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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Greek referendum

Nearly everyone is complaining about the Greek referendum on Sunday 5 July 2015. Is it because it's inconvenient or because it's unfair? It's definitely inconvenient to the Greek creditors. I sincerely doubt that anyone could argue that the referendum is unfair to the Greek people. I wish that we would have had a referendum about the continued increase of the European Union. It's unfair NOT to consult voters on something this or that essential. Any outcome would however support the Greek PM whether it's his (preferred) NO or an (expected?) YES. 

If the result would be a NO then the Greek still have two tracks: renegotiating with the EU and negotiating with others (e.g., Russia). Considering how the new Greek government has upset the Chinese regarding the expansion of the Chinese owned Piraeus container terminal, China is not a likely option anymore (Guardian). Moreover, the Chinese interest is of an economic nature. The Russian interest would be of a military nature and thus much more profound. See my June 6 blog.

If the referendum outcome would be a YES then the Greek government would be able to convince its own Syriza party and even some of its cabinet members that they should act as democrats in a country that invented democracy. Resignation of the Greek government might be honourable in the view of many but that will surely not happen. Once in power, it is very tempting to stay in power.

Nearly everyone is also complaining about the Greek stubbornness in the negotiations. Actually, they are very right in defending the Greek interests to the extreme. A compromise that doesn't involve a debt write-off doesn't make any sense. A comprise that doesn't involve an expected future Greek budget surplus does neither. In fact, Greece has been a serial defaulter for over half of its existence since becoming an independent state in 1830 (Economist).

Unfortunately, the Greek negotiators do not seem to be the persons who will be suffering from the current Greek liquidity crisis. They may be communists but they appear to be well off in private (link, Paris Match, Guardian). In Dutch we have a saying for those people: their heart is on the left and their wallet on the right. It's the people with their heart and wallet on their left, who will suffer from this.

The communist Syriza party should have been the right party to clean up the notorious Greek "chronic clientelism and corruption of the state" (FT). Unfortunately, early indications (FT) suggest otherwise. Perhaps not a surprise as Russian clientelism is also notorious. (OECD)

The Greek referendum is fair albeit not convenient to Brussels or the cash strapped Greek citizens. It still doesn't bring any solution. The only solution is a debt for equity swap. Just like the the British sending the Royal Navy to seize marine assets in 1850 to pay off the country's debts (Economist), the creditors should seize geo-political critical assets to prevent Russia from establishing a naval base on Greek territory. Also see my June 6 blog on the Bosporus and the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

An hour ago, I received a FT news flash that Greece has requested for a third bail-out. So far the Greek government had severely denied the need for a third bail-out despite Spanish claims that Greece would request for a 3rd one in the order of 30-50 billion Euro. Also see my June 15 blog.

For decades, Greece has been like a drug addict on Other People's Money. Drug addicts need a “cold turkey” approach to remove the toxin from their system. Even after recovery, drug addicts will remain vulnerable to temptation. In essence, Greece needs to be put into external receivership to help clean up its act. That proposal would really call for a Greek referendum. This one is a no-brainer.

Puerto Rico (USA) versus Greece (EUR): 1-1

Last week, the island of Puerto Rico announced that it cannot repay its debt. The magnitude of their problem is, however, mind blowing. Puerto Rico, an island of 3.7 million people, has a total debt of 72 billion dollar which translates in some 19,500 dollar per person. Puerto Rico even has more debt per person than any other American state. Puerto Rico’s bonds have a face value roughly eight times that of Detroit’s bonds (NYT). The city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013.

The island of Greece has an average debt per person of some Euro 28,000, based on a total debt of Euro 320 billion divided by 11.5 million people (also see June 15 blog). According to Bloomberg the Greeks rank #12 worldwide in government debt per person, being $35,881 in 2014. Greece ranks even higher than The Netherlands (#13) and Germany (#14). Also see my March 13 blog. 

Greece is an independent country that is part of the eurozone. Puerto Rico is U.S. territory and part of the dollar zone. A Puerto Rican bankruptcy would be even more complicated than a Greek one, as Puerto Rico would first need to become independent from the USA before it could even go bankrupt. 

Greek debt is predominantly held by the countries like France and Germany. Puerto Rican debt is mainly held by U.S. mainland investors. These U.S. investors recently proposed to further increase the existing loans which would then allow Puerto Rico to meet its required current payment obligations but which would also increase the future debt problem. It's like a Ponzi / Madoff scheme: new debt redeems old debt while total debt grows due to high (junk bond) interest levels. 

From a geo-political perspective, Greece is more interesting than Puerto Rico. The importance of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits and the Russian Black Sea Fleet was explained in my June 6 blog. The former Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla (Puerto Rico) has been closed for decades, and no other Air Force Bases or Naval Air Stations remain. (Wikipedia)

The root problems for both islands are quite similar. Greece: "the failures of the political classes that have misruled the nation since the return of democracy in 1974, the chronic clientelism and corruption of the state, the selfishness of its business oligarchies" (FT). Puerto Rico: "since 2006, the economy has contracted every year but one. Its unemployment rate of 13.7 percent is double that of the U.S. mainland; its poverty rate is twice that of Mississippi. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's population and tax base have aged and shrunk. Since 2000, public debt has risen from 60 percent of gross domestic product to more than 100 percent. Much of that has been racked up by the island's inefficient public-sector corporations" (Bloomberg). 

For several months, the USA urged Europe to write off Greek debt. Ironically, this proposal is now used by Puerto Rico (USA) to its U.S. investors. 

Some interesting sayings on debt:
- The only man who sticks closer to you in adversity than a friend is a creditor. (author unknown) 
- Promises make debt, and debt makes promises. (Dutch proverb)
- Today, there are three kinds of people: the have's, the have-not's, and the have-not-paid-for-what-they-have's. (Earl Wilson)

Monday, 29 June 2015

Democracy, Prosperity and Stability

In the early 1990s, I spent a vacation in Sousse (Tunisia) and I also visited Port El Kantaoui and the capital city Tunis. I remember that Port El Kantaoui was quite modern and even felt Western. My visit to Tunis felt very different: PLO flags everywhere as Tunis was (back then) the head quarters of the PLO. The streets of Tunis were mostly deserted and I felt quite uncomfortable walking around.

Yesterday evening I watched a Dutch TV documentary about Algeria and Tunisia. One guy made an interesting remark. The upsurge in radical Islam only happens in countries that have limited to no democracy, he said. I must admit that I have always put the emphasis on unemployment rather than democracy. Why revolt when you have a full-time well-paid job??

The response of the Tunisian government to the recent radical Islam terrorist attack in Sousse, which killed dozens of tourists, is less democracy. Dozens of mosques will be closed. The consequence is likely to be a decade of “civil war” like in Algeria in the early 90s. Quite likely the military will win as in Algeria and Egypt or any other Arab state and at the expense of thousands of civilian casualties.

The Western democratic model cannot be exported to countries that have no separation between religion and state. It took Western countries several hundreds of years to create that separation. We cannot expect others to do that in just decades. Furthermore, it cannot go unnoticed that Christianity lost most of its political influence. I doubt Islamic leaders are eager to join that path and lose control. Ultimately, they are also just men desperately clinging on to power.

The Western democratic model also doesn't work in countries that have no separation between the military and the state. The vested economic interests of the military do not allow them to lose control. The Western democratic model also doesn't work in countries that have no balance of powers and which allows ruling politicians to become kleptocrats.

The Western democratic model seems to work adequately in countries that are run like (family) businesses as long as their citizens get a fair share of the revenue/profit. Those countries even give rise to an interesting graph between heavy democracies with stagnating economies, light democracies with booming economies, and countries with no democracy that have either booming or devastating economies depending on their sale of natural resources (e.g., oil).

Somehow there is a trade-off (compromise) between a country’s level of democracy, its social/political stability and the prosperity of (all of) its citizens.

Too much democracy limits - and could even decrease - overall prosperity and also give rise to tensions about the allocation of its prosperity.

Lack of democracy leads to social/political instability and often also a biased allocation of national prosperity.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Doubts

People sometimes wonder if I have doubts. For me that's a remarkable question as I'm full of doubt. I'm even a Pisces! While doubts govern my life, I have no problem in taking decisions. It's not doubt that is causing problems in life but taking decisions based upon (eternal) uncertainty. For some, it's easier to join a Belief rather than taking their own decisions. The Belief of a group usually strengthens the Cause and Mission and subordinates doubts.

For me it's scary when people do not have doubts. My Kenyan friend still thinks that our world was created in just 6 days. Because the Bible says so. My blog on the comparison of evolution between religion and science (see June 25 blog) shook her views. A little. She maintains to the literal view of the Bible as she said that having doubts implies that she wouldn't believe in God.

Doubts either lead to a decision after considering facts and uncertainties, or to denial. Denial is another way of coping with life and its inherent doubts. Unfortunately, one person’s denial tends to be another person’s doubt. Also see my April 16 blog on Reversed psychology and Projection.

Denying (scientific) knowledge leads to ignorance. Ignorance tends to be compensated by a Belief. My March 14 and April 1 blogs on Belief Systems identified seven Beliefs: Love, Money, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science and the Truth. Even scientists are perfectly capable to deny knowledge and make science into a Belief (see my May 3 blog).

Denying God (whether Allah, Yahweh or any other name) leads to emptiness. Emptiness tends to be filled with something else like greed, hedonism or narcissism. These replacements are typically short or medium term solutions and may even replace each other in time. In this context, I love the term The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, IMDb). That title says it all in just 5 words.

Having doubts about religion or science is human. It allows us to come to a sensible and balanced judgement whether by brain (intuition), senses (e.g., vision), heart (love), mind (intelligence) or - preferably – all of them together, in synchronicity. Also see my April 20 blog.

Any decision or judgement isn't necessarily final. How could it be as it was typically based upon incomplete and possibly even incorrect or premature / early information. We should not abstain from taking decisions just because we might regret them one day.

In business we have already learned that group or committee decisions allow people to hide from taking responsibility and / or assuming accountability. In social groups we may witness the same phenomenon. However, groups that share a Belief may easily find (appoint) a member (disciple) whom assumes responsibility and accountability for the group’s Cause.

Having a Belief without doubts may easily lead to extremism like the murder of 9 black church visitors in Charleston (NC) in the name of racism and the intention to re invoke a racial war. What's the difference between ISIL members and this domestic terrorist? They both have firm Beliefs, have no doubts, and will kill whomever and whenever they please in the name of their Cause.

Ignorance is not always a bliss. At times it's a curse for humanity. Ignorance is like the church of the poison(ed) minds (1984, Culture Clublyrics, video). Having doubts is healthy and sane.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
(Bertrand Russell)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Evolution - religion and science compared

In several of my blogs I have stated that I believe in both religion and science. In my April 10 blog, I even labelled them as the complementary, interconnected, and interdependent Yin and Yang. Today I want to go a step further by making one of the most controversial comparisons: the beginning.

Day 1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” From a scientific point of view, our (pocket) universe (see June 11 blog) is some 12.8 billion years old and our planet Earth is some 4.6 billion years old. Apart from this timeline and the (undisputed) scientific perfection of our (pocket) universe, little is known about its beginning.

Day 2: And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” From a scientific point of view, this would be our atmosphere which creates a striking difference compared to other planets as it is one of the key elements of habitable planets. It allowed our water to stay on Earth rather than vaporising in the universe. The existence of immense amounts of water within our Earth has only recently been discovered. See my May 4 blog.

Day 3: And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground 'land' and the gathered waters he called 'seas'. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.
The evolutionary timeline estimates that this would have taken place 475 million years ago.

Day 4: And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” In science this would "normally" have taken place at Day 1. However, I did find evidence that the youngest stars in the nearby visible Andromeda Galaxy are just a few hundred millions years old. Even our own Milky Way Galaxy has "young" stars (source).

Day 5: And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” The scientific evolutionary timeline estimates this at 500 million years ago for fish and 150 million years ago for birds.

Day 6: And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” The scientific evolutionary timeline estimates this at 200 million years ago for mammals, 60 million years ago for primates (e.g., apes), 2.5 million years ago for the earliest human and 250,000 years ago for the anatomically modern humans.

The description of our beginning in Genesis 1 - rather than its timeline - is not that much different from what evolution tells us today. Moreover, when you add the word "billion" or "million" to the word Day then you get some striking similarities. Religion and Science are like Yin and Yang.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

I never forget a face, but in your case I’d be glad to make an exception. Groucho Marx.

Last Saturday, my son mentioned that he was considering doing a paper on the characteristics of beauty and the universality of those characteristics. I wondered about this topic for several reasons and asked him whether he thinks that universal beauty even exists. Most of us tend to see beauty - first and foremost - within our own ethnic group (see June 23 blog).

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised at all that the outcome of a beauty contest within each ethnic group would indeed reveal similarities. The characteristics for defining beauty may indeed be universal. To test this hypothesis I have done some research on the most beautiful women in each ethnic group. Here's the list of most beautiful women by ethnicity and the source that I used: African: Nia Long (IMDb), Asian: Aishwarya Rai (source), and Caucasian: Salma Hayek (IMDb).

Interestingly, one could well argue that none of these 3 women show distinct ethnic features and that they somehow represent a melting pot of all ethnic groups. This would indeed support the view that the characteristics that define beauty are universal. Prominent features would then be the forehead, brows, eyes, nose, lips, jaw and cheekbones but most of all the symmetry between those.

It makes sense to use the face as a key determining factor for beauty as the face is the host of nearly all human emotions (see my April 12 blog). Even in animals we use the face to determine whether an animal is sweet, ugly, friendly or hostile. Even flowers are judged by their blossom ("face") and not by their leaves or stem. Insects are however mostly seen as ugly (also see my March 27 blog).

There is no doubt that beauty (which here means both male and female attractiveness) is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but across individuals and across cultures there is nevertheless considerable agreement about what makes a pretty or handsome face, and the evidence strongly counters the conventional wisdom that attractiveness preferences are mainly acquired through life experience. For one thing, the beauty bias is already present in infancy. Six-month-olds prefer to look at the same relatively attractive faces that adults do (APS-Psychological Science).

Among the most important and consistent factors in facial attractiveness are structural qualities of the face that are highly sex-typical. An attractive man, in the eyes of female experimental participants, is generally one with relatively prominent cheekbones and eyebrow ridges and a relatively long lower face. Likewise, prominent cheekbones, large eyes, small nose, a taller forehead, smooth skin, and an overall young or even childlike appearance add to women’s allure in the eyes of male raters. (APS) The relevance of beauty is in its evolutionary perception of having good genes which is perceived to be more desirable in potential mates. 

Notwithstanding the above, you often hear that all asian/black/white faces look the same. This cross-race effect refers to the tendency to more easily recognise members of one's own ethnic group. Deeper study of the cross-race effect has demonstrated two types of facial recognition: featural and holistic. The first is for unfamiliar (other ethnic) faces and the latter for familiar (same ethnic) faces. Obviously, this featural method evolves in a holistic approach when ethnic interaction increases. 

I’ve never seen a smiling face that was not beautiful. (source, author unknown)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Ethnicity - us and them

When you consider that Kenya is located at the equator of our Earth and that the latest (5th) Ice Age started some 2.5 years ago (see June 22 blog), it actually makes sense that evidence of the earliest human species was found in an area closest to the Sun (see April 26 blog). Where else could humans have existed during the glacial (colder) periods of the latest Ice Age?

The Out of Africa theory (see April 26 blog) assumes at least 3 massive departures from the African continent. These emigration waves vary a lot in time which makes it safe to assume that they took place during the various interglacial (warmer) periods (see June 22 blog). In general, the Out of Africa theory assumes that the human hunters followed the animals going north. The first continent to arrive at was Asia and the last one was Europe. The climatological conditions (e.g., altitude, cold/heat and (ultraviolet) sunlight) were - and are - very different between Africa, Asia and Europe.

A recent study (see May 5 blog) showed that the people now living in Europe came from Asia and experienced several gene mutations some 5,000 years ago which resulted in a white skin to cope with less sunlight. The other main gene mutation (i.e., adult lactose tolerance) may well explain differences in physical composure compared to Asians. Similar gene mutations are like to have happened for Africans migrating to Asia to cope with high altitudes, lower temps and lesser sunlight.

Today, these gene mutations are responsible for our ethnic/racial distinction between Africans, Asians/Mongoloids and Caucasians, although some include Australoids as a 4th.

"There are no genetic characteristics possessed by all Blacks but not by non-Blacks; similarly, there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all Whites but not to non-Whites. One’s race is not determined by a single gene or gene cluster, as is, for example, sickle cell anemia. Nor are races marked by important differences in gene frequencies, the rates of appearance of certain gene types. The data compiled by various scientists demonstrates, contrary to popular opinion, that intra-group differences exceed inter-group differences. That is, greater genetic variation exists within the populations typically labeled Black and White than between these populations. This finding refutes the supposition that racial divisions reflect fundamental genetic differences". (source)

Nowadays, we tend to see other ethnic groups as (very) different from ourselves, sometimes even as different species, depending on our political beliefs. We used science to evidence these differences but the results were opposite to our beliefs. Science has taught us that we are similar human beings. 

Children learn at a young age that it is better to belong to a group than be an outlier/outsider. Groups provide shelter, safety and security against attacks, whether verbal or physical. The same goes for animals or even prisoners. The fastest way to form a human group is by using exterior characteristics as it takes a lot of time to create groups along interior lines. Most likely this is the reason why the concept of ethnic groups will remain in existence. Yet within those ethnic groups internal differences may be greater than with other external ethnic groups.

The saddest part of the human race is we're obsessed with this idea of 'us and them', which is really a no-win situation, whether it's racial, cultural, religious or political. (Dave Matthews)

Monday, 22 June 2015

Ice Ages and the development of (human) life

A few weeks ago, I saw a BBC documentary on (probably) Belgian TV which created a clear link between the various ice ages and the development of human beings. After each ice age a more developed human species arrived on Earth. When talking about this, my son asked me when the new ice age will be arriving. Good question, as it had already slipped my own mind.

There have been at least five major ice ages in the earth's past: the Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, Karoo Ice Age and the Quaternary glaciation. Outside these ages, the Earth seems to have been ice-free even in high latitudes. Rocks from the earliest well established ice age, called the Huronian, formed around 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago. The next well-documented second ice age, and probably the most severe of the last billion years, occurred from 850 to 630 million years ago (the Cryogenian period). (Wikipedia)

Scientists agree that Earth is some 4.5 billion years (Wikipedia). Earliest life on Earth - simple cells - is estimated to have developed some 3.6 billion years ago. Complex life is estimated at some 2 billion years ago. (Wikipedia). Interestingly, complex life thus started after the first known major ice age. The next major development in life was the move from multicellular life to simple animals which is estimated at 600 million years ago. Interestingly, this development starts after the second - most severe - ice age.

The Andean-Saharan (3rd) ice age occurred from 460 to 420 million years ago while the (4th) Karoo Ice Age occurred from 360 to 260 million years ago in the Karoo region of South Africa. After the third ice ages insects, amphibians and reptiles developed. After the fourth ice age mammals, birds and flowers developed. (Wikipedia 1Wikipedia 2)

The current ice age, the Quaternary glaciation, started about 2.58 million years ago. This period coincides with the earliest of humans which is estimated at some 2.5 million years ago (Wiki). Since then, the world has seen cycles of glaciation with ice sheets advancing and retreating on 40,000 and 100,000 year time scales called the cooler glacial periods and the warmer interglacial periods. The earth is currently in an interglacial, and the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago. (Wiki)

The answer to my son's question (1st paragraph) is disturbing as we are already in a new ice age. Yet we are also in an interglacial - warmer - period, called Holocene. A new glacial period is expected in some 80,000 years. The human impact on our climate ("global warming") may delay this peak with a few thousand years (NYT). In this context, the recent agreement amongst world leaders to curb global warming may even appear silly and possibly even against our human self-interest. 

According to the BBC documentary, there is a clear correlation between (inter)glacial periods and the development of the earliest homo species into our own species (homo sapiens). After each glacial period, a more intellectually advanced human species arrived. Intelligence was required to survive Earth's climate conditions. Now we have houses and heating. Still the impact of a new glacial period on human life may well be beyond our comprehension. 

The search for a habitable planet (e.g., NASA, Star Trek) gets a new meaning and purpose.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The paradox of homosexuality in evolution

Yesterday my mother claimed that homosexuality is heritable in her family. My son and I opposed to that line of thinking as homosexuals do not tend to reproduce and it should thus fade out from an evolutionary point of view. A former girlfriend even comes from a country where they still consider homosexuality a human disease. I replied to her that even animals show homosexuality. Latter fact was even the reason why Texas lifted its sodomy laws (BBC).

Actually, scientists still have no clue where homosexuality comes from. There are several theories though. One of them is the hereditary (DNA) theory of my mother. Another interesting theory could be labelled as the womb theory. The womb theory suggests that an extra dose of hormones during pregnancy determines the sexuality. (BBC News, New Scientist)

An interesting statistical fact is that the likelihood (chance) on homosexuality increases with the number of births. Each younger brother has a 33% higher chance of becoming homosexual. However, no one knows why (BBC). Obviously, this would imply that larger families show at least one homosexual child. My mother's family was large indeed and lived up to statistical expectations.

To date, scientists do not understand the paradox of homosexuality in human evolution as it doesn't seem to make sense that homosexuality survived human evolution as reproduction is the key feature in passing on genes. They have come up with secondary arguments (e.g., social bonding, care taking of siblings) to explain its evolutionary survival. (link 1, link 2)

In my view, scientists overlook a crucial aspect: homosexuals love children too. The assumption that homosexuals did not reproduce during evolution is wrong. In my view, this entire scientific paradox is time bound as homosexuals hardly ever came out of the closet in "recent" history. Only nowadays, western homosexuals come out of the closet, marry and have children, either through adoption or surrogate mothers.

In the not to distant past, homosexuals married and had children, just like any other couple. It would be interesting to know about homosexual behaviour before religion imposed its views. I think and feel that it is a safe bet to look at the animal kingdom where religion never banned homosexuality. Based upon my research, homosexual animals are bisexual when it comes to mating and reproducing. The animal offspring is however raised by the homosexual animal couple.

Given the above, there never was a paradox in the evolution of homosexuality. Before religion imposed its views, homosexuality was just "neutral" and for pleasure's sake. Reproduction required mating with the opposite sex and that was not a (psychological) issue. After religion imposed its views, homosexuals were hidden in plain view: marriages.

The coming out of homosexuals may finally create the paradox that the scientists were looking for. Homosexuality has become an identity similar to skin colour. Reproduction of homosexuals is far less common now than it was ever before. This may well imply that the (allegedly) 4% of western homosexual men, will go down to near zero in the centuries to come. Ironically, the coming out of homosexuals may also imply a fading out.

Friday, 19 June 2015

African-American

Being an African-American has never been so hard as nowadays. Yes, Barack Obama (partly from Kenyan heritage) was elected U.S. President. Twice in fact. Yes, Obamacare is huge progress for many. The heart of the matter is whether their situation has actually improved. Depending on the decade you compare with, there's progress and there's decline. A graph would probably show a period of slow progress, fast progress, slow decline and now accelerated decline.

To be entirely honest, I wonder which continent would be better for African-Americans right now. Africa or America. I feel there is more joy, happiness, and pride in Africa. Perhaps there is even less violence in Africa. Definitely there are less incarcerations in Africa compared to America. Even the level of prosperity in Africa and America appears to be almost equal between both: a few have-it-alls, a small middle-class and many have nots.

Future socio-economic developments may even show a more favourable situation in (parts of) Africa than in the USA. For African-Americans. For white Caucasian people the situation in the USA would be safer as a white Caucasian is like an open wallet in Africa.

To me the term African-American is somewhat misleading as I doubt someone would consider Africa as his/her motherland. To me the label African-American suggests that he/she could/should/would return to Africa. Yet, reintegration is hardly an option as African-Americans blended far more into American society in comparison with other ethnic groups.

Many other ethnic groups cherish their cultural roots (e.g., language, religion). Somehow, I even doubt that African-Americans know their original (main) tribe (e.g., Bantu, Zulu). Blending into American society and ignoring their cultural roots brought them far less than other ethnic groups.

Blending into American society may have even robbed African-Americans from their joy, happiness and pride. They got little to nothing in return. Perhaps their attempt to blend into American society is even the ultimate reason for the violence and hatred against them. How can you even fully blend into a society if your skin colour always provides a striking marker of your heritage?

A group provides safety and security. An individual is alone and vulnerable. A closed ethnic community brings even more: culture, language, religion, traditions and pride. The recent attack and multiple homicide inside a nearly 200 year old black community church in Charleston, South Carolina, is like a stab in the heart of a community. The message conveyed to the sole survivor was clear: you don't belong here, you're not one of us, you must leave (NBC News). Apparently, that is the prize of integration, assimilation and blending in, while not being able to change your skin colour.

Perhaps Barack Obama could (and should) emerge into a new role after the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. Somehow he owes that to the African-American community who elected him as their leader. It's time for him to live up to that role albeit in a new capacity. Blending into a society should come with a bonus and not at a cost. And many hands make light work. 

It's time for another: YES WE CAN. But this time for a community rather than an individual.


Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Heart of the Matter

This morning I woke up feeling dizzy. Really dizzy. As if I had been drinking a lot. Which I don't. I have been searching my mind for what could have caused this. Perhaps the 2 strong coffees around 8PM yesterday evening. I didn't sleep well at all last night. Perhaps it was the combination of both. Perhaps I need to adjust my eating habits. I don't know. I do know that I cancelled a social event for this evening to avoid 2 hours of driving alone. My health is more important nowadays.

Most of all I was, and am still, reminded of my father who died at 61 from a recurring – second and inoperable - brain tumour. He survived the first after a successful operation. I still see him in the garden doing his usual stuff as if nothing had happened in the months before. He didn't want to talk about what had happened. Perhaps it was denial, perhaps he was enjoying his good fortune of the successful operation. Doesn't really matter, with hindsight.

Perhaps it's morbid or even silly to make this connection with my father’s passing at 61 but it's only 6 years from now. One of the reasons I don't smoke is him. One of the reasons that I'm serious is him. This isn't even criticism. If anything, I envy him for how he lived his life: with friends, beer, laughter and cigarettes. His friends joined him a few years later. I suspect they are still having lots of fun together, somewhere up there.

I am not afraid or scared for my moment. I have had a good life and no regrets. Yes, there are still some outstanding issues but these are not unilateral ones. It takes two to tango - or reconcile. When the time comes, I'm ready. By the way, don't worry as I don't feel it will be anytime soon. Especially not, since I survived my severe 2013 burn-out. There's still work to do, knowledge to gather, blogs to write, and - most of all - people to help.

This evening, someone said to me that she needs me. Yet, I've never even met her. I cannot really understand that somebody actually needs me. Nor why she would need me. Even my children don't seem to need me. Ellen (20) still refuses to even talk to me. That used to hurt me a lot but nowadays it's not a problem to me anymore as I have learned to become A Solitary Man (Jonathan Jeremiah).

I never saw myself as a solitary man before. A Family man, yes. Since mid 2014 I'm alone and things have really changed. My attempts for new relationships have all failed. In each case I was the one who broke up. It gives me a much better understanding of the U2 song I Still Haven’t Found What I'm Looking For. Actually, I have no clue what I'm even looking for today. Nowadays, I just say that I don't believe in “looking for” but just in “finding”. So far I haven't been very successful in “finding” either (i.e., reconciliation, work, love).

“I am learning to live without you know, but I miss you sometimes. The more I know, the less I understand. All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again. I've been trying to get down to the Heart of the Matter. But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it's about forgiveness. Forgiveness. Even if, even if you don't love me anymore”. (Don Henley song)

These words by Don Henley have been bringing tears to my eyes for many years. I finally understand him now. I will continue looking for the Heart of the Matter. It's worthwhile.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A 2016 Bush-Clinton race - Trump's triumph

Yesterday, Donald Trump announced to run for U.S. President. The FT (link) clearly dislikes the guy and has already started to discredit him with subtle and less subtle comments. Hardly anybody thought that Professor Pim Fortuyn stood a chance in Dutch politics. Yet, most likely, Pim Fortuyn would have been the Dutch Prime Minister if he had not been assassinated by a left wing vegan.

Clearly, Donald Trump is not gay like Pim Fortuyn. Yet, they have some other striking similarities in dressing well and speaking in public. They both enjoy not being politically correct and say out loud and in the open what is on the mind of many. Pim Fortuyn won the hearts of many with an interesting cocktail of elements from the left and right political agenda. If Donald Trump would copy that approach then he could well be a far more threatening candidate than many now assume him to be.

In my view, the time has come to cherry pick on the left (pensioners, healthcare, jobs, minimum wages, environment) and the right (law & order, military, jobs, insourcing, taxation) and leave the traditional candidates speechless. It has to be a convincing cocktail to be able to absorb enough votes on the centre-right and the centre-left.

In many countries there is a significant undercurrent of dissatisfaction. One of my Republican friends in the USA recently said that the U.S. could really use one of its great former Presidents. He then mentioned JFK. I told him that he would never have voted for JFK today. He fully agreed. America is too polarised in left (Democrats) and right (Republicans). This however also allows an outspoken candidate with a brand new and clear message to become very appealing within a short while. Political correctness is a huge handicap against such a competitor.

The timing of Donald Trump’s announcement is remarkable. Only one day after Jeb Bush. This can hardly be a coincidence. I feel that he awaited the Bush announcement. I suppose that he feels that he's the only outsider who can prevent a “Clush” dynasty. The word Clush is a new – negative –abbreviation for a new Clinton-Bush Administration. Both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton will use their usual rhetoric to appeal to the/their voters. Yet both give dull speeches that will not attract any opponent to their side. Donald Trump is the wild card, the joker, the clown like Pim Fortuyn once used to be. Yet any clown is deadly serious in his profession.

Sometimes I wonder how The Netherlands would have evolved, had Pim Fortuyn not been assassinated. Perhaps his cocktail of a left and right wing political agenda came too early. I am still looking forward to the day that the distinction between left and right will be considered as outdated. That distinction is even creating a deadlock in Dutch - and European - politics. From a U.S. perspective the differences between left and right in Europe must be marginal. Indeed they are.

From a European perspective the differences in U.S. politics are rather marginal. In essence, it should be rather easy for an outsider to bridge the main views of the Democrats and Republicans. The voters may well appreciate a candidate who offers them the best of both worlds.

Preventing a further U.S. political deadlock could be the reason why an outsider like Donald Trump may triumph in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

the American Dream

Nowadays, when I think of America, the beautiful sad 2007 song "Going to a Town", by Canadian-American singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, comes to my mind (video). I used to associate upbeat songs with that beautiful country. In particular, one line of that Rufus Wainwright song says it all: "You took advantage of a world that loved you well". What has happened?

Perhaps the ultimate answer is that the American Dream is no longer a dream for all. This dream once allowed anybody to become successful regardless of socio-economic background. Few noticed that this dream had already been beaten up in the early 90s and was hospitalised ever since. Until 2000, the booming economy kept this dream alive by the ample use of credit as the patient's oxygen.

It's easy to come up with statistics that evidence that the American Dream is still alive (e.g., Silicon Valley, Wall Street) or dead (e.g., education, healthcare, incarcerations, minimum wage versus cost of living). Your political view determines the balance of the scales.

To me there are at least 4 Americas: the country’s most beautiful nature that I have learned to love so much during my visits, its bewildering people, the amazing imperfections of its system, and its fascinating capability for resilience. For an outsider like me, the fascination takes the upper hand. Yet I genuinely wonder if I could live “happily ever after” in the USA. In time, I would probably prefer the “dull” egalitarian European societies and its inherently higher taxes.

The American Dream is/was the binding element in society. It even justifies the vast differences between the haves and the have nots. When the American Dream would not revamp into version 2.0 then the USA is more likely to become like Mexico than like Canada. In fact, many observations already remind me of Mexico and then I don't even refer to the ever expanding use of Spanish as a national second language.

Mostly, I'm troubled by the continued American political deadlock situation. The USA is still a superpower but mostly from a military perspective and funded by budget deficits. In turn these budget deficits are financed by potential competitors. The USA may well be a superpower running on empty (song). The emerging new Bush or Clinton Administration will further increase the political deadlock situation. The world cannot however afford a continued lame duck US presidency.

Hence, my continued pleas for Europe to finally and formally accept its role as a superpower. Once the American Dream is no longer alive then America’s role as a superpower will be short lived. Domestic issues will soon overtake seemingly remote foreign interests. Europe should – or better: must - prepare to lose its “umbrella”.

In fact, the old world (a.k.a. Europe) might be the only place that will keep the American Dream alive. That version of the American Dream might not make you a billionaire but at least you don't need a safe room in your house or a gated community protecting you from a hostile outside world.

"You wake up in the middle of the night, Your sheets are wet and your face is white. You tried to make a good thing last, How could something so good, go bad, so fast?" Excerpt from American Dream, a 1988 song by Crosby Stills Nash & Young (video).

Monday, 15 June 2015

Greece - a debt for equity swap

Allegedly, Greece has 240 billion euro of government debt of which 160 billion euro to France and Germany (FT 1, FT 2). Basically, the current discussions involve a restructuring of the Greek economy without granting any debt relief. Latter is unacceptable to the Greeks. Debt relief for Greece, however, requires trust from its creditors which is probably remote to zero right now. A bankruptcy of a company would normally imply that a court rules that a company is insolvent and must cease its activities. Technically such a company goes into limbo until new money would flow in to pay off the creditors. A bankruptcy of a country results into a more complicated situation.

Debt relief without (future) trust is hard to negotiate – perhaps even impossible. There's another scenario: a debt for equity swap. In such a scenario the creditors become shareholders – or owners. Greece is not (yet) a company that issues shares that can be bought but technically it's conceivable. The real equity of Greece is its land – or islands. A 240 billion euro debt for equity swap would probably result into Greek islands changing nationality. It is unclear to me whether there are enough Greek islands for that purpose and if the Greek mainland could remain Greek.

A debt for equity solution would most likely still involve a third Greek bailout of 30-50 billion Euro as Greece appears to be a structural bleeder (cash out always exceeds cash in). It's hard to imagine that any new funding would not be asset-backed which implies that Greek territory (e.g., remaining islands, mainland) is pledged to its creditors. This would be the ultimate consequence for an unreliable debtor. From a geo-political and military view, a debt for equity solution would prevent Russia from further aggression and expansion around the Black Sea (see my June 6 blog).

Alternatively, Greek islands could be auctioned for sale and the proceeds could be used for Greek debt relief. Only countries may have the amounts of cash required for such bidding. A silent debt for equity swap should provide better results.

The Greek counter proposal wants it all: full debt relief, additional new (30-50 billion euro) loans and no serious restructuring of their economy. Most bankers would refuse to continue funding after having agreed to a haircut (a.k.a. write-off) on their outstanding loans. Moreover, it's unimaginable that any EU leader would survive the consequences of this Greek proposal in their next elections.
Perhaps the existing 240 billion Euro loans are already asset-backed but the refusal of creditors to even discuss debt relief makes me skeptic. The forthcoming Greek debt restructuring will become a major lessons learned. The element of political risk in country credit risk rating will need to be reviewed. Asset-backed government borrowings may become the way forward for certain countries.

The current Greek debt situation was caused by both debtor and creditors. Creditors were too eager to lend and the debtor was too eager to borrow. Either both parties underestimated country credit risk or it was a fraud / scam of amazing proportions. Or both.

The Greek situation must be resolved. Any agreement must involve debt relief and a sustainable economy that does not require eternal external funding. The only way forward would be a debt for equity swap, including additional funding, and based on a sustainable future business model.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The road to recovery from a depression or burn-out

Yesterday evening I had a 97.57 minute phone call with a friend who doesn't want to live anymore. It's not my first phone call with him on this topic. I used all the lessons learned from my own burn-out (depression) on him. Earlier, others have also asked me how to escape from a depression. Several of my blogs deal with partial remedies. This will be a comprehensive one.

Let's start with trying. There is no such thing as trying when it comes to escaping a depression or burn-out. Either you do it or you don't. Escaping requires huge amounts of will power. You must have the will to survive rather than to remain in your comfortable victim role and accept the pity and attention from others. That pity and attention will end once they realise that you don't want to recover and survive. It will then turn against you.

Once you're determined to survive from your depression, the road to recovery follows 3 basic - and non-sequential - steps: Eat, Pray, and Love. Looks simple right? Each of these 3 steps have their own hurdles and relapses. The importance of these 3 steps is to recognise there is a path out of darkness.

Eating isn't that easy once you're in a burn-out or depression. Most of us lose weight as we don't really care for our well-being. The underlying cause is that we don't love ourselves anymore (see next paragraphs). Some people will tell you to start exercising (e.g., running, walking). Perhaps it works for others. Enjoying food again is a challenge. Yet, food is important for human survival and not only for people with a depression.

Praying is rather confrontational as it requires you to talk about your (lost) hopes and fears, your shattered dreams and illusions, your lack of self esteem, and admitting your very darkest thoughts. Most of us are masters in (self) deception and thus such conversations cannot be held with other humans, even professionals. In fact, the only human who can help you, is you. Deep down you do know how to escape and survive but you lack the strength - and perhaps even will power - to execute. Faith is an amazing source of energy. Once you let faith return to your life then things really start to move. The final step is a hard one though.

Loving others is only possible once you love yourself. I had never realised this. Receiving love from others does not compensate for the lack of loving yourself. Loving yourself is far from easy however. Nowadays, I have come to realise that many people do not love themselves. Often this ultimately explains certain behaviour despite many layers of (self) deception.

The ultimate question to ask yourself is a very hard one: am I worth it? Am I worth to be loved? Am I worth to be alive? These questions should not be answered light-heartedly. It takes many hours of introspection (e.g., praying) before you can come up with an answer.

After completing this process you're a different person. I have never felt this strong before in my life. Yes, there are still relapses after new disappointments but they don't hit me like before. Once you have seen rock bottom and recovered, there's no way that you want to return there.

I aim to avoid negativity in my life and yesterday’s phone call was clearly hard. My compassion for others and also the opportunity for adding value to the lives of others, are however more important than a temporary load of negativity. Helping others allows me to realise the added value of my own existence. And making a difference in life and lives, definitely feels worthwhile. Indeed I'm worth it. My former gf and BFF was right in saying that to me for so many months. For the first time in my adult life I love who I am. Not what I am. Who I am.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Perfect Universe versus the eternal inflation theory - part 4

Yesterday evening, Belgian TV broadcasted episode 2 - Why are we here? - of the BBC documentary called Human Universe. To my surprise, scientists have apparently come up with a theory what could have preceded the Big Bang. Also see my related blogs of March 8, March 9, and March 11.

Most of this 2nd episode was actually quite interesting for non scientists like me. Several times the scientists in this documentary made a reference to the perfection of the Universe as - in so many ways - it has created the perfect conditions for humans to exist. That reference to perfection already made me wonder what (anti) climax was to come at the end of this episode. And I was not disappointed.

The documentary also made a reference to an earlier scientific hypothesis that it's just sheer luck that our entire Universe provides these perfect conditions (winning lottery ticket theory). Apparently, scientists have finally realised that it's too unlikely that an entire Universe is perfect. There must be an explanation for that. And there was indeed one but not the one you would expect.

When the documentary started to make reference to the continued appearances of new (volcanic) islands, my suspicion started. I felt an anti climax was on its way. And I was not disappointed. The continued appearances of new (volcanic) islands was used as a metaphor.

The lottery example (winning ticket) and the example of continued appearances of new (volcanic) islands were used to introduce the eternal inflation (gravitational wave) theory. In my own words: assume that the Universe is like an ever expanding ocean in which once and while a new volcanic island (pocket universe) pops up. In that view, our pocket universe is just the winning lottery ticket in a sea of universes. Seriously?? That's the best they can come up with?? Links: BBC, Scientific American, and SPACE.

Even from a statistical point of view such a theory looks silly. Initially, scientists claimed that there are billions of planets in our Universe and thus one of these planets could just have been lucky (winning lottery ticket theory). If our entire pocket universe is just lucky now then you would also expect that this new theory includes the assumed existence of billions of pocket universes to enable our pocket universe to claim the winning lottery ticket.

I love Science and belief in Religion, also see my April 10 blog. However, most likely Religion and Science will never converge to a joint view on our existence as humans on this planet. Scientists will continue proving that chaos is leading everything and that our existence is just a lucky coincidence based on a combination of random events. Also see my May 3 blog about Science as a Belief system. It must be rather unfortunate (e.g., bad luck, losing lottery ticket) for scientists that the more they see, the more structured perfectionism they discover. However, it's hard changing Beliefs.

If you believe, like me, that perfectionism is not random and involves a Master plan then you can just sit back, relax, enjoy the ride and let scientist do their work. Each new discovery underpins the existence of a Master plan. Owning a winning lottery ticket has its advantages.

Somehow all of this reminds me of the consultant joke. Just replace the word consultant for scientist.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Cloud computing and hacking

I think that I have seen most developments within IT during my career in auditing and business: mainframe with terminals, internet connectivity, standalone PC's, network PC's with servers, outsourcing, hacking, and now cloud computing. Essential differences in those stages are: User Access (office, home, remote, cloud), User Connectivity (offline, company firewall, 3rd party, cloud), and User Identity (from physical to virtual presence).

IT used to be a low risk, core business process as companies had their own IT department with a mainframe, user terminals and firewalls to control internet connectivity. Nowadays, IT has become a high risk, non core business process as companies outsource their IT department, applications and data storage with limited ways to verify user access and possibly no way to verify user identity.

IT had to become more simple, more effective and - most of all - more cost efficient. In my view, the pricing of 3rd party IT services still largely underestimates the inherent risks with respect to user access management and - especially - user identity management.

Hacking used to involve breaking and entering into the physical premises of a company before you could access company data. Nowadays, it mainly requires a login ID and a password. Allegedly, these data are even for sale in the black market. This probably also explains the hacking of large databases which seem to have a remote value at first glance.

Cloud computing must sound like heaven to hackers, especially as user access management is still mostly based upon a single verification method (i.e., ID and password). Dual step verification (ID, password, phone #) is emerging at some companies (e.g., Gmail, iCloud) but is mostly optional. No more physical restrictions (e.g., cameras, gates, locks, security). No user identity restrictions (e.g., thumb scan, iris scan). Just the use of a stolen ID and password.

Another interesting feature is the jurisdiction of cloud computing suppliers. Several countries would allow for a government breach of company data - or legalised hacking.

In my view, the above situation is largely due to the fact that IT has never really been able to communicate to key decision makers (e.g., CEO, CFO). Even the arrival of CIO's has not been able to counter this trend. IT is mostly approached from a technical and a cost angle. Rarely you meet an IT responsible who can combine company strategy and IT operations and everything in between.

If company data (e.g., customer, financial, production, research & development) would be considered as not essential then indeed IT should also be considered as non core. If IT risks would be considered as low then the efficiency and effectivity of cloud computing would indeed prevail over enterprise risk management. Usually efficiency and effectivity don't go well with management of risks.

Cloud computing to hackers is like breaking and entering into a house with a stolen key of the front door including a label telling you the name and address.

Even for IT the saying applies: If you pay peanuts then you get monkeys.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Second chances

Sometimes life offers us second chances. If we perceive them as opportunities at all. We may also view them as a nuisance and may just continue our journey on our dead-end road. A wake up call may either be too loud, too soft, too close, or too far to recognise its meaning.

I just spoke to a friend whose luck never seem to run out. Quite recently he had a thorough medical check up which showed no signs of medical issues. Soon afterwards he was hospitalised with serious heart conditions. He now realises that he barely survived. I asked him whether he views this as a wake-up call. Initially he claimed it was just a “technicality” but the remainder of our conversation told me quite a different story.

My 2013 hit against the “brick wall” was a life altering moment. Only with hindsight. It took me many months to realise, recognise and accept what had happened in the decades before that moment. Misfortune comes in many shapes and forms. Most of them don't create life altering moments. Some misfortunes may even cause a laughter soon after.

Second chances are granted for a reason. To make up for prior mistakes. To allow for a new work-life balance. You deserve a second chance but you are not entitled to one. Yesterday, I have decided that there's no third chance for someone. I unfriended that person and blocked virtually all means of communication. As the French would say: an oeuf is an oeuf.

I have never ever considered giving my marriage a second chance. The reason is very simple. Once you contemplate on something for at least 10 years then you don't reconsider your decision once it's finally made. In fact, each day of my marriage could be seen as a second chance. With hindsight.

In another case I have given someone plenty of second chances. Probably thirty. I was blinded by love, lust or both. Recently, I saw her in a totally different way and my “friend or foe” radar finally became operational again after several years of “failure”. Now her magic – or worse, spell – is gone. No more “second” chances. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Enough is enough.

Once the love is gone, it's difficult to be / stay friends. Allegedly, it's even more difficult for women. Perhaps as her love never really dies and could be re-invoked under the right / wrong circumstances. That could indeed seriously complicate things. Especially when there are 3 or 4 persons involved by then.

Second chances are a gut feeling. New information, new circumstances, and new experiences could affect such a decision. Nevertheless, it's your heart, mind and instinct that take this joint decision. The heart forgives, the mind rationalises and the instinct feels.

Second chances are not time boxed. A new window of opportunity may come along at various moments. The urge for – granting or accepting - second chances may increase or decrease over time. When the person is right then time and place are the only two remaining variables.

Comes a time when you're driftin’, Comes a time when you settle down. (Neil Young - video)

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Words

Words of love and hate, of hope and consolation, of joy and pain. New words and dying languages. Nearly every emotion has a word. Sometimes words fall short and then we have music. A song’s combination of lyrics and music can be immensely powerful. Words allow us to express ourselves, and to hide ourselves. To be ourselves and to fake ourselves. Words - and language – are the most important accomplishment of mankind. Imagine a life without words. Sign language may keep your body alive but your mind may die in the process.

I love words and I love playing with words. I love the double meanings that words allow you, at times. I am pleased when people understand and appreciate my words as each word was a conscious decision in itself. I am disappointed in people who fail to understand my words. Who read things that were not written and hear things that were not said. I have little sympathy for ignorance and stupidity as it often cannot be cured within a reasonable timeframe.

I write these blogs to express myself, my emotions, my thoughts. My personal topics seem to help others too, for which I am grateful. Life is a journey with different originations, a similar destination, and with many stops in between. Each of us is at a different stop and we learn from each other's experiences at those stops. At rare moments we find persons at the same stop. Perhaps those moments help define a soulmate.

For some this journey is visibly hard, for others seemingly easy. Communication – formerly, correspondence – allows us to share feelings and thoughts that we incur during our journey with family, friends and acquaintances . Yet, only friends hear our truth - or at least most of it. The others hear our pre-recorded voice mail message. Only sometimes we pick up the phone during these conversations and then we actually start talking.

Words may touch the receiving party and expose the vulnerability of the sending party. The opposite usually works better for most of us: meaningless words that don't touch the receiver and don't weaken the sender. The Dilbert cartoons provide us with striking examples of such meaningless corporate jargon. It's kind of ironic that such empty words can turn into humour and get a (new) meaning.

It’s my aim not to waste my words, either on negativity or on deliberately hurting someone else. No doubt my words will hurt others, even if there was no intention to hurt. The truth always hurts, they say, but the truth is usually just a perspective. Words can only hurt when there is doubt. Doubt about the choices that we made during our journey. Doubt about right or wrong. About now or then.

I have made my choices during my journey and don't regret any of them. Each choice was well considered. The tougher they were, the longer they took. Regret is one of the most dangerous emotions as it typically involves the notorious “what, if” question. That question is like a drowning emotional black hole. Just assume your choices during your journey in life and live with the consequences. Only light hearted foolish choices may cause serious regret.

Non! Rien de rien. Non! Je ne regrette rien. Edith Piaff's famous song. And - for my friends - let's not forget Jacquel Brel's song Ne me quitte pas.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Bosporus - dire Straits

Recently, I've been connecting some dots: Black Sea, Crimea, Georgia, Greece, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. The common denominator is the Bosporus and the Dardanelles (a.k.a. the Turkish Straits).

Greece and Turkey are both NATO members since 1952. Turkey was/is an aspiring member of the European Union. The rise of the Turkish AK party has changed things. An EU membership is now far away, if still in demand at all. Even Turkey's membership of NATO is more and more criticised since its invasion and occupation of the northern part of the island of Cyprus in 1974.

The rise of the Turkish AK party seems to coincide with a renewed Russian interest in the Black Sea. The military relevance of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is however limited as a result of the Turkish control over the Bosporus. An isolation of Turkey would be in the interest of Russia. And the Turkish AK party seems perfectly capable of isolating itself from its alliances.

The continued Greek drama (e.g., Syriza vs EU-IMF) and its historic communist sympathies may provide an interesting spark to the Russians to stir up the historic tensions between Greece and Turkey. Such a spark could relate to Cyprus, acquiring strategic Greek assets, or the Bosporus.

Control over the Bosporus is governed in the Montreux Convention of 1936 and serves two purposes: inbound and outbound traffic. For centuries inbound traffic was most important to protect Russia’s belly from aggressors. Although the Bosporus is quite helpful from a defensive (i.e., inbound) angle, it is also a major hurdle from an outbound perspective. You can't cross the Straits without Turkish approval. The Montreux Convention even forbids the use of the Bosporus by certain large military vessels. This clause originally was of a defensive nature but works both ways.

In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gave the Crimea to Ukraine, then a Soviet state. The loss of their major Black Sea naval base in Sebastopol (Crimea) to Ukraine was unacceptable to Russia. Taking back what was once theirs – although legally a hostile invasion, like the Turkish one in Cyprus – makes perfect sense. To Russia at least. Regaining Russian control over the Black Sea may well explain certain ongoing  - and future - developments. Historically, the Black Sea was Russian after defeating other surrounding nations at the Black Sea (e.g., Turkey).

The Russian naval base in Syria explains Russia’s relentless support of that regime. It's their only Mediterranean naval base. A naval base in Greece would be most welcome. This also explains the American fears over the Greek developments in Europe. This knowledge also allows the Greeks to play a high stake poker game.

Finally, the current low level of oil prices and the unusually high Saudi oil production levels have crippled the Russian economy and have also damaged the American aim for energy independence (e.g., shale oil/gas). The Russians can't afford spending huge amounts in acquiring Greek strategic (military) assets. Yet, a 2 billion euro Russian-Greek gas pipeline deal has already been announced. It is geopolitical (bluff) poker on a extraordinary scale.

Ultimately, control over the Bosporus is essential for Russia to re-emerge as a superpower.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Trust issues

There’s a beautiful Dutch saying which translates as follows: the innkeeper trusts his guests after his own character (NL: Zoals de waard is, vertrouwt hij zijn gasten). The English translation has been borrowed from a fellow Dutch blogger: thosesillydutch.blogspot.nl. The actual English equivalent of this Dutch saying is: “Ill doers are ill deemers”.

Actually I prefer the Dutch translation above the English equivalent as this translation paints a (historic) picture with only a few words. Just picture the innkeeper Basil Fawlty and his legendary trust towards his – especially foreign - guests in his esteemed “Fawlty Towers” (BBC video). My former French girlfriend also liked the graphic ways of Dutch sayings as these sayings contain a message and a - usually spot-on - example. The English saying “Ill doers are ill deemers” may actually first require the use of a dictionary. 

The reason for this blog is that I feel a lack of trust from a friend. She/he keeps on pushing and nagging on a topic which I had considered to be discussed and concluded. The mere fact that (s)he keeps coming back on this topic makes me rebellious and – worse – suspicious. Today I am supposed to go somewhere but I couldn't care less at this moment. I prefer writing this blog rather than paying that visit.

I am sensitive when it comes to trust issues. It doesn't really matter which side they are on: whether I'm granting trust or receiving trust. There's another graphic Dutch saying that translates along the lines of: trust comes by foot and leaves on a horse (NL: vertrouwen komt te voet en gaat te paard). The English equivalent is “trust is hard to gain and easy to lose”. Although the sayings are similar in its message, the striking example in the Dutch saying makes a real difference.

Apparently my former wife reads my blog too and now wants to reconcile. However, there is zero trust on my side when it comes to her intentions. As Sepp Blatter recently said after his re-election as FIFA’s Chairman: “I forgive everyone but I don't forget”. I advise her to first repair what she has broken in our kids, by using them as pawns in her relentless war against me.

How to restore trust once it has been damaged? Perhaps that's the most difficult challenge in life. The only thing that comes to my mind right now is this: actions speak louder than words. Communication helps but it's ultimately just a stream of words. And communication also requires some skills as else things even go from bad to worse. 

Moreover, reconciliation requires a bilateral purpose. Else it just becomes a unilateral redemption. At times, it's better to be acquaintances rather than forcing someone into a unilateral friendship. That doesn't mean I don't miss the counsel of my former BFF. One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood (Lucius Annaeus Seneca). Yet, "no one can be friends after being lovers but if they are friends again after being lovers, they are the best friends in the world” (unknown origin).

Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships. (Stephen Covey)

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Neutrality - clean hands in a dirty war

Yesterday, I received an email from Amnesty International asking me to support a petition against the Nigerian Government regarding its alleged brutalities against alleged members of Boko Haram. I refused and even replied to them that I don't appreciate their “neutrality”. It’s rather naïve to think that you can't have clean hands in a dirty war. The extreme violence by this terrorist organisation requires retaliation. Any soft approach will only reinforce their despicable actions.

Like many people I used to support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. I have withdrawn my support as they don't deserve it given their behaviour in this conflict. Both parties are involved in a dirty war – and worst of all - with no aim or intention to resolve their conflict. It's just survival of the strongest. Frankly, I stopped caring for both parties which is by the way something entirely else than being neutral.

Staying neutral in conflicts is usually not an option as parties in a conflict typically have a “friend or foe” view: if you're not my friend then you must be a foe. You can hardly blame them for that as it’s important to count (on) your allies and adversaries.

During my divorce most people took sides and 1 person insisted to stay neutral. Most likely, latter person ended up with nothing as neutrality isn't considered a plus when it comes to emotions. True friends take sides and give counsel. Their counselling may even be the only way forward to resolve conflicts. One of my remaining friends took that role upon him and I'm grateful for that. Else I would still be in court today. At times, our friendship took a severe beating. Yet it survived.

In many conflicts you see that one party is assuming the victim role. A victim role may earn you friends as people usually feel pity for the underdog. However, even victims may ultimately have had a decisive role in the conflict without anybody being aware of that. Often the cause of conflicts is deemed less interesting than its consequences. However, there is no lasting solution if the root cause of the conflict is ignored.

Yesterday, I received an email which I had already expected to receive on Sunday. This email will go unanswered as I'm not interested to talk to that person after all the lies, hurt and grief that this person has caused. Yes, there's a status quo of live and let live. However, there is no lasting solution as the root cause of that conflict has never been resolved. That person may pretend to be a victim to everyone. I know better. And victim roles don't last forever.

The European Union is another interesting example when it comes to neutrality and – at the same time – continue benefiting from it. Some recent UK articles (link 1, link 2, link 3) mentioned the clear disadvantages of opting out while still benefiting from it. Obviously, these articles are meant to influence the UK debate on EU membership. Nevertheless, it doesn't make any sense to want both: opting out AND continue benefiting. Still the EU allows this somehow by requiring mandatory implementation of its directives without these countries having had any say in its preparation.

There’s no way you can have it all: benefits, influence while opting out at the same time. Whose side are you on? I know. Do you?

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Healthcare: total loss or repair

In property and liability insurance there's a guideline for determining whether the object is a total loss or still warrants repair. When the cost of repair is higher than the object’s residual value then there's a total loss and then it’s more (cost) efficient to replace it. The residual value can either be determined through a sale (direct market value) or through determining the object’s future earning capacity in its remaining years of operation (indirect market value).

In life (insurance) this calculation gets complicated for several reasons. Firstly, ethical considerations. Secondly, emotional value. Thirdly, determining indirect market value. Yet I have no doubt that pharmaceutical companies will use such a calculation to determine the “optimal” pricing of their new drugs. Reputation damage for refusing to refund such new drugs will also be a factor in this equation.

The above thoughts were triggered by an FT article today, in which the CEO of a leading global pharmaceutical warns the UK government after the British government refused to refund a new expensive cancer drug. Apparently, the UK government uses a measure called “quality-adjusted life year added” to judge the value for money it gets when comparing the cost of medicine. Basically, this also implies that the cost of treatment (repair) is minimised and that the residual value of the person's life is always deemed higher than the cost of treatment.

Since 1850, there has been a dramatic rise of life expectancy around the world. The increase of the minimum age for retirement has only started since this decade and only in some countries like in The Netherlands. Future pension premiums must reflect an ageing population. And future healthcare premiums must reflect the increase of healthcare expenses for an ever ageing population. The cost for car maintenance, repair and tyres (MRT) at car leasing companies typically shows an accelerated pace for each additional year in operation.

The Hippocratic oath has been the cornerstone of Western healthcare for many centuries. The modern version even reflects a balanced consideration between treatment (repair) versus the value of adding life (e.g., over-treatment and therapeutic nihilism).

Considering a global population of some 8 billion people, it makes perfect sense for global pharmaceutical companies to focus on "cash cows" rather than small - niche - drugs ("dogs"). Small pharmaceutical companies face the cost of FDA approval which can easily become prohibitive. FDA approval is important for future refunding by governments and healthcare insurers. FDA approval is also important to prevent bad medicine from entering the consumer healthcare market.

Pharmaceutical companies typically explain their huge profits for being able to fund research and development of new drugs. However, quite often their purchases of their smaller pharmaceutical competitors needs to fill their future product portfolio. This consolidation development will only reinforce their “optimal” pricing of future drugs. The approach of pharmaceutical companies by the Chinese government is quite interesting and may teach others the way forward (link 1, link 2, link 3).

Medicine is like money. You can't do without. Sooner or later, pharmaceutical companies will be treated as the new evil bankers of society.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Hiding in my shell

I am sad again. This gloomy feeling returns every 1-3 months. Perhaps it's triggered by the lousy weather right now. Perhaps it's being alone most of the time. Perhaps it's about being turned down over and over again. Perhaps it's about the feeling of despair when I read or listen to the news. There are so many causes that contribute to this sad feeling. Sometimes I feel that I'm losing hope again. Not faith. Just hope. My situation looks endless. Even my back ache has returned to mock with me.

At times, I am not the strong person that people take me for. I am a Pisces and highly sensitive of my surroundings. Fortunately, my 1960 Metal Rat personality will soon take control again. In general, I am quite blessed with my Piscean-Rat personality. When I have these gloomy feelings again then I hide in my shell, I listen to classical music, and I stop external communication until the feeling of sadness is gone again. Today my anger even returned. The anger that I associate with not being able to change certain things in my life - or ineptitude.

I suppose the dark side is pulling at me again. It tends to return in my hours of weakness. In 2013 the dark side was even able to enter into my mind and "talk" to me. I still remember that my eyes were then suddenly drawn to the DVD "Constantine" which I hadn't seen yet. Watching it learned me a lot about the dark side and its effect on people. Ultimately, my faith keeps me away from the dark side.

I don't want to fight the grief that I'm feeling as it's genuine. At such times I feel that I have lost a lot and gained little. I know that it isn't a little as I have regained my future which had looked totally lost. Yet, it's a future that still feels like a greenfield - with all its advantages and disadvantages.

Grief is not only a rear view mirror. It also allows us to consider what we still have and to cherish that. The Dutch rock bands BløfDe Dijk and IsOokSchitterend have beautiful (Dutch language) songs about that (see links in band names). The essence of these songs being that we only know what we miss, once it's gone. And also: what you never have had, you cannot lose (IOS). Up to the moment of loss, we just felt "entitled" to having her, him or it. Realising that such an entitlement does not exist - and that it was a mere blessing in life - should act as an eyeopener towards our future.

Today I was urged to talk about this. I can't. I wouldn't know where to start and how to end. We have a saying in Dutch which would translate like this: Saying things without insight results into statements without perspective (C. Buddingh': "Inspraak zonder inzicht leidt tot uitspraak zonder uitzicht."). Actually, I am using this blog to gather and process (some of) my many thoughts.

I just need time to gather and process my thoughts and to regain my hope and my strength again and to move on. Day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. Soon I'll be the person again whom everybody assumes I am. Apart from the few who actually know me.

The 1974 Supertramp song "Hide In Your Shell" from their fabulous "Crime of the Century" album, comes close to what I'm feeling. Roger Hodgson sure chose his words well as they hit you in the face, line by line. To finish with a positive note however, I will only use a very small part of these lyrics

"Don't let the tears linger on inside now, Because it's sure time you gained control".