Bitcoin: cutting through the hype

Bitcoin has had a lot of publicity over the past year and has gone through several cycles of its value fluctuating wildly. This has given reason to some to discard it as something doomed to fail eventually and the people who have invested money in it to lose their all money. However, I believe that the current turbulence in the bitcoin world is more akin to the gold rush of the nineteenth century than to the tulip bubble in my home country in the seventeenth century. Ultimately tulips became worthless and gold has been a stable factor in the world’s economy ever since people learned how to melt it.

Tulips were rare flowers that only grew in particular regions (Turkey) and consequently, they were somewhat rare in seventeenth century Amsterdam where the stock market had just been invented. Fortunes were made and lost by people trading bits of paper and they were essentially gambling on the success or failure of trade missions to the far east, the prices of common goods, and indeed tulips. Basically the value of tulips continued to increase until finally somebody figured out how to grow them in large quantities near Amsterdam and they ceased to be a rare good. At that point the price collapsed and the first stock crisis happened.

Very interesting, but Bitcoin is fundamentally very different from tulips. By design it is more similar to gold and consequently what we are currently seeing is more akin to the gold rush than to the tulip crisis. Basically, during the gold rush, people and economy flocked to regions where gold was rumored to be available in large quantities. This resulted in a lot of economic activity that ultimately collapsed when it became clear there was little gold to be found. Gold remained scarce and kept its value.

Like bitcoin, gold has very little practical utility beyond some niche applications in electronics and as a way of decorating wealthy people with a severe lack of good taste. Its value is primarily based on the notion of scarcity. The notion of money is based on trading goods and services (i.e. stuff that results from economic activity) for something abstract that has the properties of being scarce and somewhat stable in value. Actually, the seventeenth century is quite illustrative regarding this as well as the discovery of large quantities of silver in South America by the Spanish wreaked havoc on the value of the associated coinage.

My favorite author Neal Stephenson has written several novels that have currency as a central theme. I’m a big fan of his work and would recommend dedicating substantial amounts of time to digesting his oeuvre to anyone who is not afraid of picking up novels of around a thousand pages each. His Baroque cycle, a historical science fiction trilogy set in the seventeenth century, is all about emergence of many modern economic concepts such as bank notes, stock markets, etc. The Cryptonomicon is partly about cryptographic currency backed by gold (sounds familiar?) and the both the Diamond Age and Snow crash feature bitcoin like digital currency that has largely displaced conventional currency and in the process also has transformed society as governments no longer control the flow of money and consequently are starved of taxes. Perhaps these latter two novels are the best way to think of bitcoin as it is obviously influenced by these novels (and similar ones) and because it has been explicitly designed to disrupt the monetary system in a similar way.

Perhaps it is better to step back and consider this design. Bitcoin is all about artificial scarcity. First of all there is a finite amount of bitcoin: there are only 21 million of them and not all of them have been ‘mined’ yet. This number is important in the sense that it is very different from e.g. dollars of which there are trillions in circulation and of which more are printed constantly. This cannot happen with bitcoin. It’s more similar to gold than to dollars in the sense that there is a finite amount of gold on this planet of which we have harvested most of the easily accessible bits by now.

Bitcoin mining is the process by which bitcoins come into existence and it is the source of much confusion and bullshit in the media. The best way to think about it is as solving hard mathematical problems that require increasing amounts of computer infrastructure to resolve. People willing to invest in such infrastructure can harvest fresh bitcoin, until it runs out of course. The process of mining is similarly hard to mining for gold and gets progressively harder, just like finding new supplies of gold in the earth is quite hard. This is by design. The technicalities of this mining process are a lot harder to understand than digging for gold but fundamentally it is the same, down to the notion of people making good money of selling the proverbial shovels (i.e. computer hardware). The important thing to realize is that there is a finite amount of it and once that has been mined, we’ll have to do with 21 billion bitcoins.

Assuming the many experts that have vetted the technicalities are right, there are no known ways to compromise either the mining process or the hard cap of 21 million bitcoins. Only compromising the technology would cause the bitcoin bubble to burst. Assuming that is impossible (and that’s the big question), the bubble won’t burst and bit coin could be here to stay.

So, lets look at its value. The big news this week was that bit coin has crossed the 1000$ valuation mark. That sounds great for people who bought it in the days that it was worth mere dollars and there are indeed plenty of stories of people who have made (or lost) a fortune in bit coin. Given the hard cap of 21 million bitcoins, the current size of the bitcoin economy is around 10 Billion when measured in dollars (half of mined 21 billion bitcoins). That’s not a lot considering the total size of the world economy is in the order of about 80 trillion dollar. And this brings me to the crucial point: if bitcoin starts replacing conventional currency in any significant way, its current valuation is going to be peanuts. Lets round up the world gross product to 100 trillion. Surely, growth, inflation, etc will cause it to be close to that soon anyway and it is a convenient number. Now assume that one thousanth of the world economy is going to use bit coin at some point in the future. That would require the exchange rate to be about ten times it current valuation, i.e. a 100 billion rather than 10 billion or a nice 10000K for a single bitcoin. If you expand that to a single percent of the world economy, the exchange rate would be closer to 100K. I could see that happen, all it takes is more people using it.

People investing in bitcoin as a way to get rich are speculating on the growth of the bit coin economy proportional to the rest of the economy. There are a lot of question marks around bitcoin still that have to do with legislation, government control, etc. My view on this is simple: there’s nothing stopping national banks keeping stashes of bitcoin around in the same way that they are keeping gold around to back the value of their currencies (or at least pretend to do so). Indeed, assuming they would do that, it would vastly boost the legitimacy of bitcoin as a currency and thus help to ensure that the value of its economy increases. Ultimately the value of money is a function of economic activity. So this should lead to some notion of stability in the bitcoin world. The current bitcoin market is volatile because there are very few bitcoins around and a handful of players have disproportionally large amounts of them. These few players can influence the supply and demand and there are some strong hints that their speculative behavior is currently causing these wild fluctuations in valuation.

Consider for a moment the hypothetical situation that the US federal reserve was robbed by a bunch of evil crooks who could destroy the economy at will simply by buying/selling gold (which is what national banks do on a pretty large scale). That’s essentially the plot of Goldfinger. And it is sort of the equivalent of shady characters getting their hands on and deciding to buy/sell bitcoin in large quantities. That’s both disruptive and disturbing. National banks wielding such power is one thing but at least they are somewhat kept in check by their governments (which in some cases can be pretty shady as well) but leaving such power to criminals, drug dealers, etc. might not be in the interest of society. So, a big problem would be somebody owning a 1000000 bitcoins today, which is a small fortune today already but insignificant to the economy as a whole. Suppose this person just sits on this stash while bitcoin revolutionizes the economy as we know it over the next few decades or so. Fast forward to 2030 and this person, who is now a very rich billionaire (equivalent of Bill Gates), decides to spend/sell all of it. You can cause quite a bit of trouble spending billions of cash. However, mostly people hoarding cash is bad for economies and people spending it is actually good since it increases economic activity. Ultimately it is like having a huge stash of gold and suddenly deciding to spend it. It would temporarily destabilize the value of gold but given that gold continues to be scarce overall, it would ultimately recover as well. In the end people like Bill Gates have little interest in destabilizing the economy and arguably his spending behavior is actually a lot more beneficial for society than e.g. the US spending behavior in the middle east. Bad things could happen but bad things happen today as well. That’s simply the nature of power (and money is power).

So, I see very little reason to be afraid of bitcoin. I believe the current financial system manages to be corrupt and evil without bitcoin just fine. Ultimately wealth is a reflection of economic power and activity. If bitcoin is successful, it will naturally accumulate with the same people who control our gold supplies today. So in that sense nothing will change. What will change is the role of governments and taxation. Basically governments tax wealth and income. Bitcoin won’t change that. But the way they tax will have to evolve. In the old days. The tax man would come and literally collect the coinage and you had little choice but to hand it over. Nowadays, taxation is based on declared income, VAT, etc. which basically boils down to the government taking a percentage of income of companies and individuals and being very anal about auditing their books. In the bitcoin world, transactions are both auditable and anonymous. They are anonymous in the sense that they are not explicitly tied to people (currently). However, auditing is built in to bitcoin in the sense that each transaction is an event that is connected to all the transactions that came before that. All the government needs to know is which transactions originated from who and when, which is simply something they can demand people to declare. Hiding certain transactions is of course possible but it would be impossible to spend bitcoin without disclosing its transaction history (i.e. where did you get it). It’s similar to a bankrobber trying to spend stolen hundred dollar bills with known serial numbers: kind of risky. I wouldn’t be surprised to see taxes evolve to utilize this bitcoin feature.

Bitcoins and similar cryptographic currencies solve some real problems. They make banks obsolete as a means to conduct transactions. Bitcoin transactions require no middle men. That’s a good thing in my view since the current banking system (here in Germany particular) is very inefficient and I see little reason for having to rely on them in the future. This convenience will drive adoption. Ultimately this is how gold became valuable as well: it was more convenient to hand out small gold coins than e.g. a truck load of manure or ten goats. Ultimately, the value is proportional to the amount it is used in economic transactions. Bitcoin could merely be the first of many digital currencies. In that case, it might never become a dominant currency and you’d be ill advised to bet on its value increasing. On the other hand, it’s good enough now and might benefit from early adoption. Probably a lot of countries currently dependent on overly inflated currency would be better off depending on bitcoin and there are some signs of people in such countries actually using bitcoin quite heavily already. On the other hand, bitcoin could prove to be a lot more stable than bits of paper with the former US president’s faces printed on them.

I certainly wouldn’t mind owning a few percents of a percent of sizable chunk of the world’s economy. But I’m too risk averse to bother with speculating. Ultimately, I didn’t do a startup during the dotcom bubble (fresh out of college at the time), I didn’t buy shares in alternative energy companies a few years ago when I honestly believed the hype around them (most have gone bankrupt) and I didn’t act on my hunch that this bitcoin guys might be onto something last year. I did buy into some worthless pension schemes a few years ago and thankfully never acted on peer pressure to get a mortage and a house in the Netherlands (which would have meant I’d be in debt now on a house that is worth substantially less than a few years ago). I could see myself using electronic currency in the near future though simply because it is convenient. In that case, I’d actually want it to be stable coinage with somewhat predictable and reliable value. Bitcoin can’t provide that yet but it’s arguably a lot better already than some currencies in use today. Owning a hundred bitcoin today would be very stressful because having a 100K $ knowing it could be worth only half that tomorrow would be very stressful as well. What worries me today is the suspicion that my pension is going to be worthless and that the value of my savings is deflating as well.

Internationalization fail

I just visited the Adobe online store and eventually left in disgust because apparently it is unable to service me. This is not the first time something like this has happened to me so I decided to spell it out a little.

Once upon a time, I signed up on the Adobe site to use the online version of photoshop. I probably was still in Finland at the time so naturally, I used their English localized web site. Fast forward to today and I am interested in downloading the trial version of Adobe Lightroom to play with it and possibly buy it.

To do that you need to log in. So I log in. Then it asks me for my address. Fine. Except, I don’t live in the US and there is no country switching thingy in the form. Apparently it hardwired the country choice (which really was a language preference) into my account. Fail #1.

It gets worse. They do have a country switcher on the front page and in the store. So I set that to Germany. Now it addresses me in German. Fail #2

Of course there is no language switcher. It is assumed (wrongly) that I must be a native speaker and therefore want to be addressed in German. Always. Fail #3

So by this point I decide to be pragmatic and select some region they haven’t localized for to get the site in English. So I select Eastern Europe, which is apparently a region not worth breaking up into countries and technically I live in the former DDR, which used to be eastern Europe. So I once again go to the store. Prices in euros this time. Great! Although effectively the price just went up 80 euros since 300$ is ~220 Euro and not 300 Euro! Then I get to the point I need to enter my address, it still insists on a US address. Fail #4. If people select a region, it’s probably because they live there.

Underlying this problem is a common failure of online retailers to grasp the basics of internationalization and demographics that is causing them to lose the business of millions of potential customers who have a language/region combination that they can’t support. This is especially silly when the language is English and the online retailer is US based. English is a great language. World wide, there must be many more non native speakers of it than native speakers. Especially migrants (like) me tend to rely heavily on English.

So, I am not going to be an Adobe customer.

I’m not an iTunes user either for the same reason and for the reason that I’m not big into German dubbed movies and schlagers, which is pretty much what they tried to sell me on the few times I tried to use it. Also, I declined to accept the terms of use when I was living in Finland because they were in Finnish, which is something I don’t speak and I tend not to agree with official looking text that I can’t read.

Deutsche bank

Right now I’m pretty angry with my bank. I’m currently traveling and to my great surprise I couldn’t get any cash from any ATM in Boston when I arrived there on Saturday evening. Kind of inconvenient to be without cash if you are traveling. Luckily my credit card still worked so I managed to get into my hotel and get some food (one of the nice things in the US is that you can use your credit card everywhere). Also, some colleagues were kind enough to borrow me some money.

Anyway what pissed me off was the following:

On Sunday morning/night (jet lag), I called the phone number listed on my bank card to find out what the hell is going on.

This lands you in the standard useless menu where some very tedious computer voice slowly guides you to your destination repeating every choice you make and asking whether that was really what you wanted. This one was particularly annoying because they insisted on my full account number (they had speech recognition though) and branch number of my local bank office, which is apparently very important in Germany. Naturally, the first questions I got when I finally got a human to talk to me were what my branch and account number were.

Then the misery started, nobody on the other side of the line could do anything useful for me. Lady #1 who luckily spoke English connected me to Lady #2 who didn’t and quite rudely told me to go away (in German). So, I had to go through the above mentioned menu again to talk to Guy #1. I then asked him “do you speak English” and he said yes but added “I’m not allowed to speak to customers in English”. Eh right. He clearly detected my anger/amazement and then proceeded in English anyway, for which I’m grateful, I guess. He then figured out that I probably wanted to talk to someone in my branch office. So he gave me a number for Lady #3 who of course would not be reachable until Monday. So, I was stuck for another 24 hours without cash on me and I still had no clue why my card was not working (e.g. somebody might have skimmed my card and is emptying my account).

Joost and video on demand

Screenshots And Video Of The New Joost

Joost has announced that they are changing the way their service works. Having used it quite a bit, I think this is probably the best thing for them since it was based on a misguided channel/TV metaphore. However, I wonder (along with Techcrunch) what their added value really is. It used to be that p2p seemed like it was the only way to escape from blocky, tiny videos with low frames per second and audio/video sync problems (aka Real Video, what happened to those guys anyway?).

Just last week I was looking at some videos on Vimeo and noticed that they have streaming HD now. Like Youtube, it starts streaming right away. Unlike Youtube, the video is sharp, full screen, high resolution, and mostly free from severe compression artifacts. In other words, they seem to have figured out a way to push large amounts of data to me cost effectively. I didn’t measure it but I estimate I was getting around 1mbps data from them at least.

Doing this on a large scale used to be really expensive. However, in recent years, content delivery networks (CDNs) have emerged that can cost effectively deliver large downloads to massive amounts of users. A CDN is actually similar to p2p. Essentially it involves ensuring you have a servers+bandwidth in every major provider network and keeping these servers in sync. Bandwidth inside a provider network is a lot easier to get. For providers the benefit is that they don’t need to use expensives bit pipes from other providers to get the content to you. So as long as they don’t run out of local bandwidth (of which they have plenty), they will prefer this. Also with less hops to the user, it is a lot easier to ensure there is actually enough bandwidth to the user. Essentially, this brings the best features of p2p to web streaming and makes Joost more or less redundant. Although arguably, they still have a slight cost advantage here due to their reliance on a CDN (this type of service of course costs money).

There are now several flash based streaming sites that use a CDN. What these services have in common is crappy content. There’s only so much amateur, 3 minute video fragments I can take. Also, 3 minute “commercial” fragments of full content normally broadcasted on really obscure tv channels in the middle of the night is hardly compelling. The reason for this is copyright legislation and a systematic ignoring of users outside the USA by media corporations.

Joost, flawed as it was, actually has some okish content hidden inside it. I quite enjoyed watching episodes of Lexx (an obscure but fun Canadian SF series from the nineties) and also a few full feature kung fu movies from the seventies as well as a few documentaries. I wouldn’t pay for any of that but if you are bored, it’s at least a way to pass some time. But Joost never managed to convince media corporations to provide premium content. They still haven’t solved that problem.

If you live inside the US, life is good, apparently. There’s Apple TV, Amazon, Hulu, and a few others like netflix offering massive amounts of good quality pay per view type HD content for download, and in some cases even streaming. Some of these services are ad supported, some of them are subscription based. Joost won’t stand a chance in that market.

However, for about 5.8 billion people outside the US, life is not so good. Here in Finland there are only a handful of video on demand companies whose offerings suck big time comparatively. Additionally, their UI is in Finnish which makes it extremely hard for me to use them or even to figure out what they are trying to offer me. The US based ones won’t deliver content outside the US because that requires separate deals with media companies for each country. In the US, one deal helps you reach a population of around 250 million users. In europe, countries are a lot smaller. My understanding is that to some extent this type of services is now also available in the UK and Germany, which are relatively large countries.

Finland has only 5 million inhabitants.In other words, no content for me. So, if I want to see a movie, I can hope one of the pay per view TV channels broadcasts it (I don’t have a subscription though); buy the DVD; go to the cinema; or hope one of the handful of local TV stations broadcasts something worth watching.

websites and stupid assumptions

I just went to a blog and wanted to leave a comment. So the site redirects to blogger.com where I can leave a comment. The site correctly detects I am located in Finland. Very good! That’s so clever! Amazing what you can do these days!

The only problem is that like most of this world (barring around 4-5 million native speakers) I don’t speak Finnish. Not a word. Really, I have a coffee mug that lists pretty much all knowledge I have of this beautiful but incomprehensible language. I haven’t even managed to memorize most of that. And somehow I don’t believe “maksa makkara” (pay the sausage?) is going to help me here.

So, no problem, lots of sites make this mistake. Just click the little “gimme the english version” link that surely must be hidden somewhere …. missing in action. So I check the url …. no obvious way to change fi to en there either. Maybe on the frontpage …. nope, www.blogger.com insists on Finnish as well. So www.blogger.com is unusable for me. Lets just hope it doesn’t spread to the rest of the world. That would be really annoying.

Anyway, this assumption of setting the language based on IP address is just stupid and wrong. First of all, the site should respect my browser settings: doesn’t list Finnish, at all. Neither does my OS. And the browser sends this information as part of the http headers so you can know that my preferred language is US-en. Secondly, Finland is bilingual and for some 500.000 people the right language would have been Swedish. I happen to speak some Swedish at least. And finally any modern country like Finland has a large number of travelers, tourists and migrant workers like me. So not offering a way out is just stupid. Confronting hundreds of thousands of users (just in Finland) with the wrong language when each of them is providing you with their preferred language is even more stupid. Additionally, not offering a link for English is just retarded.

Facebook

It seems I’ve been unaware of the little revolution that has been unfolding since May 24th. Before that, facebook was yet another social network popular mostly in the US. On that date, facebook opened up their API and made it possible for people to integrate their 3rd party services into facebook. Marc Andreesen explained the concept in a lengthy post that is well worth reading around mid June. This too went unnoticed by me. To my defense, I was on vacation first half of June and maybe a bit less connected than I usually am.

About two weeks ago, my neighbour, friend & colleague Christian del Rosso, invited me to facebook. He must have noticed that I didn’t catch up his earlier link to Marc Andreesen’s article. So I dutifully signed up not expecting much of it but somewhat curious to find out why facebook was being mentioned a lot lately. I’m already on linkedin and del.icio.us so I thought I was pretty well covered in this web 2.0 thing. Apparently not.

In the past two weeks, I found several people I know that recently created accounts on facebook. Facebook has the notion of networks and groups and I’m in several of those now, all rapidly growing. Finally in the last few days I started exploring facebook a bit more in depth and doing things like updating my profile, exploring other people’s profiles, and finally figuring out that there’s a shitload of cool applications that integrate into facebook. The proverbial penny dropped only a few days ago.

I’m on iLike, mytravelmap and flixster now. Also I have hooked up my blog and del.icio.us to facebook and of course installed the chuck norris fact generator. All very fun toys. The first three I would probably never have signed up for seperately.

The only thing that I don’t like is that openid is not part of facebook. That’s a pitty, because I believe the fully decentralized mash ups enabled by openid are the future. Ultimately, facebook is another vertical and the waiting is just for who will buy these guys (and for how much). It seems that .com bubble 2.0 is now well underway.

It would seem from the above that facebook is perfect. Of course it isn’t. I’ve encountered many issues so far: performance problems; parts of the site not working; strange errors and failing ajax stuff. Also I noticed that the entire thing seems to be written in php. That could give rise to some worries related to e.g. security and scalability. Opening it up to basically anybody who cares to develop 3rd party stuff does not exactly make it better.

Welcome to the USA!

I spent yesterday traveling to Baltimore, USA. Quite a lot of stress and uncertainty is involved these days due to the USA overreacting to terrorist threats. Most of the measures are not really effective but they certainly are time consuming.

The first part of my journey was a regular european flight from Helsinki to Frankfurt. Everthing was pretty much normal. Me, my hand luggage and suitcase were checked for dangerous/illegal objects and substances (e.g. a bottle of water ๐Ÿ™‚ ), I proceeded to the gate, got on the plane and flew to Frankfurt.

In Frankfurt I had to move from one terminal to another to get to gate B22. For this purpose there is a nicely designed tunnel that is several hundred meters long. Once in the B terminal there were a lot of people and they were all queueing for something this was around gate B4. So I walked along the queue towards my gate when I started te realize that these people were queueing for a security checkpoint. A security checkpoint that I had to pass. With the plane already boarding I started to get a little nervous. By my estimation there were about 1500 people waiting to get to their gate. And they were all in a hurry.

Like the rest of the people I tried my luck with the indifferent security people. In short, they don’t care if you miss your plane. They said it politely but the message was basically to try your luck at the other end of the queue (several hundred meters away) and go F*** yourself. So I squeezed in about 30 meters back and ignored the angry looks from the people behind me (you have to be pragmatic). Slowly the queue moved forward, about a meter per minute.

At last the security people started to do something smart: removing the people from the queue who had time to spare and moving the people forward that like me were supposed to be on the plane already (and still had a good chance of getting on it). The desperate faces of people who were pulled out and told to come back later was heartbreaking. Some had been queuing for 2 hours or more. About 30 minutes later I was searched (no rubber gloves type treatment, don’t worry). The search was pretty quick since there was a lot of pressure on the security guards to hurry up. They glanced in my bag in a way that convinced me that I could have easily hidden stuff in there provided it would not look too suspicious on the scanner.

Anyway, I made it to the plane just in time, that is about 30 minutes after it was supposed to leave and about an hour before it actually left.รƒโ€šร‚ย  The trip was uneventful except for the fact that Lufthansa sees no problems in handing out metallic cuttlery. Yep, that’s right after having been stripsearched for nailcutters, pocketknives and other mettalic objects they gave me a knife and fork that would definately have set off all alarms if I would have had them in my pocket at the security checkpoint. The knife was definately usable as a weapon (though not of mass destruction). Weird.

Arrival in the US (Washington Dulles airport) was a lot smoother. They have these weird shuttles that move between the terminals there. Apparently having dozens of custom made shuttle vehicles that can elevate the cabin to the right height (3 or 4 meters) to move in and out of the terminal is cheaper that just digging a 400 meter tunnel or letting people use an escalator + normal buses. Weird, who’se paying for that?

Security checks were aimed at preventing illegal entry of the country this time. I only had to wait for about 45 minutes this time (last time in the US it was 2 hours). After that I collected my luggage and left the terminal.
Welcome to the USA!

My hotel is quite nice. I’m on the 21st floor and have an excellent view over Baltimore including skyline, harbor and city behind the skyline. I’ll post some panorama pics when I’m back in Finland.

Impressive IT project

The serverside.com, one of the sites I regularly visit for Java related news today posted a link to this case study.

The case study describes an EJB based software system that runs the health care system in Brasil. When I say “runs the health care system”, I mean that for example in Sao Paulo, a city with 20 million inhabitants, all health centers are based on and interoperate with this system. That is a seriously impressive achievement.

Healthcare software is notorious for so-called island automation meaning that basically the IT infrastructure of health care organizations consist of many incompatible islands of software system that simply refuse to work together in a meaningful way. Brasil fixed that. Both from a technical point of view and a organizational point of view that is a very impressive achievement.

I was inรƒโ€šร‚ย  Dutch hospital three years ago. They gave me a plastic card with holes in it, aka. a punchcard. My health record actually lives in a software system that uses punchcards! I find that a disturbing thought. In most civilized countries, the IT infrastructure in the health sector is comparatively fragmented or worse. E.g. the US health system is notorious for being one of the most expensive (per capita) on this planet and also for having a comparatively low quality of service. Also a significant part of the population is uninsured.

Dutch politics

Today, I’m making a rare exception and will post a little opinion piece on politics. Basically, something outrageous is happening currently in my home country, the Netherlands.

The last time when my home country made the international headlines, as it is no doubt about to do again now, was in 2004 when Theo van Gogh, a movie director and columnist, was murdered by a muslim extremist. Pinned to his body with a knife was a letter threatening Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken member of parliament. The brutal murder and political aftermath became world news with headlines on CNN, articles in leading news papers etc. In the aftermath of that murder and amidst significant unrest in muslim and right wing extremist communities, the Somali born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali received serious dead threats and has since been living a not very enviable life of continuous police protection, frequently moving, etc. Her life of the past three years is not unlike that of Salman Rushdy. Nevertheless she continued to be outspoken and did not bow to the terrorist threats. For that she has been recognized last year as one of Time’s 100 most influential people. Basically, she’s a highly respected politician and intellectual (nationally and internationally). Though I don’t agree with everything she says I have a lot of respect for what she says, her rights to express her views and how she makes use of those rights.
Now something is happening that is outrageous. Essentially, it boils down to that her Dutch nationality (she’s a member of parliament!) is being revoked by a minister from her own party.

Eh, let me explain that again: Ayaan Hirsi Ali immigrated in the early nineties and managed to get a residence permit and later the Dutch nationality based on the fact that she was a political refugee. To provide some historical context, this was around the time things got really ugly for the US peace keepers in her home country. As she later admitted, she did lie about a number of facts (including her name) during that legal process. This was well known when she made her switch from the left wing PVDA party to the conservative VVD party and apparently communicated explicitly to VVD seniors during that transition. Subsequently, she became a member of parliament for that party (and got a lot of people to vote specifically for her). Ambitious, outspoken and sometimes controversial is a good characterization of her career since.

Fast forward three years. A tv documentary again highlights the fact that Ali has lied during the immigration procedure. She’s never denied that and has in fact been very candid about it in interviews over the years. In other words nothing new was presented. I suspect that the intention of the makers of the program was to merely highlight the harshness of recent immigration politics by contrasting it with the background in this respect of a popular and respected politician.
Enter Rita Verdonk, a former immigration service civil servant and now the first minister of immigration, ever. Arguably, this is a very controversial job and personality. She is very outspoken on immigration issues, generally favoring the hard line (I’m phrasing it politely). Interestingly, like Ali, she has a left wing history (communist symphaties in her youth). However she now is a member of the conservative right wing VVD (also Ali’s party) and competing for leadership of that party in the upcoming election (next year, or maybe a bit earlier now). She decided over the course of 24 hours first that she sees no reason to act on the documentary, then an investigation was launched anyway, and now Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s is being denied her Dutch citizenship (by Verdonk, with approval from prime minister Balkende) and will be forced to give up her seat in parliament and has a mere 6 weeks to fight this in court. I related news, she is being forced out of her house because neighbours complained about the devaluation of their property due to the continuous police protection.
WTF! This redefines the notion of backstabbing.

Anyway things are happening fast now. Apparently Ali has already decided to emigrate to the US where she will work for a conservative think tank in Washington. This latest incident is merely causing her to speed up her plans. Essentially she’s giving the finger to the people currently stabbing knives in her back. I can’t blame her but regret that this is even possible in my home country. This is the ultimate failure of this government to provide adequate protection to her.
I would not be surprised if this is going to be the final excuse needed to pull the plug on this impopular cabinet. I don’t see how decent politicians can continue to involve themselves with Verdonk. But then she managed to survive earlier incidents involving e.g. the expellation of a kosovo girl (17) who speaks fluent dutch and was about to enter her highschool exams; the expellation of gay/christian refugees from Iran (with the explicit message that they should cover up their views to protect themselves back in Iran); and the expellation of people to such stable democracies as Sierra Leone. These incidents and many others have made her popular with anti immigration right wing people and extremely impopular with other people (including me).
It’s just one of the reasons I don’t mind living in Finland right now. Finland is nice country with stable & boring politics. My home country can learn a lot from this sparsely populated country.