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Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Why I abolished my Facebook account…

“If you’re not paying for it; You’re the Product”

In a little more than ten years, everyday life of almost every middle class adolescent and adult person under fifty in the Western Hemisphere has been partially taken over by the social media. Twitter, Whatsapp, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, you name it. Oh yeah, and of course Facebook…

It hardly matters at which moment of the day or at which location one meets strangers. There is always a well above average chance that these people are totally absorbed by their mobile phones, iPads and Notebooks. In the bus, in the metro, just before or during meetings, during lunch or during a cigarette break and even in the discotheque... people are staring at their cellphones and iPads.

And no, people are probably not watching their phones or other wireless appliances to read their business emails, to make some last minute changes to their university paper or to send an invitation to their colleagues to let them visit an important meeting.
No, most people use their cellphones mostly for fun and leisure, by reading and posting items on the social media of their choice.

I understand that very well… Personally, I am an avid user of Twitter (for fun and hobby) and LinkedIn (for business).

For me it is much fun to react to the opinions of politicians, experts, journalists and pundits on Twitter or to share my own thoughts regarding things that happened on the news or in real life. Twitter is always topical, and a “short, sharp shock” when it comes to opinions and events. Some of the people there come close to being a ´kind of friend´, without ever really becoming one.

Twitter is a very volatile medium and that’s what I like about it. Last week´s discussions are “old news from the dark ages” and today’s hypes and scandals are the hottest thing around. If you ever watched a national football match or a talent show with Twitter comments on, you know what I mean.

And while many users use Twitter to spill their guts about almost anything, it are the quality of numerous discussions and the interaction with the real experts and with some of the dearer twitter users that keeps me hooked to it, And that, in spite of all the negative stories about the ´content being vulgar´ and the general chances for survival of this medium.

And LinkedIn? While this social medium bored me “beyond belief” in its early days, it has evolved into a darn good tool for networking and finding new assignments (always important for freelance professionals), as well as a service-hatch for very interesting stories from people that I respect – including my own stories. And while LinkedIn is not exactly something that I visit for fun, it nevertheless proved its quality to me.

That brings me to Facebook. From all the aforementioned social media, Facebook is by far the most popular (except perhaps for Whatsapp in sheer numbers of users) and the most successful social medium. Period!

Personally, I did not and I still don’t like it! I even disliked it so much that a few weeks ago I decided to abolish my profile on Facebook and make this medium something of the past for me.

Let’s begin with Facebook’s slogan. I take here the translated Dutch slogan, as it is so much more direct than the quite disguised English slogan:

With Facebook you are connected and you share everything with everybody in your life” (in Dutch: “Met Facebook ben je verbonden en deel je alles met iedereen in je leven” )

Isn’t that the creepiest slogan ever? That you are cursed to “share EVERYTHING with EVERYBODY in your life”?

The heck, I won’t!

When I share information and things through social media, I do it out of my own free will and in the possession of my full mental powers.

Although I always hope to do something good with my blogs and tweets and try to make people laugh, enjoy something, (dis)agree with me and make them think about certain subjects or wonder about some marvelous things, I don’t want to receive report marks (i.e. the ‘like’ or future ‘dislike’ button) for my writings. If you like my tweets and articles, it is appreciated and if you hate my guts... be my guest! I love getting a letter from my readers, especially when they felt aided or comforted by some of my articles or want to have information about particular subjects, but that is neither my intention for writing nor my ultimate goal.

With Blogger, Twitter and LinkedIn, this is OK, but it is not with Facebook seemingly.

Facebook wants indeed to know everything from all its users and it wants its users to put their whole life on Facebook: 
  • When you do something or when something happens to you, you put this on Facebook, where it in fact acts as a source for positive or negative assessments by others;
  • When you get new lovers, friends or business relations, Facebook wants to turn them into its own relations and friends and disclose the network that is emerging behind it;
  • When you write a tweet, you often put it on Facebook at the same time, sometimes without realizing that;
  • When you post a picture on it, Facebook immediately considers that to be its own picture, which it can use for its own purposes, without further consent;
  • Facebook wants you to be online as long as possible (24/7) and it wants to make you share, share, share…
  • Facebook bombards you with long, long lists of remote acquaintances and far relatives, hoping that it can push you to expand your own (and in the process their) network;
  • And when you react to somebody else’s posts or adverts through the ‘like’-button or through your comments, you start a whole machinery, trying to make you hand over even more personal information or buy advertized stuff eventually;
  • Facebook wants you to use its instant messaging services, its fixed telephony and its cellphone services, so it can gather even more personal information about you, without you realizing that;
  • And please remember that Facebook never ever forgets.

In its ways to comfort you as a user and make life easier for you – seemingly for free – Facebook seems a benevolent organization, that is created to help the human race and bring it on a higher level of interconnectedness.

Yet you have to remember that YOU are indeed the product for Facebook and that EVERYTHING you do is closely monitored by Facebook, in order to generate more information and thus eventually more cash in the process.

And in my humble opinion, Facebook has proven in the past that European and national privacy laws are nothing more than an annoying obstacle on its road towards total control of information. An obstacle that can be defeated and/or ignored.

In its modus operandi, Facebook sometimes reminds me of Hedra Carlson, the scary tenant in the film “Single White Female”, so intensely played by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

At first, Hedra seems to be the perfect companion and “Best Friend Forever” of landlady Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda), until she notices that Hedra is more and more involved in taking over Allison’s total life, at the expense of Allison herself. The end of this movie is very discomforting, even though the heroine of the story survives in the end…

At this moment I don’t have any tangible reasons to accuse Facebook of having more suspicious goals than earning loads of money at my and other people’s expense, through the collection of as much information as possible. Nevertheless, it is exactly this intrusive ‘nature of the beast’ and this relentless pushing to become an indispensable ‘Best Friends Forever’ that bother me very much about Facebook.

Through my writings and tweets, I chose to be a ‘public person’ and I am aware of the consequences that such things can have; positively or negatively.

However, my wife did not choose to become a public person through things that I do on the internet. And especially my three children do not own the luxury of having a real, well-considered choice yet, as they are simply too young for such a choice.

Still, Facebook would probably “die” to know everything about me, my wife and children and all my friends. Not because we are interesting as persons, but because we are interesting as marketing instruments.

I initially created my Facebook profile about three or four years ago in order to look up some data of an old school friend who I had not seen for years. Initially, it offered me a chance to look up some old acquaintances, but those Facebook contacts did hardly lead to something more interesting in real life. Since then, I just left my profile hanging on, as I was further not really interested in the contents on Facebook. Every now and then I watched my profile and pending messages – perhaps about every three months – and sometimes I posted a comment to some event. And every time when I wrote a Blogger article, I posted it on Facebook, as yet another medium to post links to my articles.

A few weeks ago, at one particular moment, I had simply had it with Facebook. I had it because Facebook still published all my tweets unasked, without me standing still with that. And I had it, because it came up with the remotest of acquaintances, gathered from all my email and other social media contacts, asking me to become friends with those people and further build up my network on Facebook’s behalf. And for no particular reason, I simply wanted to get out…

Then I was confronted with the fact that Facebook does not make it easy on a person, when he wants to get out of it. After I looked in vain for half an hour within the tool, to find a way to really abolish my profile (instead of just disabling it), I managed to do so with the help of one dedicated site. Afterwards, I found out that Facebook granted me an involuntary cool-down period of two weeks. A period, in which a person cannot make use of Facebook anymore per accident or else... (he will be reconnected again).

And now I am in the final days of my Facebook membership. Everybody who thinks that I will feel sorry for my decision to stop using it, does not know me really well.

Even though I have my public life on Twitter, LinkedIn, Blogger and some of the other social networks, I want to spend the other parts of my life in the privacy to which I am entitled. And that privacy especially stretches to my loved ones and other family.

I will not discourage people to use Facebook, when they have a good time with it and enjoy its possibilities, while taking the drawbacks for granted. I just wanted to tell you my motivation to abolish it for good. 

Do with that and think about that what you want, as I am not really interested in your opinions about my acts and motivation in such matters. However, if you need my help for a good and righteous cause, you know where to find me... 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Does the car industry lack a fundamental sense of honesty and decency? After looking at it in 2015, one might very well think so!

Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” seems only the tip of the iceberg regarding embedded engine kernel software being rigged on purpose; many more famous car brands might have followed in their footsteps. GM, on the other hand, seemed to have proven once again that saving money is more important than saving lives!

It wears you thin
Unpacks a bag and it settles in
Ten times an hour you'll wish it dead
Ask it to leave but it stays instead

It was the miracle of the (European, Far Eastern and to a lesser degree the US) car industry during the last three decades. Not only did the cars get faster and more frugal in their fuel consumption, in spite of their heavier weight and increased electricity consumption – laden with airconditioning and electronic gadgets as they were – but they also got cleaner by the year.

Especially the infamous diesel engine, in the eighties especially notorious for the clouds of black smoke that it spread in case of being poorly adjusted, turned into an “environmentally friendly” Juggernaut that crushed its gasoline-driven competition among the European corporate drivers.

In the Seventies of the last century, the European diesel was a car for patient sales agents that devoured kilometers like a box of chocolates and did not mind accelerating from nought to one hundred kilometers per hour in 27 seconds (!), as their low fuel bills made them smile the whole way.

However, the successful and ubiquitous introduction of turbo technology for diesels in the Eighties and the invention of the common rail diesel engine in the Nineties changed the diesel car from 'a gouty slug' spreading black smokescreens, into a racemonster that showed many gasoline cars its tail lights. And the diesel fuel was still sipped away at a very low pace, thus offering enormous value for money.

And the best thing was: during the last decade diesel engines became really, really clean, with respect to their exhaust of soot and nitrous oxide emissions. This was due to the introduction of better catalysts and various new technologies which reduced the harmful exhaust of especially fine-particled soot (i.e. Volkswagen's 'blue motion' and similar technologies from the other brands). At least, according to the laboratory test results of the well-respected German premium car brands, like Daimler-Benz, BMW, the Volkswagen Audi Group and Opel (GM)…

I myself – a genuine petrolhead and avid diesel car driver with at least 30,000 km per year every year – was one of those suckers that believed in the fairytale of the ever-cleaner diesel engine; probably because I wanted to believe it…  And also because I consider electric cars to be “sewing machines on steroids”, with in general the charisma of a pile of concrete mortar.

Fortunately, a bunch of European and American researchers did not take the cheerful stories of the large car brands for granted regarding the exhaust, but decided instead to take the bull by the horns. Their curiosity and perserverance led to one of the biggest scandals in the contemporary car industry. The following snippets are from Bloomberg.

VW's Emissions Cheating Found by Curious Clean-Air Group

It didn’t add up. The Volkswagens were spewing harmful exhaust when testers drove them on the road. In the lab, they were fine.

Discrepancies in the European tests on the diesel models of the VW Passat, the VW Jetta and the BMW X5 last year gave Peter Mock an idea.

Mock, European managing director of a little-known clean-air group, suggested replicating the tests in the U.S. The U.S. has higher emissions standards than the rest of the world and a history of enforcing them, so Mock and his American counterpart, John German, were sure the U.S. versions of the vehicles would pass the emissions tests, German said. That way, they reasoned, they could show Europeans it was possible for diesel cars to run clean.

 “We had no cause for suspicion,” German, U.S. co-lead of the International Council on Clean Transportation, said in an interview. “We thought the vehicles would be clean.”
So began a series of events that resulted in Volkswagen AG admitting that it built “defeat device” software into a half-million of its diesel cars from 2009 to 2015 that automatically cheated on U.S. air-pollution tests. The world’s second-biggest carmaker now faces billions in fines, possible jail time for its executives and the undoing of its U.S. expansion plans.

“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn said in a statement on Sunday. “We will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused.”

The whole Bloomberg story reads like a detective novel and I deeply admire these researchers and testers for their astonishing results. While these days a host of people are shouting from every corner `I have already been telling this for years…`, it is an undeniable fact that no car brand had been caught earlier with its hands in the cookie jar.

And as an ICT consultant and software tester, I have to reluctantly admire – against all my instincts and sense of fairness and justice – the cunningness of the VW scheme, to embed software in their engine kernels that yields a perfectly clean engine in the laboratory and a very quick one in the field.

But now, while VW has been firmly put in the pillory, with its CEO Martin Winterkorn as the first one in a presumably long, long line of VW executive managers to hit the road, the suspicion mounts that this rigging of engine kernel software has been common practice among many renowned brands in the car industry: “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

I suspect that the combination of a very powerful road car under all circumstances and an extremely clean diesel engine at the same time, was just ‘too big a bite to chew’ for many car brands. And if a car brand can’t win the battle against the competition and the (supra)national authorities fair and square, then they try to win it while cheating: hence the rigged software...  

Just like CERA, EPO, steroids and other specialized doping drugs forced non-users in the bicycle racing sport to become users after all, if they ever wanted to win a bicycle race again, so might it probably have been in the car industry too with the international requirements regarding clean engines.

Summarized, the whole story is probably: 

Yes, we can build an engine as clean as international regulators require, but it will drive like a ninety year-old lady. Our drivers don’t want such an engine and they will cry for their mothers if we give them one anyway. 

Instead, we rig the engine kernel software, so it will run like the old lady in the laboratory, while being clean as a whistle. On the road, we turn the software into Ayrton Senna mode, in order to make our drivers enthusiastic. And then the engine will be a teeny weeny bit less clean. Nobody knows and everybody is happy, right?! Who cares anyway?!”

Yet, the increasingly painful question remains for me, after Volkswagen’s ordeal and (probably) just before a much broader scandal regarding rigged engine software rocks the whole car industry on its feet, is whether this industry totally lacks a fundamental sense of honesty and decency?!

A little bit older news and now being snowed under in the tidal wave of VW news is the fact that GM established a multi million dollar compensation fund for the damages caused by “ignition key-gate”: a scandal in which built-in flaws in various ignition key types caused GM cars to stop running, as well as power steering and brake assisters to stop working, at the most undesirable and dangerous moments. The sad balance: hundreds of dead drivers and passengers and probably much more dangerously injured drivers and passengers.

And that all for the purpose of saving a few cents on the price of a flawlessly working ignition key. The following story is also from Bloomberg. Here are a few snippets:

Hurt or Killed in Cars With Switch Flaw

Last year, GM agreed to compensate victims killed or hurt when an ignition switch shut off accidentally and cut power to the brakes and steering, a defect hidden from the public for more than a decade. But the compensation fund covers only 2.59 million vehicles with that specific flaw. GM says a similar defect subsequently detected in an additional 10 million vehicles, including the model Pillars’s wife was driving, is ineligible for compensation because the company recalled the cars immediately after discovering the flaw and because employees made no efforts to keep it under wraps.

After recalling the original 2.59 million vehicles last year, GM checked all models for ignition-related issues, GM spokesman Alan Adler said in an e-mail. If a model failed one of eight tests it was recalled, he said. By the end of June 2014, GM had recalled an additional 10 million vehicles for defective ignition switches.

In comparison with the United States, cars in Europe (especially the `challenged`German ones, but also cars from the other EU countries, the Far East and the US) are extremely expensive. This is partially caused by the generally much higher purchase taxes and conveyance duties, but first and foremost due to the higher building standards and building costs of especially European cars.

The American car market, however, is – in my humble opinion – rather a dog-eat-dog market, with in comparison very low purchase prices for cars and a much more limited number of national suppliers. This fierce competition for the sheer sales numbers probably forces the most important US car brands to fight for the last cent in order to keep their prices competitive. Therefore cheaper parts and materials are mounted in US cars, to keep prices as low as possible.

The aforementioned higher European purchase prices, on the other hand, offer the leeway for European brands to user structurally better materials and parts for the interior, exterior, cockpit and electronics of the cars. A €20 key ignition switch makes a Mercedes or a BMW not much more expensive, in comparison with the already very high purchase price, so these brands mount the expensive ones that do not cause any problems. 

Although European cars – even the premium brands – also had their share of recall actions of late, it is therefore hard to believe that such a clumsy and yet extremely dangerous flaw, like the one in the ignition key switch, could hang in there for more than ten years in the European market, without being put into the open. Yet, that is exactly what happened in the US domestic market with GM cars.

I believe that 2015 must become a turning point for the largest car brands as we know them and that the whole car industry must go through a paradigm shift, in which the environment, the abolishment of fossile fuels and the safety of cars become centralized issues.

Car brands should stop cheating with their exhaust emissions and they should stop keeping silent about possibly deadly problems in their cars, or else the competition from other countries and other sources might wipe them away within a few years.

When a guy like Elon Musk could establish Tesla Motors and bring it to fame within little more than ten years, so can others. And the more scandals surround the classic car fuels, like gasoline, lpg and diesel oil, the bigger the chance is that modern “fuels” like hydrogen and electricity will win the rat race within the car industry. 

Engines using these energy sources might do so, being mounted in car brands of which nobody has heard yet… and with ignition switches that work flawlessly… every time all the time.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Dutch housing prices may rise again now, but people should not put themselves in jeopardy again by becoming fully debt-laden, while being stuck with a house that is hard to sell. Letter from a reader…

After eight tough years of dropping housing prices in The Netherlands, it seems that the Dutch housing market is finally making a turn-around with steadily rising sales figures and rising prices in the more popular living areas of The Netherlands.

This favourable circumstance could become a signal for many starters, successful entrepreneurs and financially healthy, higher ranked personnel with fixed labour contracts to run the gauntlet on the Dutch housing market and bury themselves again in mortgage debt, in their quest for the house of their dreams.  What could go wrong anyway?!

While I don’t want to be their “party pooper”, it is very important for everybody to take into account what has happened to good, decent and normally sensibly acting people during the last eight years. To help this process, I print the following letter from a reader…

About a week ago, I was approached by a reader who had ‘stumbled upon’ one of my older articles about people with excessive mortgages or destabilizing residual debts on their houses and wrote the following comment upon it:

Hi Ernst We are in the same position as the lady with the mortgage. Did she get any help from the bank? After 4 1/2 years of keeping up with the payments (had a tenant for one year who destroyed the house, and being in the position that we could only charge half of the payment for rent - council rules), we could not keep up any longer. We made an appointment to see if the matter can be resolved for all parties and we wrote a letter to the CEO of the bank, with the only reply the acknowledgement of our letter. Eventually, they sold the house at auction for half of its worth.

We have proof of all the correspondence. They have now, after 7 years completed their admin and has now sued us for the outstanding amount! So, I would really like to know if the banks was of ANY help to the other lady? The document they provided does not have any of our signatures and we are now waiting for that to be sent to us.

Unfortunately, I could not help her with the required information about the current situation of the earlier commentator on that article, as I did not maintain a relation with that lady after our contact in 2012.  Besides that, I don’t keep track of my readers, of course.

Still, this reader, Nita van Wyk de Vries, sent me her story, accompanied with some physical evidence (i.e. correspondence between her husband and the CEO of the bank in question).

I can’t and don’t want to ‘name and shame’ the bank in question; I simply cannot afford to do so, as an independent freelance ICT consultant, who is very dependent upon assignments in the financial industry. 

For the same reason I was not able to ask for feedback from the bank in question, in order to hear their side of the story. 

What I can do, however, is administering the following warning to my readers:

The Dutch housing prices may rise again now, but people should not put themselves in jeopardy again… by becoming fully debt-laden, while running the risk of being stuck with a house that could be hard to sell in the future!!!

This is not just a futile warning on my behalf, but a serious request to all future houseowners to give their financial situation the fullest attention, before buying an expensive house in The Netherlands.

When push comes to shove, also in the future banks may play for keeps and enforce payments on outstanding mortgages-in-arrears. That is seldomly in the interest of the house/mortgage owner.

Here is Nita’s story:

Dear Ernst,

In short the issue is:
We lived in the Netherlands until 2008, before moving to the UK (England). When we moved we put our house for sale but it did not sell due the housing market collapse world wide.

We kept up the mortgage payments until 2012 when our funds in the Netherlands and my pension savings from South Africa ran out. The house was let out [for rent – EL] for one year, for less than half of the mortgage repayment.  The amount for which we could let the house, was prescribed by ‘the community’ [original text: die Gemeente – EL] .  Quite a lot of damage was done to the house by the tenants.

I contacted the bank well in advance to arrange plans to manage the debt, but they were not willing to help and insisted that "process should run its cause”, even after making appeals to the bank’s CEO. We went to see them in person also.

The house was sold on auction in 2013 but I did not get any correspondence from the bank about subsequent steps. We had our post redirected to Edinburgh and East Calder for a year after we moved house.  The Bank is in posession of my email address, the same address that I have been using for the past 15 years.

This week I received a letter from a solicitor in England who was approached by the bank, demanding full payment of the residual value of the mortgage. We have been living in Scotland since 2013.

And she sent some more detailed information – her husbands letter from 2012 to the CEO of the bank in question. I print the following long summary of this letter:

The reason for my letter is that I want to inform you of efforts I have made to appeal to “your bank” [as I stated before, I won’t disclose the name of the bank - EL ] on foreseeing possible future payment difficulties on my mortgage. To explain the situation I will supply a brief history:

Until June 2008 I was an employee of “your bank”at a Risk Management department. Due to “various reasons” [I cannot disclose the original text here – EL], I left the bank to work at Barclays Bank in the UK.

Knowing that I was going to leave the bank, we put our house in the for sale market in May 2008. Since  then we have changed our realtor as well as lowered the price twice from €695,000 to currently €599,000. We have also tried a number of promotions offering rewards and participated in "Open Huis dagen", without success. We could not foresee the current house market conditions at the time. The house is still for sale today and we have tenants renting the house since August 2010.

The rent we receive for our house is determined based on the point system determined in the "Leegstandswet" [the Dutch law regarding vacant houses]. This is currently €1,500 + €250 for renting furniture and appliances.  Of this we pay the letting agency €75 administration fee which leaves our rental income at €1,675.

Our monthly mortgage payment is €2,974.17 + €588.47 for the "other mortgage" [see my earlier remarks – EL]. This leaves me with a monthly deficit of €1,887.

Except for the mortgage payments we also have quarterly “watership taxes”, annual housing taxes as well as “special infrastructure maintenance taxes”, due the house being built on a dyke.

We were able to finance the payments on our house by using funds that we saved for pension and transferred from South Africa. These funds are now running out with only €16,000 remaining in my bank account at “your bank”. At the current rate of monthly deficit this would last us until the end of 2012, should the current tenant remain in the house.

It could not have been foreseen in 2008 that we would have to finance two houses for an extended period of time, least of all 4 years and more.  

Since February this year I tried to contact the bank to discuss possibilities of how to approach the problem as we do not have additional funds available to finance the house and find a solution where both parties have a satisfactory outcome. I initiated the contact based on an article in De Telegraaf which quoted: " that houseowners with foreseeable payment issues should contact their bank at the shortest possible notice, before acute payment problems emerge. In practice, a solution can often be found in negotiations with the bank” [translated text – EL]

It proved difficult to get an appointment to discuss my position with somebody and after a number telephone calls and e-mails to various people without success, I contacted “your employee”, the head of “consumer credit” at “a particular business unit” to assist. On 8 March my wife and I met with “your employee” of the “personal banking department”.

“Your employee” identified options which he promised to pursue. These amounted to changing our current mortgage to a full annuity mortgage where currently only 50% of the mortgage is annuity based. At the same time extending the mortgage run time to 30 years and using the current balance of the "other mortgage" to lower the overall mortgage balance.

This solution would potentially save the monthly instalment of €588.47 and reduce the current  mortgage instalment of  €2974,17 by a possible €400, reducing the overall monthly payments to around is €2,500. At the same time I would try to increase the monthly rent we receive from August when the current contract expires to further reduce the deficit. “Your employee”, was going to follow up on his proposals internally and revert back to us in a few weeks.

The solution proposed by “your employee” would stretch our current available funds well into the future giving the housing market a chance of recovery to help sell the house at a realistic price and thereby helping that both “your bank” and us don't suffer losses.


On 4 May I received a "non-reply" e-mail from “your mortgage team” that they will contact me.
On 14 May “another employee of yours” contacted me to discuss our situation. She made a few suggestions, amongst others:
  • To "actively" sell the house using  preferred realtors of your bank;
  • To reduce our price further;
  • Stating that we should drastically increase our monthly rental as "the "Leegstandswet" and point system has been changed", when in fact this did not happen;
  • That we should cut in our monthly expenses in UK to afford the house in the Netherlands as she thought we had exorbitant high expenses (without enquiring about our circumstances - my wife has fibromyalgia which requires high medical expenses on continuous basis);
  • Arrange a payment holiday on the "other mortgage";

From the discussion it became clear that the proposals which “your first employee”made were not communicated to “your mortgage team” and that these were in fact "unnegotiable", according to “the last mentioned employee” 

Once “the last mentioned employee” learned we still had funds in our bank account, she informed me that none of the solutions she proposed would be possible as I still had available funds. Only one these were exhausted, would the bank be willing to look at solutions. She sent me a follow up e-mail with her address detail to contact once our funds are exhausted.

The approach of “The last mentioned employee” surprised me as the purpose of my contact from February was to prevent the inevitable for both the bank and me, but her approach was that it should happen first and then a rescue plan, which would result in a forced sale and a loss is the only way forward. I found this contradictory to newspaper articles, general good practice and the approach taken by “your first employee”

At this stage I would like to bring the situation to your attention and the fact that conflicting messages are given leaving us in a despair. Banks in the UK use forbearance plans, regulated by the FSA, to assist customers through difficulties experienced during the current recession. This helps both banks and customers to survive during difficult times rather than to foreclose and further depleting economic activity.

It is hard to say whether this situation originated from miscommunication at the bank in question or from sheer indifference among the people at the mortgage department of this very bank. In reality, it does not matter much anymore unfortunately. 

The CEO of this bank did react as a matter of fact to Van de Vries' first letter, but he reacted like all CEO’s would do in such a situation: “I sympathize with you and I feel sorry for your desperate situation, but I can’t help you. You have to work things out with the mortgage department...” Of course, this did not help at all eventually…

As Nita van Wyk de Vries summarized in her letter to me, their Dutch house was auctioned in 2013 at a substantial loss, compared to the outstanding mortgage amount. She and her husband remained stuck with (undoubtedly) a huge residual debt, which they cannot afford to pay back now, but have to pay anyway, under mounting legal pressure.

This is very sad indeed and it should act as a warning for anybody who feels overly optimistic about the Dutch housing market and his future ability to pay back a high mortgage debt. What has happened between 2008 and 2015, could easily happen again in the future... 

For me it is a shame that the Dutch banking industry did not follow the FSA in its footsteps, by also adopting similar forbearance plans. This could have save many people a lot of pain and frustration.

In the meantime I can only thank Nita and her husband for their openness and their desire to share this story with me. I hope that I did her and her husband justice with printing her story, almost in full.

A layer of workers with flexible contracts will always remain necessary for small and large companies. Nevertheless, companies should not see flexible contracts as THE solution for all workers. It simply isn’t…

Since the beginning of this year, I am an independent freelance ICT consultant, who works via The Future Group. The Future Group is a chain of independent partnerships (i.e. ‘maatschap’ in Dutch) in the ICT industry, all consisting of freelance consultants who cooperate, based upon their specialties in ICT. Within The Future Group there is a Testing partnership, an Oracle partnership, an Agile partnership, a Java partnership etc. Well, you get the picture.

Last year I made the decision to become a freelance professional, after being increasingly fed up with my then employer for their flawed corporate strategy and their inability to adapt to the changing world in the ICT industry, as well as to the opportunities that the future offered.

When I indeed became independent, I did so with the typical halfheartedness and doubts of someone, who worked the large majority of his career for a company with all the perks and steadiness that a fixed contracts offers: I wanted to become freelancer very much, but I was afraid of not succeeding in it.

In the first quarter, I had what you could call a ‘shaky’ start, with a first assignment that ended much earlier than anticipated, due to a budgetary shortage within my department. After that I spent three months without an assignment and I definitely endured some periods with pessimism and doubt during that time. Nevertheless, I knew that my time would come, as it always did.

I was raised in a family of moderately optimistic, middle class people with a strong will, a good heart and 100% honest, hard-working genes. One of the most important lessons I learned from my parents is: ‘for every door that is shut, another door is opened’. Until now I have always stuck to that lesson.

And this indeed happened in June of this year. Fortunately, I  found a new assignment at a wonderful banking office in the heart of the country and I am now increasingly happy with my new future as freelancer.

Yet, I cannot advice everybody to do as I did: to become freelancer. Especially people without any financial reserves should not do it and neither should people who are very susceptible for stress – stress chickens as they are called in (translated) Dutch.

People who feel desperate without a fixed contract job with some guarantees built in and without the safety net, offered by the basic, social security that is common in The Netherlands. These people should not become freelancer, as the stress of losing their assignment – sometimes after a few weeks or months – would make them feel unhappy and perhaps even ill eventually.

Yet, at this moment we are in a time in which many economic pundits and well-educated knowledge workers, many executive managers and many companies as a whole think that a world of totally flexible labour is the inevitable future… And that anybody who does not comply to this future is an outcast, without proper chances on the future labour markets.

This is the reason that the ‘utopian’ world – for many companies and executive managers – of totally flexible labour is a dystopian future for the many workers, who cannot mentally handle not having security and don’t want to live in such a world.

Therefore I think that the endorsers of the totally flexible labour markets are dead wrong…

Personally, I don’t think that the future will consist of flexible labour alone. There will always be room for workers and companies, who remain loyal to each other: the companies by offering fixed contracts to their workers, educating and training them and sticking with them in good and bad times. And the workers, by working for the same company during their whole career and giving their best shot every day. Is that a bad thing?! Of course, it isn’t.

(Executive) managers, who see their workers as the heart of their company and who invest in them through a decent remuneration and excellent training opportunities, are rewarded with loyal and caring personnel, which is often willing to work a step or two harder, when this is required by their bosses.

Loyalty is not only when workers work hard for their companies every day, but also when these workers think and talk about the future of their company and give their honest opinions, without shying away for positive (and sometimes even negative) criticism. So many defaulted companies would still have survived, when they would have listened to their personnel more closely.

Although flexible workers can also be very loyal to their principals, they will never reach the state of loyalty that workers with fixed contracts will, from their nature. Denying that is unwise…

But on top of this primary layer of personnel with fixed contracts, that will never disappear in my humble opinion (!), there will almost always be a layer of flexible workers out of choice and desire: people, who thrive in different environments and deeply enjoy having ample chances to learn something new and beyond their comfort zone. And people who get bored doing the same job for more than a few years in a row. That is a good thing too, as these flexible workers give the company room to breathe.

In the future, such a layer of workers with flexible contracts will remain necessary for small and large companies, in order to survive periods with fluctuating demand for their products and services. And also for companies that have sudden peaks in their demand for a.o. ICT services, under influence of the law, market developments and/or their competition. But this flexibility is not the ideal solution for all workers and consultants.

In order to have a fair possibility to choose between a fixed and flexible future, the keywords for workers are ‘freedom of choice’. I had a fair possibility to choose for a flexible future and so I did; with heart and mind.

But consultants with fixed contracts, who were ‘fired and hired back’ as freelance consultants did not have a fair choice. And neither did workers in the building industry, the postal services or the healtcare, homecare and facilitary services industry, who became freelancers ‘at gunpoint’ , in order to keep their jobs.

The latter are definitely excesses of the enduring economic crisis and the panic that this caused among many commercial services, transport and building companies.

And having freedom of choice means also that some people don’t want to choose for flexibility, for all the right reasons.

Last week was the week of the King’s Annual Speech about the ‘State of the Kingdom’.

In the eyes of The Future Group – my current employer at which I reside as a partner – it had been a very disappointing speech, as it did not give enough attention to the Dutch labour market and its trend towards more flexibility.

The executive management of The Future Group printed an official response to the King’s Speech, of which I print the pertinent snippets, accompanied by my comments.

Impulses for a future-proof labour market policy are lacking.

In the Spending Bill for The Netherlands (aka The Miljoenennota), it is stated that the way in which people work is changing rapidly. Fixed contracts on the labour market are less and less standard and the number of freelance professionals and flexible contracts is growing. The Bill points at the growing oppression of lower and medium educated people, in favour of higher educated workers, as a consequence of a shift in demand and supply, especially due to technological developments.

On top of that, it states that the chance that people are forced to accept a flexible contract, is growing. In the process, politics is first and foremost looking at forced independence and fake constructions. In other words, to the threats surrounding the rapidly growing numbers of freelancers, instead of looking at the chances that are lying ‘around the corner’ for independent knowledge workers. We doubt whether the current labour market policy is meeting the requirements of the ongoing paradigm shift towards more flexibility in the Dutch labour market.

My comments: I sympathize with the opinion of The Future Group (TFG) and I know that they are very interested in reading much more about the chances and opportunities for well-educated, freelance knowledge workers and about the way in which the Dutch government will enable this development towards more flexibility for highly educated personnel.

I understand that the executive management of TFG is therefore disappointed about the contents of the Spending Bill. Still, the keywords here are again ‘freedom of choice’, in my humble opinion. There is not a single freelance worker within The Future Group, who was forced at gunpoint to become freelancer. Really…

Yet, there are numerous workers in the building industry, numerous homecare workers and numerous postmen, who did not have the luxury of this freedom of choice. Therefore it is very important that the government sympathizes with them and looks carefully after their situation indeed; even when this care is not exactly translated in the most sensible policies yet.

The Advice department of the Council of State (i.e. Raad van State) mentions that the growing number of freelance professionals has also been the consequence of the faltering functioning of the existing political arrangements on a labour market that comprises of increasingly diverse labour relations. This Advice body also states that this should not lead to a desire among the central government “to bring this phenomenon back to a pattern in which the classic labour agreement is the standard (i.e. the fixed labour contract)”.

My comments: I am very aware that the world has changed during this enduring economic crisis, that already lasts for seven years. Flexible labour became more and more important for companies in their struggle for survival and this is a development that will probably not change in the coming years.

However, where The Future Group looks at this development from a positive stance – hence, flexible professional labour is of course TFG’s core business – I think that the government has the responsibility to both stimulate the freelancers ‘out of free choice’ and protect the ‘basically against their will’ freelancers from employers ‘playing for keeps’ at the expense of their personnel.

On top of that, in my humble opinion it is much too early to declare the fixed labour contract ‘dead and buried’…

At this very moment the demand for flexible personnel is soaring and I have little doubt that the demand for fixed personnel will grow again too, in a few months or years. As I stated before, no personnel is more loyal than the personnel of a goodhearted employer, having a fixed contract. Many employers will soon learn that lesson when their flexible personnel demands a better remuneration and education ‘or else’ …

Fake constructions will be a thing of the past in 2016, according to State Secretary Wiebes, as there will be the ‘model agreement’ in which, next to the freelance entrepreneur, also the trade and industry will be kept responsible. It is the question, however,  whether this will indeed lead to an improvement, as yet again the fixed labour agreement is the standard, instead of flexibilisation. This summer, professor Sweder van Wijnbergen of the University of Amsterdam stated “that the current, fixed labour contract, in which Minister Lodewijk Asscher of Social Affairs want to keep everybody, became internationally untenable”.

Professor Sweder van Wijnbergen, photographed during
 BNR Newsroom in January 2013
Picture copyright of Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge

A recent inquiry, held  among one hundred Medium and Large Enterprises by The Future Group, pointed out that 85% of these companies is looking for an intermediate form, in which companies can bind people, without falling back in the limitations of the current labour agreement.  

The current national policy is aimed at the stimulation of steady jobs with fixed contracts at the expense of hampering the increase of the number of freelance professionals. During the economic crisis, according to many the crisis itself was the cause for forced independence of personnel. In the meantime it became clear that the number of freelancers remains growing after the crisis and that flexibilization is a social-cultural phenomenon. Society changes, there is a growing individualism and a strong demand for self-development: having a profession of one-self. With the current policy, the Cabinet does nothing, thus missing a chance to reinforce the Dutch trade and industry.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, the government has the responsibility to both stimulate the freelancers ‘out of free choice’ and protect the ‘basically against their will’ freelancers from employers ‘playing for keeps’ at the expense of their personnel.

Of course, 85% of the companies wants more flexibility and less impeding statements in their labour contracts. These companies should remember, however, that many people among their personnel are suckers for a kind of security and some job guarantees, so that they know they can pay the next mortgage and energy bill and will not be tossed away like a pair of old boots.

What the Dutch government should do first and foremost is diminishing the risks of hiring people under a fixed contract. For instance by reducing the time that companies are responsible for the remuneration of their fixed personnel in case of non work-related illness and injuries.

A one-man business is reluctant to contract fixed personnel, when it remains responsible for long term salary payments in case of illness or injury. Two sick personnel members and the business can close. So a future health insurance act should offer a better safety net for these small businesses than the current one does.

With the last paragraph, TFG is preaching for its own parish of highly educated and intelligent freelancers ‘out of their own choice’. People like me and others.

However, not everybody is cheering for such a future of total flexibility and independence, without a social safety net. For many lower educated people this is rather a source for worries and discomfort than a bright future. Therefore Dutch politics should not see flexible labour as THE single future of labour. It simply isn’t …

While I agree with TFG that the Dutch government should not hamper the emergence of satisfied, highly educated freelance professionals ‘out of choice’ with stringent regulation, the same government has a heavy duty to protect vulnerable people from selfish employers, which don’t want to invest one penny too much in their own personnel.

As I stated before, for some people a freelance or flexible contract is nothing less than a nightmare, which keeps them awake at night during times of low employment. These people ought to have fixed contracts, in which they can show their loyalty and hard labour to their loyal employers. Flexible labour is not and will not be the cure for every problem in the Dutch trade and industry, so it should not be treated like that.

Simply put, there will always be fixed labour contracts; not in the last place for all those executive managers who are pleading for more flexibility in the labour market. These guys and ladies certainly don’t want to have their own jobs at stake, wouldn’t they?!

Besides that, I am also convinced that many companies will rethink their flexible labour strategy, when their flexible personnel runs away during a strong demand market, looking for much higher wages… 

Flexibility works in two directions and at least one of those two directions is not always the right one….

Monday, 14 September 2015

“The Antichrist has returned to earth… and the left-wing people of the United Kingdom have elected him as leader of the Labour Party. His name is… Jeremy Corbyn”. I say: ‘Perhaps, we should all remember Ronald Reagan’.

When I was a 14-year old boy – in 1980 – I got history lessons from one of those fanatical, left-wing history teachers of which there were so many in The Netherlands at the end of the Seventies: long hair on a partially bald head, aluminium Harry Potter-glasses, a wildly growing beard and – when I remember it correctly – a harmonious, deep voice. In other words: a very impressive teacher for a 14 year old at the brink of his puberty.

During his lessons, this history teacher told us – his pupils – about the person who could and would become the next president of the United States: Ronald Reagan. In the case of Ronald Reagan, his reputation scurried far ahead of the man himself.

Reagan – a former screen actor in B-ish movies and former governor – was in the eyes of many Europeans a typical American, gung ho politician: a rather blunt and outspoken character, with wild political ideas and seemingly more money and façade than useful political experience. In other words: a loose cannon kind of person, who generally acted in the political arena like an accident waiting to happen.

He was about to follow up the gentle and unassuming Democrat ‘peanut farmer’ Jimmy Carter, who left his four year presidency with the enduring Iran hostage crisis on his hand and who was judged by the general public as a hopelessly weak president.

Ronald Reagan himself initially did about everything to help his gung ho, loose cannon reputation: he accidentally/deliberately left his microphone open and subsequently spoke softly about attacking the ‘evil empire’ (the Soviet Union)  with nuclear missiles. And he did much, much more to upset his geriatric adversaries in the Kremlin.

One should remember that this took place in a time when the Cold War was a day to day reality, instead of a vague reminiscence from a dark past. With the likes of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Andrei Chernenko – battle-hardened, old fossiles of poor health with seemingly nothing to lose – on the communist throne at the Soviet Kremlin, a total nuclear war seemed suddenly a very realistical opportunity.

After having listened to my history teacher about this ‘mad dog’ going to the White House, I almost could not sleep all night for a number of nights in a row;  scared to death as I already was about the chance for an imminent nuclear war in those days. My young life would definitely be ended by this president, who would push the ‘red button’ without a shadow of a doubt.

Well, fortunately we all know how this story ended: after a few years in which Reagan firmly established his ‘tough guy’ reputation, in close cooperation with the British ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, and after having a guest starring role in perhaps the ‘best music video ever made’, Ronald Reagan suddenly found a way to end the Cold War with the new, younger and more dynamic Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

This formerly ‘loose cannon’ president eventually became famous for both his supply side economics and his ending of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And also a little bit for his infamous Iran - Contra Affair: one is a loose cannon or not.

One of the most important lessons that I learned from this long-term episode in my life, is that looks and habits can deceive for people. And that even the seemingly most dangerous politician can develop a soft spot when in office, turning him from a dangerous hawk in a gentle dove, with a hawkish repution. Ronald Reagan was such a politician and I still owe him for that.

Two days ago, I had to think about this episode from 35 years earlier, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected to become the new leader of the Labour Party, in nothing less than a landslide victory, with 59% of the votes…

The final results of the election for the new Labour Leader
Chart courtesy of the Labour Party
Click to enlarge
When I read – through Twitter – the majority of the articles in the British mainstream media and the reactions of the right-wing politicians and opinion makers in Great Britain, as well as The Netherlands and other countries, it sounded like the ‘Antichrist hath risen from the underworld to the surface of the earth’.

Some of the reactions shown in the British
mainstream media and on Twitter
Pictures courtesy of their respective publishers
Click to enlarge

In various articles and soundbites, almost exclusively containing hyperboles and insults at his address, Jeremy Corbyn was verbally slaughtered as “The End of the Labour Party”, “The next Tory election victory lying on a silver platter”, “a rabiate communist and Hamas lover” and much, much more of the same kind.

When asked, one of my trusted tweeps responded that Jeremy Corbyn indeed had a rather questionable choice of friends to say the least, when it came to the Middle East; he meant Corbyn’s preference for a.o. Hamas and other ‘controversial’ parties overthere.

This person, the distinguished correspondent for Russia (formerly) and Germany, Wierd Duk (@wierdduk), and one of the smartest and most well-balanced journalists I know, also regretted that older, social-democrat grassroots so often tend to look for leaders that remind them of their ‘glory days’ in the Seventies, instead of looking for more modern kinds of leadership.

Tweets in Dutch of foreign correspondent Wierd Duk
Picture courtesy of Twitter
Click to enlarge
However, Wierd also made a good point: “This is what you get when you collaborate with the Blairs for such a long time”.

I think that Wierd Duk is right here. He points at a phenomenon that is also gaining momentum in The Netherlands and elsewhere. Since the nineties – with the emergence of the modern social-democrats in a.o. Great Britain (Tony Blair), Germany (SPD - Gerhard Schröder) and The Netherlands (PvdA - Wim Kok) – the labour parties all over Europe almost completely shook off their socialist feathers and turned into modern technocrat movements, for whom the socialist legacy was rather a burden than an asset.

The European representatives of ‘Labour 2.0’ became very capable executive officials, who were initially respected by both their grassroots and their conservative adversaries. Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Wim Kok all three presided some of the most successful cabinets in the post-war history of their countries.

Still, in the end something started to itch among their socialist grass-roots…

Wim Kok, as a Prime Minister of The Netherlands, was rather a middle-of-the-road technocrat, than the harnessed labour union man he was before; especially when he accepted a position in the Board of Supervisors of ING bank, after his premiership. While he was a successful PM, a large part of his success was caused by the plummeting interest rates in The Netherlands and abroad, which led to an investment boom and skyrocketing economic growth, almost fully fueled by debt.

Gerhard Schröder, the social-democrat chancellor was the man who improved the German economy by making it more competitive, but actually deteriorated the position of workers with his policy of wage restraint at the beginning of this century. While his stance was defensible at the time, it is a fact that German companies earned loads and loads of money at the expense of their personnel, in those years.

And Tony Blair?! Well, you can say a lot about him, but not that he was a socialist. During the years of his leadership, London expanded its position as one of the main financial centres of the world and the British housing market exploded with skyrocketing prices, fueled by ample amounts of debt.

Yet, Tony Blair never gave the impression that he had done his utmost to help the underprivileged regions in the United Kingdom and the inhabitants of those regions; he was rather a glamour boy than a true social-democrat. Blair was probably a quite good Prime Minister, but he has not been a quite good social-democrat(!) Prime Minister, in my humble opinion.

So eventually, the big, fundamental differences between liberal-conservative and social-democrat cabinets seemed to vanish all over Europe, until it was just a question of ‘a different kind of flavour’.  Of course, the conservative leaders remained bragging about ‘spending-happy’ socialists, while their social-democrat  adversaries repeated their mantras about ‘the rich getting richer’.  Still, to be honest, in the end hardly anybody saw the difference anymore.

And that has been the situation during the crisis: the extreme right- and leftwing populists set the tone of voice for the debate in all aspects, without ever getting serious governmental responsibilities (unless for Syriza in Greece, but hardly anybody can call that an overwhelmingly successful attempt).

The “slightly right and left of the middle technocrats” on the other hand – those politicians wíth the governmental responsibility –turned their governmental policies into a boring, tasteless ‘technocrat policy porridge’ without any clear flavour whatsoever.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom… Not a technocrat, but a real socialist and, because of that, perhaps the conservatives’ worst nightmare. He might be a Marxist with a bad taste for friends in the Middle-East and wild ideas about the British membership of the NATO and the EU, but at least he has a real profile, immediately recognizable for his socialist grassroots.

And the best thing about him for the diehard fans of the old-fashioned Labour Party: the liberal-conservative establishment genuinely hates him and Tony Blair probably hates him too.

And so it happened that a few days ago Labour voters in the UK stated: “We have had it with those darn technocrats! We want Jeremy Corbyn, a leader with a clear vision and a socialist heart. Scr*w Tony Blair’s Labour 2.0, we want back the original Labour!”  

That is the current situation…

What the future will bring for Jeremy Corbyn and for the United Kingdom?  I don’t know!

Perhaps he will indeed turn out to be the disaster that all conservatives and Labour 2.0 fans predict him to be.

And perhaps he will personally cause that Labour loses the next few elections in the United Kingdom, as he scares away more moderate social-democrat voters.

Or even worse, when elected as Prime Minister, he could cause the United Kingdom making a total fool of themselves at the international stages of NATO, European Union and foreign assemblees...

That could happen…

But still, I have to think back about how that seemingly erratic American president with the brown hair, the deep voice, the Hollywood smile and the peculiar sense of humour did not run the world into the nuclear abyss, but instead ended the Cold War by showing the right attitude at the right time in history.

Perhaps, that Jeremy Corbyn will also not be so bad after all. 59% of the Labour voters seem to have some kind of confidence in that…