Basic income

Prompted by a tweet on Y-combinator’s study on a basic income https://twitter.com/Kusti/status/692446501071622144, I started pondering the notion of a basic income again. This has been on my mind lately since it seems like a cool idea and a pragmatic way to cut cost and boost the economy at the same time. One of the reasons this is on my mind is because I’m actively working to automate some of the more soulcrushing jobs many people currently have. If we take that away from people, what will happen to society?

The notion of a basic income has been floating around for a while. It sounds like a wild idea but actually makes total sense if you reflect on it a bit. If you accept the premise that we don’t let people starve, freeze to death, or die of treatable diseases, the leap to a basic income is not that much of a leap because we are effectively already providing it to most in the form of food, shelter and healthcare. Even the ones that receive nothing are generally not starving, can find shelter, and are typically able to get some amount of healthcare. We all pay for that through taxes, charity, insurances, etc. It’s just that we have a lot of hassle, begging, bureaucracy and stigma associated with depending on that. The idea of basic income is simply acknowledging the reality that the cost is there already and that a system that takes that as a starting point can be cheaper and more fair.

So, I did a bid of googling and stumbled on a baffling statistic provided by the Dutch government that totally backs up my hunch that this kind of thing might actually work:

Het totaal van de Nederlandse uitgaven aan sociale bescherming tegen ziekte, ouderdom en werkloosheid komt neer op 190 miljard euro in 2012 (het meest recente jaar waarover cijfers bekend zijn). Dat is ruim 11.200 euro per inwoner.

For you non dutch speakers:

The total of dutch expenses for social protection against sickness, getting old, and unemployment amounts to 190 billion euro in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are known). That’s over 11200 euro per inhabitant.

That includes unemployment benefits, the state pension, healthcare cost, benefits for people that are not able to work due to sickness, and social welfare for pretty much anyone else unable, unwilling, or too old to work. In other words, the Dutch government spends an amount on helping a few million people in the Dutch society that per inhabitant actually amounts to a fairly decent basic income. Aside from a few homeless people, basically everyone is covered by this system already. People starving to death is essentially unheard off in the Netherlands (other than by choice).

I checked the math. 17M * 11200 is indeed 190 billion euro (NL has about 17M inhabitants). Where does all that money go? It’s obviously mostly not going to the people it was supposed to support. The word ‘overhead’ does not begin to describe how inefficient this sounds. Last time I checked state pensions and social wellfare was much less than 11200/year and unemployment benefits are in any case time capped and also have a hard upper limit. What am I missing here? 933 euro/month is a very decent income and would be a considerable upgrade for most.

I’d say cut that by one third, call it a basic income and lay off whatever bureaucrats we currently have overseeing the giving out of far less to some of our citizens. 620/month is still pretty good and the layed off bureaucrats would of course be covered by this as well. Maybe they could do something more productive/worthwhile that actually contributes to the economy instead of just moving pennies around in some government office.

While we are at we can abandon minimum wages (because basic income) and cut all corporate salary expenses by about 620 netto + whatever benefits else are being paid by the employer (typically about 2x the netto income). Think about that for a second, even the lowest paying job in the Netherlands sets the employer back by more than double what goes to the employed person and layoffs are still hard in the Netherlands so you are stuck with them forever. I bet a lot of corporations wouldn’t mind paying a little more tax on profits in exchange for decimating labor cost and more flexibility around hiring and firing. If we keep the tax free income limit that exists today you can double your income with a job that pays about 4 euro an hour, 40 hours/week before you even start paying taxes. I bet there is a lot of work that doesn’t get done today because it is not worth paying minimum wage that could suddenly become an attractive way for people to boost their incomes a little. Also, why cap this at age 67?

That could do wonderful things for employment and industry in NL. My guess is most people wouldn’t quit their jobs or stop being active. However, they would become more critical about the type of work they do (less of the soul crushing variety, I imagine). Self employment becomes a no brainer in this new type of economy and a perfectly safe economic choice instead of a huge financial risk. Also people currently doing worthwhile things for ‘free’ would now suddenly enjoy an income as well. I’m talking about volunteer work, parenting, taking care of the elderly, art, etc. Most of these people are currently dependent on welfare or some form of economic relationship with e.g. a ‘cost winner’, ‘sugar daddy’, or worse.

Total cost for this would be 130bn/year in the Netherlands. That’s literally everyone with the Dutch nationality. With A GDP close to 700bn that sounds doable. I’d say the same if it was double the cost but it seems 11,200×0.66×17,000,000 really is 125,664,000,000. Some more statistics on revenue. This document suggests a few interesting things: we pay more in social insurance 96M than we pay for income and profit tax combined. Also, VAT is about the same as both of those taxes combined (around 70bn). Apparently most of the revenue funds the 190M we are spending on social welfare. So we conveniently just wiped out about 1/3rd of that expense while simultaneously raising lower incomes (i.e. more VAT income) while cutting labor cost and increasing corporate profits (more profit tax). This is where my back of the envelope calculations have to stop but you can see where I’m going with this: this seems more than merely doable; it’s actually a net gain for everyone.

Am I being naive or are we just paying an insanely huge price for the illusion of a fair system today? If I look at my own situation, I’m pretty sure that health would be the only reason for me to retire from active life permanently. Though I could imagine taking a sabbatical and relaxing a bit more once in a while.

My former house

GeenStijl : ANP doet Google Earth na.

Ten years ago, I was a computer science student in Utrecht who was about to leave the Netherlands to live in Sweden. At the time, I had been living for about a year in a very spacious (50m2) attic room on a top location: Domplein, complete with nice view over the square.

A Dutch reporter took some photos from a balloon which gives a nice perspective on how nice this room was. I’ve highlighted which building was I lived in. The house, a four story monumental building was owned by a lawyer. The bottom floor was an apartment he rented out and he had converted the attic into two student apartments. The front apartment, which was the largest, was mine. The front two windows were both mine, as well as the little window on the side. Total rent was 675 guilders per month. Try find an apartment with that price in euros these days (at the moment of introduction, 1 euro was slightly overvalued at 2.2 Guilders). Anyway, at the time it seemed like a lot of money.

As you can see right next to my left there is a pretty big tower and half a cathedral. In fact this is the largest church tower in the Netherlands and you can read all about the missing half of the cathedral on wikipedia. It was noisy too, especially at night. But you stop noticing after some time.

Cartoons

I like to read cartoons. I’m a regular reader of userfriendly.org, dilbert, the wizard of id, fokke en sukke and a few others. I can’t say that I’m a regular reader of Gregorius Nekschot’s cartoons, which cover such topics as multiculturalism, islam, and other rather controversial topics. Good satire can hurt and his cartoons definitely hits a nerve with some deeply religious individuals. His website is enitled “Gregorius Nekschot – Sick Jokes”. Lets say Nekschot is very blunt and to the point.  Anyway check here for an example.

Anyway, two weeks ago, Nekschot  put a rather visionary (in retrospect) post on his web site where he jokingly suggests that soon Ernst Hirsch Ballin (Dutch minister of justice) & his uniformed party members would be arresting free spirited people and deporting them for reeducation (in Dutch). The reason was Ballin’s apparent plans to broaden the scope of existing legislation against blasphemy and the analogy with Guantanomo that was being suggested was very to the point in my view. Also the reference to 1940’s party members of Hirsch Ballin that cooperated with the Nazi occupation or looked the other way is very much to the point since Hirsch Ballins motivation seems to display similar spinelessness and an apparent desire to follow up on rather intimidating threats/complaints coming from e.g. Iran and various islamist groups living in the Netherlands. Sort of the same groups of people that cheered Theo van Gogh’s murder a few years ago, who was BTW a friend of Nekschot apparently.

It seems Nekschot’s analysis was more accurate than he must have realized. Gregorius Nekschot was arrested last week on orders of a maverick Dutch attorney who seems to be more or less operating under direct orders from Hirsch Ballin. Nekschot was locked up for two days, with no trial, based on vague accusations regarding the general shocking, insulting and discriminating nature of some of his cartoons. This is sort of a new low. Having a cartoonist’s house searched by a 10 people strong police force and the victim subsequently deported to a prison is not something you’d expect in a modern, democratic country.  It happened last week in the Netherlands. Full thumbs up from the responsible minister apparently.

Nekschot is a pseudonym of course that refers to the “shot to the neck” execution style that very much characterizes his approach to humour. His real name is so far not revealed. A court case will change that and expose him to very real threats to his life. After all, one of his friends was murdered already for speaking freely.

I usually don’t do politics on my blog but this is a good reason to make an exception. It seems Hirsch Ballin lacks a sense of humor and an appreciation of free speech and the Dutch constitution.

GX WebManager

Before joining Nokia, I worked for a small web startup in the Netherlands called <GX> Creative Online Development during  2004 and 2005. When I started there, I was employee number forty something (I like to think it was 42, but not sure anymore). When I left, they had grown to close to a hundred employees and judging from what I heard since, they’ve continued to grow roughly following Moore’s law in terms of number of employees. Also they seem to have executed the strategy that took shape while I was still their release manager.

When I joined GX, GX WebManager was a pretty advanced in house developed CMS that had gone through several years of field use and evolution already and enjoyed a rapidly growing number of deployments, including many big name Dutch institutions such as KPN, Ajax, ABN-AMRO, etc. At that time it was very much a in house developed thing that nobody from outside the company ever touched. Except through the provided UI of course which was fully AJAX based before the term became fashionable. By the time I left, we had upgraded release processes to push out regular technology releases first internally and later also outside to a growing number of partners that implemented GX WebManager for their customers.

I regularly check the GX website to see what thay have been up to and recently noticed that they pushed out a community edition of GX WebManager. They’ve spent the last few years rearchitecting what was already a pretty cool CMS to begin with to refit it with a standardized content repository (JSR 170) based on Apache Jackrabbit and a OSGI container based on Apache Felix. This architecture has been designed to allow easy creation of extensions by third parties. Martijn van Berkum and Arthur Meyer (product manager and lead architect) were already musing how to do this while I was still there and had gotten pretty far doing initial designs and prototyping . Last year they pushed out GX WebManager 9.0 based on the new architecture to their partners and now 9.4 to the internet community. They seem to have pretty big ambitions to grow internationally, and in my experience the technology and know-how to do it.

So congratulations to them on completing this. If you are in the market for a CMS, go check out their products and portfolio.

Places where I lived (2)

A few months ago I posted a set of placemarks with all the places where I ever lived marked in Google Earth. Last week, Google updated the imagery for the entire Netherlands so I had to revisit those places and found that in a few cases some adjustments were needed. Most of the places are now clearly recognizable and in most cases I tried to position the placemarks roughly where my bed would have been (as far as I can remember): Places where I used to live

spyware sucks, but ubuntu doesn’t

Last weekend (Easter holiday, long weekend) was a good opportunity to visit my parents in the Netherlands. Apart from beloved son, I’m also their system administrator. Last time I made a mistake, I left them behind with a partially secured windows machine. The thing was behind a router and they were using firefox (saw to that personally). Anyway, when I checked this weekend the machine was full of very nasty spyware. It was basically unusable and the spyware interfered with normal usage of the machine.
I tried to fix it using the usual tools (adaware, spybot) but this did not work 100%. Both tools managed (on multiple attempts) to identify and remove a shitload of spyware. But the remaining few managed to ‘fix’ this as soon as they were done. Eventually I thought the machine was clean but then the rebooting started. After booting everything would look allright, and then it would reboot. Effectively I only had a few minutes to figure out what was going on before this happened. That gets old real quick.
That was roughly when I decided to bring the laptop home and start from scratch. Of course before doing so, I have to make an attempt to back up my parent’s files and family photos. Accessing the laptop in its current state is pretty much impossible, hence the title of this post. I stand corrected: ubuntu does not suck after all. It’s merely very unsuitable for end users :-).

A few weeks back I posted my not so positive review of ubuntu. Currently I’m using it to rescue some files. I won’t bother trying to actually install it on the laptop for my parents. The main reason is that I have a hard enough job supporting my parents without them having to learn an entirely new OS. After years of practice they can sort of do things by himself now. Things like burning a cd, editing photos, doing banking, etc. I have no desire to start from scratch with them on all of that.

But the point is that it would work very well. I booted into the live dvd image. I actually mistook the dvd for my knoppix cd. I was pleasantly surprised to find a booted ubuntu desktop when I came back. All hardware, including smc pcmcia wireless card, onboard sound and display had been recognized. The wireless card needed to be configured for my network, which was easy once I had found the tool. Confusingly there is a system and administration menu that both contain network related tools.

Then I had to mount the ntfs partition. I tried to use the disk tool but it is useless (you can mount but not access the partition unless you are root which is not very convenient in ubuntu where you can’t log in as root). I had to do some googling to make the correct changes to fstab manually and then proceeded to mount using the good old commandline. That worked. Then I sshed (using nautilus) into my windows box (which runs cygwin) and I’m currently uploading some crucial files. After that completes, I’ll wipe the laptop and be sure to lock it down properly this time.

lessons learned:

  • no auto update + no firewall + unsecured wlan = very bad idea
  • firefox + router != enough protection
  • adaware and spybot are not good enough for recovery, these are fine prevention tools however
  • ubuntu doesn’t suck, it’s a nice addition to any system administrators toolbox 🙂

x-plane vs ms flightsimulator

For the past few years, one of my hobbies is flying planes in a flightsimulator. I don’t meancombat flightsimulators but ‘real’ flightsimulators that simulate flying an actual airplane as realistically as possible. This post is about a review of two flightsimulators: ms flightsimulator and x-plane. I’ve used both, extensively and I’ll focus on the strong and weak points of both.

Let me start off by saying that these days x-plane is my favourite. I’m absolutely biased towards this wonderful program. X-plane is a commercial product by an individual named Austin Meyer. This somewhat outspoken individual (just read the stuff on his website) is, in my opinion, a genius and has pulled off what a whole team of developers at Microsoft couldn’t do: produce the most comprehensive, complete and realistic flightsimulator software for PCs. He can boast about his software being used in actual commercial training simulators that are certified for use during actual pilot training.

X-plane is an awesome technical achievement. It flies really smooth (that alone makes it realistic), it models how an airplane flies very realistically based on realtime computed aerodynamic properties that are derived from the shape of the airplane. It can model basically anything capable of flight (gliders, single props, helicopters, multi props, jets, supersonic jets, rockets, the space shuttle, hypothetical mars atmosphere planes, baloons, you name it). This makes flying x-plane lots of fun, for example trying to take off vertically with a harrier is way cool.

The airplanes in ms flightsimulator are much less realistic even though they look really nice. In addition, the graphics processing in ms flightsimulator goes at the expense of realism. The flightmodel is simplistic and is constantly fighting for cpu power with the graphics engine. And since the latter doesn’t scale well either way, you are in for a bumpy ride even on fast machines.

V8 of X-plane includes scenery technology that is superior to what Microsoft offers. Unfortunately, technology alone is not enough to create pretty scenery. Consequently, despite the technology, MS Flightsimulator looks much better. The reason for this is content. Even though x-plane is capable of rendering complex landscapes full of custom objects, roads, forests, cities, etc; it doesn’t have anything to render because the scenery is not ready yet. A project is underway to provide worldscenery for x-plane v8. This project will provide scenery based on satellite images, detailed roadmaps etc. This type of scenery is already available for the US and it looks really nice. Detailed roadmaps and coastlines have been integrated to the scenery so if you fly over new york, the roads are where they are supposed to be. The same goes for runways and taxilanes on airports. In addition the scenery includes autogenerated objects (these are part of the scenery and not generated at run-time) with objects in the right places of the right type (big office buildings in manhattan, farms in the country). The scenery has a lot of potential and is much better than the ms flightsimulator autogen scenery but it lacks custom modelled airports, buildings, bridges and other objects that flightsimulator has. All the landmarks (except for rivers, roads, coastlines and mountains) that a pilot uses to navigate are absent. When you fly over New York, there is no empire state building, no central park, no brooklyn bridge or even the statue of liberty. All of these can of course be added but that is a lot of work and unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Another disadvantage of x-plane scenery is that when you fly from one region to another, the flightsimulator pauses to load the scenery. These regions are not that big and sometimes the border is right in front of the runway you are trying to land on. If you fly a supersonic plane you cover a lot of ground really fast and the simulator pauses to load scenery every minute or so. Very annoying and ms flight simulator does not do this. Finally, an issue with the current version of x-plane is the ground textures. Again the technical potential of the engine is underused because only a hand full of textures are shipped with the engine. Consequently, cities are green because a city texture is lacking so a grass texture is used. You can actually add textures yourself so it is not hard to fix the issue.

MS flightsimulator has two huge advantages over x-plane when it comes to scenery: 1) it ships with excellent, detailed scenery of the entire world. 2) more scenery is available from third parties (for example the excellent nl2000 scenery that models the Netherlands in great detail).

Yet despite all these disadvantages, I still prefer x-plane. The smoothness of the simulator makes you feel in control of the airplane. I’d love to have better scenery, I’d love to be able to turn on the more advanced rendering features but the truth is that flying x-plane is really fun. Flightsimulator is all about great looks but the framerate drops dramatically when flying over detailed areas like big airports where you need a smooth simulation to land in a realistic fashion. It has trouble rendering ground textures properly. With detailed groundtextures that means that you have limited visibility because most of the textures around you are blurred because flightsimulator can’t keep up. X-plane doesn’t suffer from these issues at all.

Other features where flightsimulator has an edge over x-plane are AI trafick (watching the boeings queue for takeoff at Schiphol is cool), the weather module (x-plane has one and it uses the same weather web services but it is much less nice to work with). Finally the big advantage of flightsimulator is the huge community of users providing custom scenery, planes, tools, textures etc. X-plane has a much smaller community and there is not that much to download.

Still I prefer x-plane, simply because it simulates flying an airplane much better. If you want pretty screenshots, use ms flightsimulator. If you want to fly a realistic, challenging simulation, use x-plane.