by the emotional closeness between individuals. Strangers join in yawning either last or not at all.

Comedian Groucho Marx once attended a dull dinner party, which kept him yawning all evening. As he was preparing to depart, the hostess said: “I hope you had a pleasant time, Mr. Marx!” “I had a wonderful time,” cracked Groucho, "but this wasn’t it.”

Friday, 29 May 2015

Seven - six degrees of separation - network science

Some days ago, I received my daily email from Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture. One of his topics was the "emergence of network science". It contains a Cornell University "documentary unfolding the science behind the idea of six degrees of separation. Originally thought to be an urban myth, it now appears that anyone on the planet can be connected in just a few steps of association. Six degrees of separation is also at the heart of a major scientific breakthrough; that there might be a law which nature uses to organize itself and that now promises to solve some of its deepest mysteries." (source)

The topic of six degrees of separation has been a draft blog of mine for several months now but I felt that something was missing. After seeing the Cornell University documentary on network science, it suddenly struck me: you need to have seven (7), to have six degrees of separation.

There is something odd about the number 7:
- Seven is the most significant number across religions and cultures;
- It also appears in some of the world's favourite fictional works;
- A poll of 30,000 people reveals 7 is overwhelmingly our favourite number.
Source: Daily Mail

Some remarkable examples with respect to the number 7:
- Bible: the universe was created in 6 days and on the 7th day the work was finished.
- 7 continents: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Australia.
- 7 seas: Arctic, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian, North Pacific, South Pacific and the Antarctic.
- In physics there are 7 SI base units. These are a coherent set of units defined to measure 7 basic physical properties: metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, mole, candela. The 7 SI base units are used to define all other SI units, which are known as SI derived units.
- 7 colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (Isaac Newton)
- Biology: there are 7 types of virus according to the Baltimore classification
- The number seven is of particular significance within Cherokee cosmology.
- The Seven Lucky Gods refer to the seven gods of good fortune in Japanese mythology.
- The Seven Virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience, and humility.
- The Seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
Source: Wikipedia

That Wikipedia article even forgets the 7 senses clusters: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch, vestibular and proprioception (source). Actually, I prefer to combine the latter 2 in spatial visualisation ability and to add intuition (source). 

I suppose that 7 is the maximum number for any cluster to be efficient and effective. Each cluster has a hub that cooperates / coordinates with the hub of other clusters. Together they form networks and - ultimately - living organisms. A failing hub causes a failing network and - ultimately - a failing organism (e.g., sicknesses).

The Cornell University documentary states that understanding network science may cause major scientific breakthroughs. They make a compelling case for that. Please see their video.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Global city-states - a new Hanseatic League

Yesterday, I noticed an intriguing Financial Times posting on my Facebook: "A new global order of cities" written by Ivo Daalder. Mr Daalder, a Dutch-American, states the following: "For the first time in human history, more people now live in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, 6.5bn people, two-thirds of all humanity, will live and work in cities. In 1950 fewer than one billion did so."

The environmental impact of this is well illustrated by his additional remark: "Cities only cover two per cent of the earth’s surface, but they consume 78 per cent of the its energy and account for 60 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions." Please see my May 3 blog regarding the impact of cities on climate change. Global urbanisation is not even considered a relevant factor in the 8 causes for climate change, as listed by the British Geological Survey.

Mr Daalder draws an interesting parallel to the "Hanseatic League of medieval cities, with global centres trading and working together". Wikipedia states the following: "The Hanseatic League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (c. 13th to 17th centuries). The League was created to protect economic interests and diplomatic privileges in the cities and countries and along the trade routes the merchants visited. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid."

Mr Daalder stresses the importance of cities by stating: "While not sovereign, global cities are increasingly independent — driving policies that stimulate wider change. They drive the world’s economy. The 600 biggest cities account for more than 60 per cent of global gross domestic product. The top 20 are home to one-third of all large corporations, and almost half of their combined revenues. Tokyo leads the pack — in population size, economic punch and number of corporate headquarters — ahead of New York, London and Paris. [..] In short, global cities are increasingly driving world affairs — economically, politically, socially and culturally. They are no longer just places to live in. They have emerged as leading actors on the global stage."

Global urbanisation and an interplanetary Hanseatic League, often are key assumptions in science fiction movies. Quite often these Sci-Fi movies paint a dire socio-economic picture of our future life in global city-states. In general, they paint two societies living independently of each other: a small upper layer and a large lower layer with minimal interconnection. The upper layer is usually based on meritocracy. The lower level is based on "survival of the fittest" and a corresponding lack of moral values. Why does all of this feel so familiar already??

Governing these global city-states will become a challenge. A (parliamentary) democracy may not be a fit model for city-states. Perhaps Singapore already shows us the way forward. I wouldn't even be surprised if the future "mayor" of these cities will be labeled as a Chief Executive Officer.
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all. Isaac Asimov

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sabbatical

Since a few months, I no longer think of my present situation as a prolonged mandatory vacation. I'm having a sabbatical instead which feels very good. My blog has almost reached 9,000 viewers. I'm still considering writing a book but I haven't found the determination that I would need for that. I do have an idea though but can't find the style (e.g., fiction, non-fiction). I stopped after my prologue.

Once in a while, I still apply for a job when I feel that there actually might be a match. Usually the job advertisements are already too boring to even consider applying. Furthermore, these advertisements only focus on the job specifics as if that angle would be interesting at all. Usually, there is little information about the company and its culture. Hence, it's really difficult to assess the possibility of a personal match. This month – May 2015 – has shown some unusual activity though: people approaching me for jobs rather than vice versa. It's a nice feeling again.

My sabbatical feels justified after decades of long working hours, culminating in working at a hostile environment run by fear, greed, incompetence and lies. A fatal combination. I let my loyalty - towards the future of that company - become more important than my health. The company survived as its shareholders couldn't afford a bankruptcy. I survived my severe 2013 burnout through sheer determination, hope and most important of all: faith.

The pivotal moment in my life happened in court on Thursday 29 August 2013. After a devastating testimony of my former notary, who had been blackmailing me and to which I had refused to cooperate, I decided to just give up on everything in life. Four (4) years of courtroom battles had resulted in a victory for lies and more lies. In my moment of utter despair, something extraordinary happened in front of me. I realised its meaning immediately. Since that day, my blessed life has returned and I'm grateful.

Until recently, there were just 3 goals left in life being my kids, a new love and something that pays my bills. My daughter is still reluctant to reconcile with me. I think and feel that she suffers more from that than I do. It's her choice though. Not mine. My son is like a sailor navigating his way through a storm and I respect that. Early May, a new love entered my life and it looks promising.

Nowadays, I'm quite careful with a new job. My health has become far more important than the money involved. Any job that brings unhealthy stress is out of the picture. Only healthy stress is allowed. There's no job without stress by the way. The absence of stress may even cause unhealthy stress. Moreover, I like healthy stress as I perform better that way.

Honestly, I would not mind leaving my primary field of expertise (finance management) and find a role as consigliere and resultant. Coming up with ideas and successfully implement them – a.k.a. adding value - has always been my drive and passion rather than monthly closings, budgeting, audits and annual accounts. Some day I'll find my personal match.

Until that day, I will enjoy my sabbatical and the simplicity of my current life. I was running on empty (Jackson Browne). No more running for me (Michael Kiwanuka). I love my slow, warm love (Joan Armatrading). No more fast love (George Michael). No more life in the fast lane (Eagles).

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Assumptions

Mr Eugene Lewis Fordsworthe is responsible for a famous quote: "The assumption is the mother of all mistakes". Yet, usually life does not provide us with complete, correct and timely information at the moment we actually need it. Assumptions fill the gaps. In general, our minds are quite capable of filling these gaps. This was eloquently demonstrated by the clinical neuropsychologist prof. dr. Erik Scherder in his 3 master classes on the working of the brain on Dutch TV.

Recently, I made the following Facebook posting: "I think I may have made a big mistake and I'm correcting it now............". My big mistake was the result of assumptions which I had used to come to a certain conclusion. Several people replied. Only one person made the correct assumptions and understood the deeper implications of this sentence. 

For several weeks, I had been convinced of the validity of my assumptions as they made perfect sense to me. Not to the other person involved. I was quite stubborn in my convictions, especially as my assumptions were firmly rooted in my fears. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld would say: “We promise according to our hopes and perform according to our fears.” 

Interestingly, the opinions which I had assumed to be principles and which had triggered some of my fears, were actually just assumptions based upon cultural taboos and personal inexperience. This is were things got dangerous: assumptions based upon assumptions. The political and military danger of such a situation is well illustrated by a Jack Ryan movie called "The sum of all fears". In this Tom Clancy novel, Russia and the USA both assume that they are under attack by the other party while an unknown 3rd party is actually manipulating their behaviour. The scene in which both presidents consider their military response, based upon the assumed behaviour of the other, is thrilling.

The idea behind this novel is far from unrealistic. Quite often 3rd parties manipulate our behaviour to drive two close parties apart (e.g., relationships, business deals). Remarkably, we tend not to assume that this 3rd party is lying to us. We tend to assume that they are indeed warning us, as they claim. Triggering fears is an excellent manipulator. Fears blind us from other (contradicting) information. 

Assuming that people lie to you is also quite a tiresome habit which is probably one of the reasons that we don't assume this. Another reason is that lying is "bad" and we expect "good" behaviour. Given my personal and business background I do assume hidden agendas and I always consider ulterior motives. In the absence of any ulterior motive, I assumed that the aforementioned opinions were actually strong principles.

How did this dilemma get resolved? After a few weeks of silence and stubbornness, I ultimately gave in and talked back again. I decided to test the other person by playing a mind game. The outcome of that process was far better than I had assumed. Several other decisions followed subsequently.

In essence:
The assumption is the mother of all mistakes (Eugene Lewis Fordsworthe). 
Trust but verify (Ronald Reagan).
All is well that ends well (title of a play by William Shakespeare).

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Reversed bounty – skin colour part 2

Yesterday evening, after the Lalah Hathaway concert in Paradiso, my brother asked me why I have such an interest in dark skinned women. He added that even my first girlfriend was black. I disagreed with his last remark as her skin was quite pale but her hair was indeed black, being half Indonesian. I was struggling to find an answer to his first question as I didn't really know the answer. The term bounty is often used for dark skinned people with distinct Dutch behaviour (e.g., eating traditional Dutch food, playing “white” sports, having “white” friends). Perhaps I'm a reversed bounty.

Since I was young I have always been attracted to women with a tanned skin. I must admit that I didn't have the guts back then to enter into lasting relationships with them. I feared the response by society and was too insecure to handle that kind of pressure. Moreover, I was far from sure whether I would be able to accept its ultimate consequence being a “zebra” child, the Kenyan nickname for mixed race children. My children are Caucasian and I love them. I sincerely doubt that this feeling would change if their skin colour or hair structure would have been different.

My feelings on this issue are quite well outlined in a Dutch movie called “Alleen maar nette mensen” (Only decent people). This tragic comedy isn't particularly funny but it's quite interesting from a socio-economic background. In my view, this movie is about prejudice - and sometimes plain racism - between Jews, Moroccans, people from Surinam and the Dutch Antilles, and lastly “blackies”. "Blackies" is the nickname for people from Africa. Having been in Africa myself, I realise that prejudice just continues over there: especially between West and East Africans, and ultimately between tribes. Also see my May 18 blog on tribalism and Kenyan women.

There are also some interesting sayings that apply to people like me: once you go black you never go back, the blacker the berry the sweeter the cherry, and black don't crack. There's some truth in all of this. Yet I told my brother that it's not skin colour that drives me. It's the person inside and especially her eyes. Also see my April 22 blog called Eyes are the mirror of the soul.

I have come to dislike the egalitarian attitude of Dutch women. I want a Princess or a Queen rather than an equal. There's no equality when it comes to relationships. There's always a struggle for power amongst (alleged) equals. I am no longer interested in that battle of the sexes.

I suppose that I prefer the way how black women treat their man. Yet, I have seen a similar approach in my (white skinned) girlfriends from Algeria and Morocco. So, it's definitely not skin colour that drives my preferences. It's their attitude or - perhaps - their lack of an attitude.

Another distinct preference is the lack of emotional luggage. I seem to be a magnet to people who haven't dealt with their emotional issues and carry them forward to their future relationships. Negativity is like a black hole sucking all positive energy. I can't recharge my battery in such a relationship. I would be gravitating towards that black hole day by day. I refuse to let negativity rule my life again.

Perhaps the answer to my brother should have been: “Love has no colour ”. Interestingly, this is even the name of a song by The Winans, featuring Anita Baker and Michael McDonald.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Privatising government monopolies

In my April 27 blog I wrote about the continued success of family business. Family businesses are the best example of private companies in which ownership and management is in the same (family) hand. Listed companies are private companies in which ownership and management are separated although there are some interesting phenomena (e.g., Heineken).

In general, private companies have a better performance than public companies as they enter a competitive market with many similar suppliers. Success is ultimately based on the survival of the fittest. In general, public companies are - directly or indirectly - owned by the government and perform services to the general public and competition is remote or absent. Usually we refer to such a company as a (state owned) monopoly.

By default, monopolies dictate the market in respect of prices, conditions and deliverables. Private monopolies have the perfect situation for maximising profits, minimising services, and no one to account to. Public monopolies are restrained from maximising profits and minimising services as it is not in the interest of the political parties which are accountable for through the political general election process.

Hence, privatisation of state owned monopolies into private monopolies in the absence of future competition, is like the worst joke ever.

Recently, the Dutch Parliament has started an investigation on the purchase of Italian high speed trains. This political investigation is the consequence of the decision of the Belgian and Dutch railroads to return the already purchased trains and to annul the purchases of the remaining trains.

The Dutch railroads used to be a public company and a public monopoly until it was privatised in 1995 and competition was welcomed by the Dutch government. Yet, the full ownership remained with the government. The start of a complicated relationship.

The current misery with the Italian high speed trains results from (1) a disputed public tender for the Dutch high speed rail road track, and (2) the purchase of Italian high speed trains with a poor reputation for reliability. Interestingly, the French high speed trains run smoothly while using this same Dutch high speed rail road track but with French high speed trains.

Recently, Mr Jan Timmer, the former CEO of Philips Electronics and the former Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dutch railroads (1996-2001), made some interesting comments during this political investigation: "the privatisation of the Dutch railroads is the root of all evil". He also said that The Netherlands is too small as a country to have multiple train operators. Multiple operators on one rail road track is "utterly impractical and unrealistic". Pushing the rail road privatisation is the main reason for the current misery with the Italian high speed trains. (Volkskrant)

Groucho Marx: "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies."

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Organised crime, criminal enterprises and banking

Yesterday afternoon, I received a NY Times News Alert stating: "Adding another entry to Wall Street’s growing rap sheet, five big banks have agreed to pay more than $5 billion and plead guilty to multiple crimes related to manipulating foreign currencies and interest rates, federal and state authorities announced on Wednesday." Immediately, an FT Breaking News email alert arrived quoting some trader transcripts:  "If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying".

To be honest I didn't want to write about banking anymore as I am growing sick and tired of reading this kind of news. Then I suddenly realised that I am implicitly already accepting that this kind of behaviour is inherent to banking. But is this behaviour really inherent to banking? Or is this kind of behaviour inherent to organised crime? Or is it inherent to both?

The FBI defines a criminal enterprise as a group of individuals with an identified hierarchy, or comparable structure, engaged in significant criminal activity. The FBI defines organized crime as any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. (Source: FBI). As always, the devil is in the details (i.e. semantics).

Why does my mind - and that of many others - still treats banks as financial institutions rather than as criminal enterprises engaged in organised crime??

Partly, as I have been working in banking myself for 5 years. Wouldn't I have noticed this??
Partly, as these criminal acts relate to individuals rather than the entire banking population.
Partly, as I have difficulty in accepting that the banking culture is rotten to the bone.
Partly, as I am "naive" and trust people until proven guilty (presumption of innocence).

Yet, these mounting plea bargain convictions speak a different story all together. Moreover, these penalties do not hurt them in the medium term, let alone long term. I can only hope that these penalties are non tax deductible items in their corporate income tax returns. 

It would actually surprise me if any of these penalties would relate to the core banking purpose, being savings and loans. Even the US subprime mortgage fraud does not relate to the core lending activity as these mortgages were packed, sliced, and traded through RMBS and CDO trading and investment products. Probably all penalties ultimately relate to investment and trading activities. One could however argue that the LIBOR fraud is in the savings and loans area.

My fundamental concern is that banks have taken the financial system into hostage and use it as a shield to defend themselves against outside attacks. As long as banks have this hostage shield, the authorities cannot close their businesses. In any other situation, a criminal enterprise would be closed.

Since 2008, billions of bailout money went into the banking sector in order to rescue these banking enterprises. The reason being that the financial system is like a core public utility. No one seems willing to take the ultimate consequence of that by freeing this hostage from banking enterprises.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. Groucho Marx

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Dutch kids and parents

On 11 May 2015, the Economist reported that Dutch kids are the happiest kids in the world. "The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to live. Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world, according to Unicef." Also see: Huffington Post, BBC in 2007.

When I compare Dutch kids to other kids, something entirely else strikes me. Yesterday afternoon, it happened again: screaming kids - sitting in a car - demanding attention from their mother who was chatting with another school mum. I have never ever seen kids, in any other country, who are more annoying than Dutch kids. Probably as Dutch parents seldom correct their kids' behaviour. I suppose that such "freedom" may make kids "happy". At least for some time.

My recent May 2 blog was about a TV documentary on Dutch parenting. I was surprised to learn that young people (age < 25) now use 40% of the Dutch mental healthcare capacity. The reason for this is that parents have become overprotective towards their children. Parents and even school teachers try to avoid that children get disappointed. Furthermore, children receive a lot of pampering partly because of the parents' wealth and partly due to a feeling of guilt for not being around full-time.

That same Economist article also mentioned another typical Dutch feature: working parttime. According to the Economist "more than half of the Dutch working population works part time, a far greater share than in any other rich-world country. On average only a fifth of the working-age population in EU member states holds a part-time job (8.7% of men and 32.2% of women); in the Netherlands 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week."

The aforementioned observation cannot be seen separate from this Wall Street Journal article, titled: "U.S. Minimum-Wage Employees Must Work 50 Hours a Week to Escape Poverty, OECD Says". Minimum-wage employees in the U.S. need to work three times as many hours a week to lift their families out of poverty compared with counterparts in the UK. Australia, at six hours, and Ireland, at eight, had the shortest work-weeks needed to exceed the poverty threshold. The low figures reflect the substantial welfare benefits available to qualifying families.

The Netherlands is a tiny, rich country with a high productivity and a high part time rate. Quite some people perform a 40 hour job within a 32 hour working week. Dutch lunches are short and basic. Agendas are full. Meetings start and finish in time and are - usually - to the point. Communication can be very straightforward to foreigners but not to the Dutch as they expect and appreciate it. 

In my view, the complex combination of school hours, cost of child care, unavailable grand parents, and the egalitarian attitude of Dutch women towards men, explain the high part time rates amongst Dutch males and females, especially once there are kids. Another explanation is that working less hours - or not at all - is a public sign of family wealth, at least for some. 

The Netherlands is indeed a great place to live, work and raise kids. It's also a rather permissive society as adherence to the overabundant laws, regulations and rules is not our strongest point. Kids seem to understand that at a young age. Obviously, they will - and should - explore their boundaries. If there are none in their youth and a lot as adults then reality suddenly comes crashing down.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Growing old

Since 2 months I'm 55. Is that old? My mother is 80. My neighbour is 90+. That seems old to me. Yet, recently a Kenyan friend asked me why I always go for old women. Old??? They're some 10+ years younger. That's old, she said to me. Apparently, age is in the eye of the beholder. Like beauty. 

My mind feels younger than my body. I guess that was different when I was young. I feel and think that this blog has further increased my thirst for knowledge. There's a saying in Dutch that translates as follows: you're never too old to learn. Somehow I feel that it's ”over & out” once you lose your eagerness to learn. This also explains my choice for the blog's motto “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

I doubt that I want to grow old in my country – or Europe. I don't feel warmth in the hearts of people. I suppose that this feeling is also related to our climate. Nevertheless, I don't like these Dutch warehouses stocked with senior citizens. There's one in front of my house. I pity the people living there. When my neighbour moved from her house to that warehouse she died within months after being there. My other neighbour is 90+ and still lives by herself with help of friends and family. 

I've been considering to retire in a low cost country with a warm climate. That's easier said than done considering language barriers, flight distances, medical care, and general safety. The USA has Florida and English as the common language. Europe is full of languages. Last year, I visited the Dominican Republic to check it out. That climate is too hot and too humid for me and I hated the mosquitos that kept sucking my blood. Cuba might be a much better choice and I hope to visit soon.

Watching the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made me believe that such a business concept should work as it leverages on the arbitrage of the cost of living between 2 countries. In more simple words: your pension allowance has more spending power in a low cost country. I'm convinced that the future cost of living in many European countries will erode many pensions. The alternative might be a Best Exotic Marigold hotel inside or outside Europe. I have no clue whether my business idea is a sound one. I hope to implement it myself in years to come. 

Growing old doesn't look appealing. Neil Young once sang “it's better to burn out than to fade away”. I can relate to those wordsThe feeling of growing old has various stages. Some day you're too old for school. Some day your father dies (1994). Some day a 1st friend dies (1998). Some day you're too old for work. By the way, that day gets sooner and sooner.

The care for the elderly is still being eroded for budgetary reasons. The demographic mushroom that is in the making, doesn't bring much good news. It feels like a time bomb. Once you're old, you no longer seem to be a full member of society. Dutch senior citizens have their own political party now. Perhaps it will help hearing their voices and votes. 


I hope to grow old amongst warm people who enjoy and embrace life rather than those people nagging about anything and everything as they're unable to value what they have. Only what they don't have. I found my paradise in 2012. In my mind I still walk along the quiet white beaches, feeling the warm Indian Ocean water touching my feet while looking at my bright coloured house amidst the palm trees. The mind can be beautiful. I love going there.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Kenya - tribalism and national interests

Late 2012, I became aware of an organisation called the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) through my daily conversations with the manager of the accommodation where I then stayed. According to Wikipedia, the MRC traces its secession claims to the 1895 and 1963 agreements transferring the ten-mile strip of land along the coast to the Government of Kenya from Zanzibar.

Basically, Mombasa is an island that features Kenya's second largest city with distinct Muslim (e.g., Old Town) and Christian roots (e.g., the Portuguese Fort Jesus). Besides being a well-known tourist destination, the coastal city of Mombasa also features a large port and an international airport. Unfortunately, the greater Mombasa area is now also known for its violence which is usually claimed by the Somali based islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

These terrorist attacks at/near the Kenyan coast have caused a huge drop in international tourism which has hardly been compensated by an increase in domestic tourism. Consequently, hotel staff has been made redundant in a labour market which was already quite difficult. High unemployment and especially the lack of job opportunities, usually provide the basis for an increase in crime rates and allow certain people to leverage these tensions into political / religious extremism.

Basically, Kenya still has a tribal based society similar to Europe many centuries ago. It took Europe many centuries to shake off its tribalism. My tribe, the West Frisians, was ultimately bitterly defeated by the Count of Holland in 1289. This defeat was a revenge for the murder of the Dutch king in 1256. (UK linkNL link 1NL link 2) The Frisian tribe was rather notorious back then. Today, I feel West Frisian, Dutch and European depending on the topic. While my tribal roots are still important to me, national and European interests are far more important. 

In Kenya, tribalism still dominates national politics. The main politically opposing parties share the same religious views. Unfortunately, these main parties appear unable to join forces to save the country from its political / religious violence. It's in the national interest of Kenya to fight political / religious extremism and its related violence in order to boost tourism again. Tourism boosts jobs. Jobs provide income. Income prevents crime and also political / religious extremism. These simple equations work across the entire globe. 

Kenya also has another reason. Somehow I doubt that the increased MRC activities can be viewed as totally separate from the increased Somali terrorist attacks. Ultimately, both organisations share a common interest. That interest is definitely not a national Kenyan interest.

On Facebook there is quite a funny page that stereotypes Kenyan women (e.g., Kikuyu, Kamba, Coastal, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin, Maasai, Meru and Kisii). Yet, in each stereotype there is some core of truth. In that context, these tribal stereotypes may still be useful.

It may take many more decades to brush off tribalism in Kenya. National tragedies (e.g., the Garissa University College attack) may help to unite Kenyans. I sincerely hope so.

Nakupenda Kenya. Nakupenda sana.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Ahold en Delhaize

Het Nederlandse Ahold en het Belgische Delhaize ruiken aan elkaar. Ahold is circa 50% groter dan Delhaize en winstgevend. Delhaize maakte de afgelopen 2 boekjaren verlies. Volgens de pers is er sprake van een mogelijke fusie of overname. Voor Ahold hoop ik dan dat het een overname wordt.

Voor beide partijen zie ik commerciële voordelen: de Nederlanders (beter: Hollanders) krijgen meteen een Belgisch distributienetwerk. Nu gaat het waarschijnlijk te langzaam met de uitbreiding in Vlaanderen. Die redenen zouden echter wel eens een voorspellende werking kunnen krijgen na een overname. Belgen hebben een zeer ambivalente houding ten opzichte van - met name - Hollanders.

Volgens NU.nl verliest Delhaize marktaandeel in België als gevolg van de komst Albert Heijn. Geen verrassing. De prijsverschillen tussen Nederlandse en Belgische supermarkten bedragen circa 12% (DFT). De komst van Albert Heijn heeft nog meer Belgen bewust gemaakt van hun eigen dure supermarkten. Zelf kocht ik ook ooit boodschappen in België vanwege het - toenmalige - gemak. Al snel viel het me op hoe duur dat eigenlijk was, en stopte ik er maar weer mee.

Delhaize is met een marktaandeel van 24,1% inmiddels #2 op de Belgische markt na Colruyt met 26,5%. De daling in marktaandeel is van recente datum. "De sociale onrust blijft nazinderen bij Delhaize. Vorige week bleek nog dat de stakingen en lege rekken bij de retailer een grote impact hadden op de vierde kwartaalcijfers: de Belgische winkels boekten in het vierde kwartaal bijna 7% minder omzet dan in 2013." (link 1link 2)

Hiermee hebben we dan ook meteen de kern van het probleem in België: in tegenstelling tot Nederland is België een land waar ondernemers vooral negatief worden beoordeeld. Door werknemers, vakbonden en door de overheid. In dat opzicht wijkt België weinig af van Frankrijk. Eigenlijk kan alleen de marktleider er winst maken maar niet te veel want de bijzonder hoge belastingdruk en de macht van de vakbonden romen dat vervolgens weer snel af.

De cultuurverschillen tussen België en Nederland zijn enorm. Ik heb dat mogen ervaren in de 18 maanden die ik daar heb gewerkt en gewoond. Tijdens mijn wekelijkse autorisatie van de crediteurenbetalingen kreeg ik bijvoorbeeld ooit een "verdachte" factuur onder ogen: een belasting op de verspreiding van huis-aan-huis bladen. Tot mijn verbijstering bleek de factuur serieus te zijn. Het is slechts een voorbeeld van de krankzinnige belastingdruk in België (link 1, link 2, link 3).

Hoewel er officieel Nederlands wordt gesproken in Vlaanderen, is de betekenis van woorden regelmatig totaal anders dan Nederlanders denken/verwachten. Dit kan vervelend uitpakken.

In België bepaalt alleen de (Belgische) baas (lees: Bestuurder) wat er gebeurt. Inspraak, zoals in Nederland, bestaat eigenlijk niet. Plenaire vergaderingen, zoals een MT, zijn eigenlijk slechts voor de vorm. Alles is in principe reeds vooraf geregeld in bilateraal overleg. Net als in Frankrijk kunnen de in opdracht gemaakte "fouten" het personeel niet worden aangerekend ("U vraagt, wij draaien").

Eigenlijk zijn Belgen net Fransen die Nederlands lijken te spreken. Het hieruit resulterende enorme cultuurverschil breekt menig Nederlands bedrijf uiteindelijk keihard op. Bezint eer ge begint.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Traumatised

For the ones wondering how my May 13 blog has ended, well be informed that I broke up with her.

Yesterday evening, while driving home and putting my thoughts together for my goodbye message, I heard a Paolo Nutini song on the radio which has the following lyrics:

"We are broken by others, But we mend ourselves, We take comfort in strangers, But I don't think it helps, If every fool wore a crown, I would be a king and not a clown".

Several Facebook friends already like this quote, so I suppose they can relate to it too.

My original concerns over this relationship were not even the reason for breaking up. Her behaviour felt more and more similar to that of my ex wife. I have solemnly promised myself to never ever accept such behaviour again. I am still traumatised. For reasons that you will understand I have not entered into any details. Yet, you may see why I relate to these Paolo Nutini lyrics.

Yesterday afternoon, my mother advised me to break up with her after hearing a few examples from me. I suppose even my mother is somehow traumatised by my ex wife. She also told me that it will not be easy for me to find a female match. I have come to realise this too and therefore didn't even bother to ask my usual why question. 

I suppose this episode also solves my priority dilemma with respect to relationship and work. However, I cannot imagine that work will become my hobby again as it used to be for decades. I also cannot rule it out as in general I love what I do (e.g., blogging, work).

Yesterday afternoon, while driving to my mother, I finally listened to the Gregory Porter CD Liquid Spirit that I had bought almost a year ago. The lyrics of the song "Water under Bridges" puzzled me:
"Do you remember, The days we used to spend? Memories so strong, It keeps me from moving on,
If I could go back, I'd take our worst days. Even our worst days are better, Than loneliness". My worst days will never ever be better than loneliness. Yet, I suppose it makes a huge difference to whom you compare. 

Loneliness is basically a state of mind. I never feel lonely and I am alone 24/7. For many years, my ex had been brainwashing me by telling me that I need a woman to take care of me. I almost believed her. Nowadays, I am proving each day that she was wrong. I don't need one but I want one as being in love is a great joy and happiness. Breaking up is the hard part. It's failure all over again. 

I'm not sure if there will be more blogs after this one. I am truly disappointed. I'm trying to digest which lessons I have learned this time. It's still a little hard now as I'm still in the middle of the storm that is whirling in my mind. 

Nevertheless, and as expected given my April 20 blog, my brain has already been feeding me with its 2012 solution. And suddenly, I can fully relate to Gregory Porter's words: 
"Do you remember, The days we used to spend? Memories so strong, It keeps me from moving on".

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Seven Stages of Love - for Men

For several days something has been bugging me. I assumed I was annoyed by several women for either stalking me, ignoring me, or something in between. This morning I googled a word that was once mentioned to me but which I had forgotten. I found that word (sapiosexual: one who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature) but I also found an article that opened my eyes.

Basically, the article's headline says it all: "The feelings of love may be the same for both sexes but the stages of love are an entirely unique experience. Understand how men think and how men fall in love." This headline was too compelling for me, not to be - very - curious about its entire message. Its 6th sentence already revealed that I was about to read something quite important and relevant: "For men, falling in love is a happy experience, but love doesn’t really kick in for a while."

After reading the entire article I decided to write about it today although this blog may well backfire on me. If that is the case then it's meant to be. I cannot change male evolutionary psychology. Moreover, for many years I have been trying to shake-off a Feng Shui Master's prediction on women without much success. Apparently, some things are meant to be. Recently, I have even acknowledged a business opportunity that I had deliberately ignored for years and which he had advised to me.

The article describes seven (7) stages of love in male psychology:
1. Appreciation: it was the picture of your face that created immediate appreciation;
2. Infatuation: I pursued you with my words to get your attention and establish mutual appreciation;
3. Attraction: initially I felt no interest from you in me and your joke thus came as no surprise;
4. Impression: I must admit that I have been quite busy impressing you and not only with words;
5. Conviction: indeed I've been reading your body language and scrutinising your words to find out;
6. Reaffirmation: in this stage the male finally starts thinking whether her love is also his;
7. Decision time: this is the moment the male either takes it to the next level or avoids the female.

Apparently, I'm in stage 6 right now which is unsettling to me. Actually, it bugs me. My May 11 blog on Fear and Hope didn't fully open my eyes. This article did. Nevertheless, it is not easy for me to acknowledge that these 7 stages also apply to me. It makes me feel less unique.

I would like to quote one of the conclusions of the article: "How men fall in love with a woman is annoying. And it’s more annoying to know that men have to actually make women fall in love with them before they even think about going out with you, but that’s the way men fall in love and they really have no choice about it." Indeed this is annoying but it's also annoying to me!

The article provides an explanation for this male behaviour and I quote: It’s a selfish move, but it’s something evolution has taught all male species. “Don’t waste time thinking. Spend your time searching for more places to bust a nut.” The article also proposes a counter move: "But if you really want to beat the guy in his own game, don’t make it obvious that you really like him at the very first instant. Keep it simple and play hard to get for a while." And so the game will continue.

While I'm still wondering about its evolutionary purposes, I'm stuck with its consequences today. I feel decision time will not be "tomorrow". I am confident that I'll reach a decision soon or soonish.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The EU is dead. Long live a new Europe.

Following his unexpected victory, the English PM now wants to renegotiate the UK's role within the EU (link 1, link 2). Similar to Mrs Thatcher's famous EU discount, this renegotiation would cost the EU a fortune. This may also be the perfect timing for considering something entirely else: a new Europe. Rather than continuing to dilute the monetary union, it's also an excellent timing for a further unification by the core countries of Europe. The rest may join on the core's conditions - or leave.

The best thing Europe could do with the Britons, is ignoring them. Some day the UK will finally acknowledge that they are no longer the superpower they once used to be. The German Chancellor and the French President should take the lead in a unified Europe. This unified Europe should not be a copy of the EU, let alone an expanded version. The English PM is very right in that view. A new Europe should cherrypick on the blueprint of the USA and improve on its flaws.

The original intention of the EU was to bring peace and prosperity to its region which has been the main battlefield for many, many centuries. A monetary union has proven to be insufficient in times of trouble. Ignoring the European voters was a huge mistake in the EU blueprint. The pivotal point was adding countries to the EU that hardly belong to Europe. The EU's ambitions for issuing regulation without the backing of a political union then became fatal.

The blueprint should be based upon two criteria: everything that could stay national must stay national. Everything that must be supranational will be supranational. Examples of these - outbound - matters would include defense, foreign affairs, international agreements, monetary policy, and a Government. Legislation and regulation with an inbound focus should be kept national.

The outbound focus of a unified Europe should counter the following: Russia's continued military aggression against several countries in Eastern Europe. The developments in Turkey - once secular - also bring a dire message. The volume of extraterritorial legislation by the USA requires a unified Europe. China's continued purchases of foreign strategic assets and natural resources, its industrial espionage, its lack of (maintaining) international copyright laws, require a unified Europe.

Europe must finally assume its long overdue role of a superpower. For the majority of the past 5,000 years, Europe has been a superpower. The USA only for the last 100 years and it's unclear to me whether the USA is able to maintain its role of superpower given the vast socio-economic imbalances in its society. Its seemingly unlimited resilience may once again be leading. The real question is: for how much longer? Europe should not rely on the USA for bailing them out again (WWII).

The core nations of a new Europe are probably the same ones as in 1951: France, Germany, Italy and Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg (BeNeLux). This should also give a balance between various interests. There must be a mandatory referendum in each of these 6 countries before any treaty is signed. Each additional country entering the new Europe must require the majority voter consent of the other nations. The mistakes that came with the EU must not be repeated. This time quality must prevail over quantity.

The EU is dead. Long live a new Europe.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Fear and Hope. Hope and Fear.

In 2003, if I recall well, we visited Cefalù, a city on the island of Sicily and famous for its huge white cathedral that you can see from many miles before entering the city. One day, I saw my son (5) leaving the children's swimming pool and walking slowly - and fully determined - to the (3 metres deep) adult swimming pool. As he continued walking, I started following him from a distance as I didn't trust his determined behaviour. Despite various and continued warnings he just kept on walking, stepped into the adult pool and sank to the bottom. Fortunately, I didn't freeze, ran to the pool and dived after him. Apparently, this whole experience had been very funny to him as he burst out in laughter after my rescue of him. The fear had been for his sister, mother and me.

Interestingly, fear of water is one of the most common fears in humans, along with similar fears of snakes, bugs, mice, bats and heights. What do these have in common? They are dangerous. Fear is adaptive because it protects us. More importantly, it protected our ancestors. Hence, it has even been proposed to be an “evolutionarily relevant” fear. (link 1link 2)

The feeling of fear is clearly in our brain and not in our mind. Also see my April 17 blog. The mind is used to reason fears away, a process that could also be described as personal risk management.

A few days ago, I had slept badly due to dreams that contained fear elements. The only thing new that day had been a potential job. During the last 3 years, I had turned down this very same job some 4 times. This time, I expressed a - conditional - interest. When fear enters into my dreams then I realise that such fears are getting serious and should not be reasoned away easily. My dreams always feel like some kind of a warning to me and are never "pleasant". Wishing someone pleasant dreams makes little sense to me. I actually prefer not to dream.

Fear and hope appear to be like Yin and Yang in our lives. I now also realise that I need to make a small amendment to my April 12 blog on Human Emotions as it lacks Hope as an opposite of Fear. Excitement is temporary but Hope is lasting. Like Fear. It doesn't really matter as that blog has been my most challenging one anyway and any further improvement is welcome.

While a new relationship is now within reach, fear has also returned to my mind. I was already surprised that it took so long. I suppose fear makes us take balanced rational decisions rather than impulsive emotional ones. Yet, other combinations are still feasible: a balanced emotional decision versus an impulsive rational decision. Hope and fear are like weighing the pros and cons of an important decision.

In many situations, I prefer feeling a healthy dose of fear. Such fear is more commonly referred to as stress. Not feeling stress always makes me a little concerned as something does not feel right. Stress releases the hormone (nor)adrenaline in your brain which is quite helpful in dealing with a particular situation. (link 1, link 2)

Lastly, some relevant quotes by the French writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680):
“Hope and fear are inseparable. There is no hope without fear, nor any fear without hope.”
“We promise according to our hopes and perform according to our fears.”

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Climate change - trust but verify

On 3 May 2015, I wrote about climate change skepticism. The more you read about climate change, the more you feel fooled about climate change. Why this remark? After writing that May 3 blog, I wondered whether it is possible that a small deviation in the Earth's orbit around the sun, could cause these global changes in weather patterns.

My first big surprise was to find out that volcanic eruptions now appear to be the cause why global warming was not as much as the IPCC climate change models had predicted (link 1, link 2).

My second big surprise is that the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (which is a part of the Dutch government's Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment) actually confirms my hypothesis that changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun could indeed cause climate changes (link 1): "Ice ages and interglacials are primarily activated by variations in the Earth's rotation around the sun and the position of the Earth's axis relative to its rotation". Note: translation to English is mine.

The British Geological Survey site gave some interesting perspective on the causes of climate change: (1) strength of the sun, (2) changes in the Earth's orbit, (3) changes in the orientation of the Earth’s axis of rotation, (4) quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, (5) carbon dioxide content of the oceans, (6) plate tectonics, (7) ocean currents and (8) vegetation coverage on the land. The BGS site summarised as follows: "Each of the above factors contribute to changes in the Earth’s climate, however the way they interact with each other makes it more complicated. A change in any one of these can lead to additional and enhanced changes in the others."

After reading this, my immediate feeling was that any climate change computer model based on these 8 inputs has a degree of complexity which is far beyond current human intelligence and imagination. Moreover, as we lack a lot of knowledge about several of these inputs.

Furthermore, in case of major deviations between actuals and predictions, it would make sense to reconsider the assumptions that are used in computer models rather than looking for explanations for these deviations that could still support the assumptions. However, reconsidering assumptions within a hypothesis becomes very difficult once science has become a belief system.

Finally, there is one other very disturbing factor in the global warming hypothesis: the way it is measured. The location of the thermometers is leading in the calculation and thus creates a human bias. Furthermore, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the official keepers of world weather records, recognises only readings measured by thermometers on location, not remotely by satellite (source). A global temp reading by satellites would give much less human bias.

Despite the above, I still feel that we are witnessing some kind of a climate change although it may not be the one, about which the IPCC has been warning us for decades.

Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Makes sense doesn't it? However, this well-known Einstein quote appears to be fiction rather than a fact. As Ronald Reagan once said: trust but verify. The same goes for climate change.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Success and Failure

For decades, I have been most successful in one - rather visible - part of my life and I failed in another - less visible - part of my life. For several years, my current situation is the exact opposite. Accepting this change was very, very hard. Visible success is highly regarded in our society. Few people would care about invisible failure or invisible success. Recently, a friend recommended watching a TED video called "A kinder, gentler philosophy of success". Please watch it too.

A year ago, my ex wife demanded me to play bad cop towards my son as his school grades were failing again. Instead of bullying him into success, I explained to him that life basically has 4 choices: study, hobby/sport, career, and family. Most people's choices represent a combination of these 4. However, only 1 choice can be pushed up towards a 100%. If any other choice goes up than the other one(s) must come down. It's just a matter of allocating total capacity in time, like in this illustration:
I advised my son that these choices are flexible in time: until a certain age he could focus on studying, until another age focus on (top) sport, subsequently focus on a career, and then ultimately he could find a work/family balance that allows for happiness and satisfaction. I think he understood. I also explained him the consequences of my choices and I advised him not to repeat my mistakes.

The lack of visible success is no longer seen as being unfortunate but as being a loser for which that person is fully responsible. To quote Alain de Botton: "In the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an "unfortunate" - literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a "loser." There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It's no longer the gods, it's us. We're in the driving seat."

I now feel successful again but in a very different way than before. To most people my success is not visible at all as I still drive my old 2007 Mercedes E class and my house could really use a paint job. My car is a reminder of my past visible success. The only 2 elements that would make my life complete are a new relationship and - paid - work. Since several days, the 1st one is within reach.

My 2010-2014 experiences have changed my outlook on life. I now recognise that it required an enormous pressure to make me change. I now feel grateful for this change. With hindsight, I conclude that this change was overdue. This change also feels as a huge improvement of who I am. Not what I am. My job title is not who I am. My job is just a (temporary) role in my life.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Auditors' self-overestimation

Yesterday, I read an article in the weekly Dutch CPA news alert in which someone expresses his surprise in the fact that a CFO is only interested in getting the CPA's signature A.S.A.P. To my surprise, his surprise was even adequate for a promotion at Nyenrode Business University.

The article proposes to increase the role of the shareholder in the selection and the appointment of an auditor. In principle, I agree with this recommendation. However, shareholders in public companies have a limited interested in its wellbeing (e.g., excessive board remuneration). Shareholders in public companies do not act like owners but as investors. Hence, such recommendations fail.

I have been in audit from 1982 up to and including 1994. I loved the audit profession as I actually learned a lot. However, its lack of realisation with respect to its perceived added value is worrisome. Let's label this "auditors' self-overestimation" for the purpose of this blog.

I have been in senior finance management since 1997, including roles as Finance Director and CFO. My change from senior audit manager into various roles within the Finance domain was one of the biggest deceptions of my life. I finally realised how little I had known of my clients. My prior audit recommendations to senior Finance management suddenly felt embarrassing.

I am not alone in this. This deception is shared by other audit colleagues who entered the Finance domain. This deception is related to the immense gap between the Audit and the Finance domain. Auditors assume that Finance is like mathematics. However, the Finance domain is more like crowd psychology, expectation management or - perhaps even more appropriate - stakeholder management.

Auditors used to be trusted advisors to senior company management and within some family businesses this may still be the case. Somehow I assume that the decline of the perceived added value by auditors is related to the rise of shareholder value since the 1980s. The role of auditor - especially within public companies - changed from trusted advisor to (preferred) supplier.

In my view, auditors are professionals similar to police detectives. Only a few auditors have business acumen. Consequently, their solution was using the Price of their audit services as their USP rather than differentiate in Product, Place or Promotion. The (international) nickname of my previous employer thus became Half Price Waterhouse. Other audit firms got similar nicknames.

After decades, we now see the consequences of using Price as a marketing tool. Audit budgets went down, hourly rates went up and consequently budgeted audit hours got halved or worse. Creating added value to senior company management became sheer impossible. Laventhol and Horwath (L&H) was the seventh largest American public accounting firm when it went bankrupt in November 1990 (source). Additional regulation (e.g., Sarbanes Oxley) came as a blessing to audit firms.

Today's lack of added value of audit services to senior company management should not come as a surprise. Yet it does and that is worrisome. In my view, auditors still overestimate their own role. Perhaps this is necessary to continue to hire the "best and brightest". Once the magic is gone then what is left ??

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

US Dollar collapse

On May 5, I received a blog called: "Is the U.S. dollar in the midst of the longest Wile E. Coyote moment ever?" A Wile E. Coyote moment is the moment when the cartoon character, who has run off a cliff, looks down and realises that he’s standing on thin air – and plunges. The blog wonders why the US Dollar hasn't yet started its inevitable fall. It's a subject that had escaped my mind for quite some time. And many others too.

Mr Koning, a Canadian with Dutch ancestors, has written a well crafted blog again. From a technical perspective. In my view, it lacks a psychological perspective. A strong US$ can also be explained by the weakness of the other currencies to which it is compared. I am not surprised that the Euro/US$ rate is near parity. From various angles, the Eurozone is a mess. In my view, the US$ is not strong but the Euro is very weak. Consequently, the US$ appears strong but only from a relative perspective. Not from a fundamental one.

Also, there have been quite a lot of "distractions" that prevented from continuing to monitor the fundamentals of the US$. Mr Koning mentions the financial and banking crisis. That crisis has been superseded by various national crises of which Greece got the most attention. We have seen crises in nearly all segments of our societies: consumers, companies, banks, and nations. One could well argue that we now see a supranational crisis emerging (e.g., EU and ECB). I suppose that a full blown supranational crisis would finally imply that we have gone full circle. 

Another aspect is that the USA is still the leading superpower on this planet. Obviously, there is some competition but so far nothing serious. Next to this, the US$ is also considered the world's most dominant so called reserve currency. Wikipedia: a reserve currency is a currency that is held in significant quantities by governments and institutions as part of their foreign exchange reserves. The US$ denominated oil price has further strengthened its role as leading currency.

A plunge of the US$ would require a major shift in psychology which could be triggered by the absence of further distractions, a new superpower or large scale domestic US violence but probably a combination. Consequently, it may well take 5+ years before it actually happens. Similar to the US housing crisis, the $ collapse will happen when hardly anyone is expecting it any longer. For years, the average house price increase was considered unsustainable. Once such a phenomenon is accepted as an example of a new economy, the market suddenly collapsed. Again, a matter of psychology. 

What would be the impact of a plunge of the US$? The huge national debt is basically its creditors' problem. Issuing new US$ debt may not even be a problem. Rising import prices would merely benefit US domestic producers. US imported goods are often luxurious (e.g., cars). US import of oil is decreasing and US energy independence could be reached within 4 years (CNN). Export becomes far more easy as a result of a cheap US$. Also see my Euro 101 blog.

One could well argue that the USA has been profiting of its US$ for decades while creating a massive foreign debt. When the US$ will finally collapse then the USA will once again profit by boosting its domestic manufacturing capacity and employment, and securing its economic independence. To be honest, it feels more like a long-term strategy rather than a coincidence. Smart guys.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Out of Africa - skin colour

The global market for skin lighteners is projected to reach $19.8 billion in 2018, driven by the growing desire for light coloured skin amongst men and women primarily from the Asian, African and Middle East regions. Skin whitening products represent one of the rapidly growing segments in the global beauty industry. With the concept of beauty in the 21st century revolving around a flawless and fair complexion, there is rising discrimination based on skin colour. The desire for fair and white skin is rooted in the culture and traditions of these countries and obsession for fair skin can be traced to almost all sections of the society. (link 1link 2)

In the Western world, the obsession with skin colour is quite the opposite, amongst others illustrated by the sun tanning industry and sun vacations in the snow and at the beach. Basically, a pale coloured skin suggests a lack of health and wealth.

On 1 May 2015, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an interesting article named "Ancient DNA tells a new human story". This article addressed some of my subconscious questions: how did Caucasians develop a pale skin? And also: would the origin of a pale skin contradict the Out of Africa theory? And finally: did my ancestors really have a black skin?

Yesterday afternoon, I met a woman who originates from Uganda but lives in The Netherlands for 14 years. I told her that I was working on a new blog about this WSJ article. Jokingly, I added that her children's offspring might get a pale skin too, as a result of a very same gene mutation. She almost immediately rejected this hypothesis as it was far beyond her imagination. I fully sympathise with that as I felt the - opposite - same. Hence my questions in the previous paragraph.

Our skin colour has become an essential part of our identity. She feels black. I feel white. The idea that my ancestors have had a black skin colour, and that her offspring may get a similar gene mutation and develop a white skin, is in full contradiction to what we feel, to who we feel to be. The interesting part, however, is that this different identity did and does not prevent us from liking each other. The oxytocin hormone was clearly being released in an abundant quantity.

The WSJ article clearly states: "Two genes that affect skin colour were also subject to rapid evolutionary selection as early farmers tried to subsist on grain-rich, vitamin-D-poor diets in northern areas with low levels of sunlight. (Sunlight helps the body to convert a form of cholesterol into a form of vitamin D.) The shift to pale skin - which produces vitamin D more efficiently than darker skin - among northern Europeans after the advent of farming appears to have proceeded rapidly, pointing to some of the strongest selection pressures ever recorded in human genetics."

The WSJ article concludes: "The lessons of this DNA revolution are not just scientific, however; they are social and political as well. The discoveries made possible by our new access to ancient DNA show that very few people today live anywhere near where their distant ancestors lived. Virtually no one on the planet is a true native - an instructive fact to consider at a time when ethnic and national differences still abound and the world continues to throw human beings together in new and unexpected ways."

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The origin of water

One of the big scientific questions is the origin of water on planet Earth. Seriously. This blog topic suddenly came up while watching some other TED videos.  I then noticed a reference to a TED video called "Where did Earth's water come from?" by Zachary Metz. Mr Metz basically offers two explanations: (1) ice bearing comets hitting Earth or (2) asteroids - containing H2O molecules - bombarding Earth.

Strangely enough another hypothesis is missing.

Water is made of two hydrogen atoms attached to an oxygen atom. Theoretically, it's possible to mix them but it would be an extremely dangerous process. Since hydrogen is extremely flammable and oxygen supports combustion, it wouldn't take much to create this fusion. Pretty much all we need is a spark - not even a flame - and boom! We've got water. But we also have an explosion and, if our experiment was big enough, a deadly one. The Hindenburg zeppelin was filled with hydrogen to keep it afloat. In 1937, static electricity caused the hydrogen to spark. When mixed with the ambient oxygen in the air, the hydrogen exploded, turning the Hindenburg in a ball of fire that completely destroyed this large airship within half a minute. This explosion also created a lot of water. (source)

In 2014, new geological research showed that deep within the Earth's rocky mantle, lies oceans' worth of water locked up in a type of mineral called ringwoodite. Ringwoodite is a mineral that can trap water in its molecular structure and is formed under high pressures and temperatures, such as those inside our planet. These building blocks of water are bound up in rock located deep in the Earth’s mantle, and in quantities large enough to represent the largest water reservoir on the planet, according to the research. The surface water we have now came from degassing of molten rock. It came from the original rock ingredients of Earth. (link 1, link 2, link 3)

In March 2014, that same research group found a unique diamond from the Earth's mantle that was packed in ringwoodite containing water. Until then ringwoodite specimens were either collected from meteorite material or created in the laboratory. (link 1link 2link 3) Apparently, scientists had always assumed that ringwoodite was an "alien" mineral. Hence, the theory of Mr Metz above.

If the Earth's and "alien" ringwoodite both contain water then there may be another hypothesis: a planet's core is like a chemical factory. As all planets are likely to be formed along the same way, then it is also likely that most - if not all - planets store huge amounts of water in their core. The ringwoodite bearing "alien" asteroids would then just be evidence of such an hypothesis.

When you stand on one side of the Grand Canyon then you cannot but realise that there must have been much more water on our planet, a long time ago. That water has either evaporated (by lack of an atmosphere back then), or was sucked into the Earth's core to prevent the chemical factory from overheating and exploding, or both. Earth's original water may now be found in ringwoodite. That cooling off is likely to have resulted in the various Ice Ages for which three main types of evidence have been found: geological, chemical, and paleontological. 

In other words, the Earth created water and water created life on Earth. A perfect symbiosis.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Climate change - science as a belief system

Until the 1970s hardly anyone saw global warming as a danger. On average, scientists warned for a cooling of the Earth and a new Ice Age. In the 1980s the scientific opinion changed from a warning for a global cooling into a warning for a global warming. This sudden change in scientific opinion is probably still fundamental to climate change skepticism.

This skepticism is well illustrated by the changing views of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), England's Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Originally a research chemist before becoming a barrister, Thatcher was elected Member of Parliament (MP) in 1959.

Mrs Thatcher was the first world leader to voice alarm over global warming, back in 1988. With her scientific background, she had fallen under the spell of Sir Crispin Tickell, then the UK's man at the UN. In the 1970s, he had written a book warning that the world was cooling, but he had since become an ardent convert to the belief that it was warming. However, in 2003, towards the end of her last book, Statecraft, in a passage headed "Hot Air and Global Warming", she issued what amounts to an almost complete recantation of her earlier views. (The Telegraph)

Lady Thatcher's 2003 change in views may well relate to her true concerns by claiming that "the new dogma about climate change has swept through the left-of-centre governing classes", and warning that the international effort to tackle climate change "provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism." (The Guardian)

This is the heart of the matter regarding climate change skepticism: scientific views on climate change have become very politicised. Unfortunately, this politicised climate change debate has seriously hurt its long-term goals. Both the global cooling of the 70's and the global warming of the 80s were scientific hypotheses. Debating the global warming hypothesis is mostly seen as having retarded views. Climate change is no longer a scientific view but a political view.

State of Fear is a 2004 techno-thriller novel by Michael Crichton in which eco-terrorists plot mass murder to publicise the danger of global warming. Despite being a work of fiction, the book contains many graphs and footnotes, two appendices, and a twenty-page bibliography in support of Crichton's beliefs about global warming. Most climate scientists dispute Crichton's science as being error-filled and distorted, and it was described as "pure porn for global warming deniers" by one skeptical science journalist. (Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, this book balanced my views on climate change. Climate change is indeed an evolutionary and a historical fact. Global urbanisation has increased temperatures in the big cities. Yet, average temps decreased outside the big cities. Average temps on the North Pole have increased while average temps on the South Pole have decreased. (link 1, link 2)

I am convinced that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the ultimate watchdog whose massive, six-yearly ‘assessments’ are accepted by environmentalists, politicians and experts as the gospel of climate science, has been most responsible for creating climate change skepticism. The IPCC is an example of science as a belief system.