Measuring our electricity consumption

In 2016, the year we moved to The Hague, I wanted to know the power consumption of specific devices in our new house. With that knowledge I could devise a plan to lower my electricity bill. Not that it was high, but saving money is always a good thing.

At that moment it was hard to investigate. I only possessed a cheap power consumption meter with a plug, which can be placed between the device to be measured and the wall socket. It didn’t work optimally because it would still report wattage when no device was connected, which made measurements inaccurate. Also, I couldn’t use it for devices where I had difficult or no access to the plug, like my built-in refrigerator.

Wat I also did was note the number on the electricity meter at the first day of the month and collect the data in a LibreOffice Calc file to compare total consumption per month throughout the year. This didn’t go well because I forgot to do it once in a while and because we weren’t home at the first of the month during the summer holiday.

However, this year the smart electricity meter was installed in our home, as part of the national project to do so in every home. Because it automatically sends the daily data on total power consumption to the power company it was no longer necessary to this myself. Now I can easily see the data in the smartphone app of my power company Qurrent.

This way I could see that July, August and September had electricity consumption figures which were quite normal for our situation, until our daughter Rosalinde was born in October. Because Stephanie was at home much more often due to her leave from work, electricity consumption shot up to one and a half times the usual level. Now that her leave is over, she still works four instead of five days a week and her mother takes care of our daughter for two days at our home. So the electricity consumption will remain structurally higher.

Fortunately the smart electricity meter also has a setting which shows the total consumption right now. What I would do then is the following: note current consumption on the meter, switch off refrigerator and note consumption again. Of course you have to turn off as much other devices as possible to prevent interference with the measurement.

The problem is of course that a refrigator has different consumption when it is on standby and when it has to cool actively. There is a specification of the producer for the yearly consumption conforming to the EU standards, but you will have variation because your refrigerator can have less or more ice in it. This means measuring is always difficult. And some of our devices were purchased before the EU made energy labels compulsory.

To conclude I used a combination of measurements with the power consumption meter, the smart electricity meter and the official specifications to get consumption figures for all my devices. I then noted these in this LibreOffice Calc document. In the baseline measurement (tab “Before”) I had several electricity guzzling halogen lamps; since then I have replaced them all with LED lamps. Those and other measures I had taken where then noted in the second measurement (tab “After”). All of this was measured before our daughter was born and electricity consumption increased sharply.

What caught the eye was the high consumption of my ventilation system, which is integrated in my air heating unit. At some distance come the refrigerator and the dishwasher. I don’t think the 280 washing cycles of the official consumption figures are accurate for us, so true consumption will probably be lower. The clothes dryer doesn’t have an energy label, but does have consumption figures for specific settings. We dry laundry as much as possible without the clothes dryer, outside in the summer and inside on clothing racks in the attic during the winter. Only if the racks are full or if there are towels (Stephanie likes to have them softer from the dryer) the dryer is turned on. Finally the aquarium and the router are relatively demanding users.

To be honest I haven’t asked for quotes yet, but I suspect the replacement of my ventilation system and air heating unit will be very expensive. Especially if I want to do it completely right and want to stop using natural gas. I think I’d prefer to wait for the plans of the municipality of The Hague. In 2021 municipalities have to make a plan for the heating of the built environment. It would be a pity if the municipality would be able to connect my whole neighborhood to geothermal heating while I would have already invested money in an air-source heat pump.

Other options to replace electricity guzzling devices by more economical ones aren’t profitable either. If I take a look at my calculations (tab “Alternatives”) I see the break-even point, where the savings on electricity compensate the purchase price of the device, is reached far too late. So replacement only makes sense when the current device breaks down. And Stephanie wants to keep her aquarium. Measures such as replacing the powerline adapters with WiFi and turning off the router at night seem more attainable. To reduce my natural gas consumption I put a kitchen timer in my bathroom, so I don’t take showers for more than five minutes.

Daylight savings time and the time zone in the Netherlands

After recent nieuws about the plan of the European Commission to abolish daylight savings time, I decided to investigate the subject. The summary: winter time is our ‘normal’ time, Daylight Savings Time (DST) advances the clock one hour so that we have can enjoy the sunlight longer during summer evenings. The advantage of longer daylight in the summer is clear. I also like having longer sunlight on a summer evening when I’m relaxing in my garden with guests. The Dutch Olympic Committee*Dutch Sports Federation thinks that the extra sunlight in the evening is important for sports participation. I understand that because I also like to go surfing or swimming in the sea after my work. They also mention running, but that is also possible in the dark.

However, the longer daylight for leisure after the workday is the only substantial advantage of daylight savings time. In the different news items and the expansive Wikipedia article about DST I read that the other alleged advantage, lower electricity consumption, is doubted. On the other hand the evidence for negative effects, such as disruption of our circadian rhythm and sleep pattern, is convincing. While I personally don’t experience sleep problems during the beginning and end of DST, it is apparently disruptive to many other people. En the complexity of the clock change is also an argument against DST. Telephones and computers change automatically, but my oven and mechanical clock don’t. There is extra confusion when you have to make a an international phone call because you have to take DST into account when you convert your local time to other time zones.

The first news item also point out that the Netherlands should actually use Western European Time because of it’s geographic location, just like the United Kingdom. In other words, the our clock is actually one hour (two when we use DST) ahead of the solar time. If the solar time would be followed exactly, the sun would reach it highest point at 12:00 hours. A look at the Wikipedia article on time zones tells us that it is even more extreme elsewhere in the world. Russia has a very strange application of time zones, China has one time zone for the whole country (!) and the western tip of Spain deviates strongly. The time zones in the United States do make sense and match the solar time.

Because it interested me to see how the time zone in the Netherlands compares with others, I compared the time of dusk and dawn in The Hague with two other cities. The Hague lies at the 52th parallel north, which is a line of about 111 kilometers wide running over the earth in east-west orientation. Other places on this parallel receive roughly the same amount of daylight, no matter their distance from The Hague. To compare I have chosen Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Lipetsk in Russia.

In the tables below you can see the results. The data was taken from the website Time and Date and applies to 2018. I compare the shortest and longest day for the three cities. Cambridge is located in the geographical center of the WET zone and matches the solar time very closely. Lipetsk is one of the few larger cities in Russia which has a geographically fitting time zone and is relevant because Russia doesn’t use DST.

Current situation
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Cambridge 21 Jun 04:38–21:24 13:01 16:46
Den Haag 21 Jun 05:22–22:06 13:44 16:44
Lipetsk 21 Jun 03:57–20:48 12:23 16:51
Cambridge 21 Dec 08:06–15:48 11:57 07:42
Den Haag 21 Dec 08:48–16:32 12:40 07:43
Lipetsk 21 Dec 08:30–16:08 12:19 07:38

In the first news item I mentioned it is written that the chairman of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has a personal preference for permanent DST if we would indeed abolish the current DST. As the first news item explained this is quite an extreme change, because the time in the winter will then have the same large deviation from the solar time as it does during the summer. The consequence is that the sun will rise as late as 9:48 on 21 December in The Hague. I consider this very undesirable and it will certainly not help our cyrcadian rhythms. Effectively it means that we will have to rise even earlier during the night in the winter.

Permanent DST
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Den Haag 21 Jun 05:22–22:06 13:44 16:44
Den Haag 21 Dec 09:48–17:32 13:40 07:43

Abolishing DST seems the most logical choice to me, a good compromise. And what if we were to look at the problem in a different way? After we abolish DST we could decide start the workday earlier, at 8:00 hours instead of 8:30 hours for example, to win back some sunlight in the evening

Abolishing DST
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Den Haag 21 Jun 04:22–21:06 12:44 16:44
Den Haag 21 Dec 08:48–16:32 12:40 07:43

If we wanted to be entirely correct we shouldn’t just abolish DST but also start to use WET. This takes it too far for my taste because we loose even more light during the summer evenings then. Because the Netherlands lies in the eastern half of the WET zone, the clock is slightly ahead of solar time.

Abolishing DST and switching to WET
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Den Haag 21 Jun 03:22–20:06 11:44 16:44
Den Haag 21 Dec 07:48–15:32 11:40 07:43

Finally, there was news that the EU member states postponed a decision on DST. The Netherlands apparently wants to use the same time zone as Germany. And the European Commission wants to avoid a patchwork of different time zones in the EU because it would be bad for the economy. I don’t follow this line of reasoning because the United States, the largest economy in the world, use four time zones without a clear disadvantage to its economy. So I don’t see any issue if the EU abolishes DST en the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Spain switch to WET while the rest of the EU uses Central European Time or Eastern European Time.

Calculating stock return with LibreOffice Calc

Earlier this year BinckBank, the bank I used to invest in stocks for years, introduced new subscriptions. These now require payment of a service fee which is dependent on the size of the portfolio. For my portfolio of slightly more than € 5,000 I pay a bit more than € 10 per quarter. This comes on top of the transaction costs which were already relatively high with BinckBank.

BinckBank has good customer service, accessible information on investing, a good website and app, but that doesn’t justify the price difference with DeGiro, another bank. There I don’t pay a service fee and the transaction costs are much lower as well. As a consequence I’ve decided to cancel my BinckBank subscription and pursue all my stock investments through DeGiro. Apparently BinckBank wants to lose its smaller and less active customers, that’s the only explanation I can think of.

Initially I wanted to transfer my entire portfolio from BinckBank to DeGiro. I had a vague memory about a phone call with a DeGiro employee earlier this year. I reckon being told then that costs would be high for this. For that reason I decided to simply sell my stocks with BinckBank and then rebuy them with DeGiro.

I’ve come to regret this because the stock price of the sole stock I possessed, the Dutch construction company BAM, had risen notably since I sold my stock. When I investigated what transferring a portfolio would cost me, I saw that BinckBank charges € 25 per fund for a portfolio transfer and that DeGiro charges nothing because the portfolio is bigger than € 3,000. Had I known this I would have chosen for the portfolio transfer, certainly because it just contained one fund. Obviously this is another lesson in how assumptions are the mother of all fuckups. And yes, I know a portofolio consisting of € 5,000 in just one fund is not good risk-spreading.

But now the core of this post. I have the issue that I purchased and sold stock of BAM through both banks. Because DeGiro won’t pick up the historical purchase price of the stock I bought through BinckBank, I wanted to use LibreOffice Calc to calculate the costs and potential return of my transactions. You could do this by simply entering the numbers, but if you are like me you want to do this in a pretty way with a formula. Because it took my half an hour to figure out the solution I thought others would be grateful to me if I’d share it here.

My document can be downloaded here. The kind of transaction (purchase or sale), amount of stock, stock price and commission are entered manually. It’s all about the following formula which calculates the total result of a transaction:


The IF function is nested in another IF function here. First IF evaluates if cell B3 contains the text ‘Purchase’. If yes, it multiplies amount and price and adds the commission. The result is then multiplied by -1 to make it negative (because a purchases order gives negative return). If cell B3 doesn’t contain the text ‘Purchase’, it will execute the next IF function. There IF evaluated if cell B3 contains the text ‘Sale’. If yes, then amount and price are multiplied here as well, but the commission is substracted instead.

More explanation is given on this page of Microsoft Office Support. The syntax of Excel is slightly different because it uses comma’s instead of semicolons, but the IFS function mentioned at the bottom of the document is also useable in Calc. The more simple notation of the IFS function doesn’t require a nested formula and is equivalent to the formula with the IF function above if written as follows:


These formulas aren’t a necessity for such simple things as calculating return on stocks, but I thought it was useful to learn more about Calc and Excel this way.

The Sony A7 III as successor to the Fujifilm X100S

I have written about my experiences with my Fujifilm X100S before. I have developed a hate-love relationship with it during the years I’ve used it. It’s a camera which combines compact size with the good image quality of a relatively large APS-C sensor. The sensor works together with an integrated and capable 23mm lens (approximately equal to the angle of view of a 35mm lens on a full frame sensor). The way in which the camera is designed, such as the omission of a mode dial, makes the camera enjoyable to use. However, the camera’s behavior to structurally underexpose scenes was quite annoying. In theory you can fix this by using the exposure compensation, but in practice it’s often a gamble to determine how much compensation is needed. Because of this issue I couldn’t rely on the JPEG files and had to edit RAW files far too often.

Because this problem was so frustrating I was looking for a new camera. As a replacement I had the Sony A7 III with full frame sensor in mind. My beloved Stephanie knew this, led me blindfolded to an electronics store and gifted me this camera for my birthday. The idea is that this camera will replace both her Nikon D5100 and my X100S. That’s why we chose the standard kit SEL 28-70mm F/3.5-5.6 zoom lens and the Samyang 35mm F/2.8 lens. The zoom lens is for Stephanie, de 35mm lens is for me. Much has been written about why 35mm lenses are a good choice, but for me it boils down to the perspective of these lenses, which resemble so closely what I see with my eyes. If we are too lazy to change lenses often while we are on holiday the zoom lens will probably be used more often for its flexibility. But the Samyang has a slightly larger aperture. And according to reviews the optical performance is also better; more sharpness and less distortion that the zoom lens.

The 35mm lens transforms the A7 III into a more potent version of the X100S. As you can see on the photo both camera’s don’t fit into a pocket anyway, so the small difference in size isn’t very relevant. Because the A7 III is slightly larger and also features a grip for the right hand, it handles better than the X100S for me. The 35mm lens weighs much less than the body, so the camera balances nicely if you hang it around your neck.

Sony A7 III versus Fujifilm X100S

For € 315 the Samyang lens is the cheapest 35mm lens for Sony full frame mirrorless cameras. There are also some other 35mm lenses:

  1. Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm F/2.8 ZA for € 671
  2. Sigma 35mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art for € 800
  3. Sony Distagon T* Zeiss FE 35mm F/1.4 ZA for € 1.367

The Sonnar is barely better than the Samyang but is much more expensive. The Sigma and the Distagon are much better, have a larger aperture and are sharper. But they are also much bigger and heavier. Besides that, I don’t want to spend so much money on a lens with a fixed focal length. The important thing is that the larger aperture of these lenses doesn’t offer me added value. For my purposes (and probably for most people who use 35mm lenses) a large aperture doesn’t benefit me because it results in smaller depth of field. I want large depth of field. The Samyang is cheap and compact, that’s why it’s most suitable for me. Do beware that the supplied lens hood and cap don’t work in combination with a filter.

Finally some words about the A7 III itself. The reason why I chose this camera is simple: the reviews seem to be unanimous in their judgment that this camera steamrolls the competition of Canon and Nikon at the € 2.300 price point (the price for the body without the lens). The video capabilities are good, the X100S was unfit for video. Still the A7 III misses some of the user friendliness that the X100S does have. The X100S has dedicated dials for aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation. The A7 III misses these, just like most other DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras. I keep thinking that I had preferred a successor to the X100S without the underexposure issue. At the same time I know that I will certainly enjoy using the A7 III. The only thing which I’m missing in the A7 III is the option to record 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) video with 60 frames per second. The A7 III doesn’t go further than 30 frames per second at that resolution. The Panasonic GH5 can do that and is a lot cheaper at € 1.500.

Now that I have the right camera I can work on my greatest challenge: be at the right place and time to take interesting photos and videos. Because of my limited time I used the X100S primarily on holiday, because I didn’t see much interesting things in the Netherlands which were worth photographing. They are there of course, but you have to go looking for them. Otherwise those thousands of euros spent on the camera and lenses will be catching dust when you’re not on holiday.

The dividend tax stays

On 5 October Unilever announced that it would not move its headquarters from London to Rotterdam because its stockholders opposed the move. Later that day the Dutch government, the Rutte III cabinet, stated that it would reconsider the abolition of the dividend tax. According to prime minister Mark Rutte it did not mean the dividend tax would be preserved definitively. He stated the plan to abolish it wasn’t launched for a single company, but that Unilever’s decision was relevant in the reassessment of the plan.

The words of Rutte don’t connect with reality. The announcement to reconsider the plan came directly after Unilever’s announcement. And the action of just Unilever, one company, was the motivation for the reassessment after all. The statement of Rutte doesn’t have any credibility. Once again it’s a smoke screen, because I think Rutte had been searching for an exit of the despised plan to abolish the tax. Unilever’s action is right up his alley because it enables him to cancel the abolition without much loss of face. That the reappraisal wouldn’t directly lead to preservation of the tax is unbelievable, because otherwise they wouldn’t be sowing doubt with such an announcement. I know for sure now that the dividend tax will stay.

Also consider that Unilever’s plan to abandon the move is a pitifully bad excuse for the reconsideration. The move of the headquarters to Rotterdam would have brought several dozen jobs to the Netherlands. Even if you add some indirect employment, such a small number is meaningless. Are we supposed to believe that this meager amount of jobs is influencing a decision on € 1,9 billion of potentially lost tax revenue? That is the amount lost if the dividend tax would be abolished.

In other news, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands thinks the dividend tax is legally sustainable and doesn’t discriminate against foreign investors. The news isn’t very clear about the arguments of the Supreme Court, but it does give a link to the detailed ruling. I don’t have knowledge about tax law, but after reading the summary I think I understand. Denmark was discriminating because it didn’t offer foreign investment funds the choice to be taxed on the exit instead of the entrance, just like Danish investment funds.

The tax on the entrance is apparently the tax which is paid to the state where the investment fund is located. The tax on the exit is paid to the state where the recipient of the dividend is located, as far as I understand. In practice the choice doesn’t offer any advantage, because exemption from the tax at the entrance is only granted if the tax is paid at the exit. The latter requires so much complex administration that in practice not a single investment fund would want this. If the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration would allow foreign investment funds to choose to pay tax on the exit and then offer them exemption on the tax at the entrance, they’ve got nothing on the Dutch state.

The summary is reasonably readable in this case which is so complex for laypeople. Yet, the unnecessary use of English directly caught my eye in the language used by advocate general P. J. Wattel. For example “zowel de lokale, if any, als de Deense bronbelasting” and “zal het niet-ingezeten fonds moeten tracen welke ontvangen dividenden hij dooruitdeelt”. Naar correct Nederlands vertaald “indien van toepassing” en “traceren”. These words were not English legal jargon without Dutch counterparts. Dutch people have a hand in polluting their own language with unnecessary English. It’s a pity to see that even the Supreme Court is affected by this disease.

Lili, Howick, Harbers and discretionary authority

Earlier this month Mark Harbers, State Secretary for Justice and Security, decided to use his discretionary authority to grant Lili and Howick permanent residency in the Netherlands. I had hoped that the Secretary would be just as uncompromising in this matter as the cabinet is with its plan to abolish the dividend tax. I’m disappointed that Harbers doesn’t have a spine.

Some facts first: Lili (12) and Howick (13) live in the Netherlands since 2008 but are Armenian nationals. Their case was heard eight times by the courts and eight times the judgment was that they did not have a right to asylum in the Netherlands. Armenia is a safe country after all. Their mother had been deported to Armenia in 2017. Because she did not tell were her children were in hiding she was deported without them.

Of course, if you grew up in the Netherlands like Lili and Howick it will be difficult to integrate in Armenia. But difficult is not impossible: if the refugees who come to the Netherlands are able to integrate here, Lili and Howick should be able to integrate in Armenia, right? On their return to Armenia Lili and Howick would have to live in an orphanage for six months because their mother couldn’t care for them. If comfort in the country of return becomes a criterion, we might as well grant every asylum seeker from Africa or the Middle East a permanent residence permit. A quick look at the statistics of forced departures shows that plenty of people are deported to nasty countries where the level of welfare is far lower than in Armenia.

In the Netherlands it is possible to prolong deportation forever by appealing rulings time and time again. But does that make it our fault that Lili and Howick have become accustomed to life here? No! Their mother didn’t have to appeal every decision for years, that was a choice. She accepted the risk that it would lead to denial of residency in the end and should live with the consequences.

The decision of Lili and Howick to go into hiding was effectively a form of blackmail. The concern for their safety is what drove Mark Harbers to grant them a permanent residency permit. In their desperation Lili and Howick probably probably didn’t intend it so, but it’s still wrong. By giving in, Mark Harbers shows other asylum seekers that going into hiding will be rewarded.

What troubles me the most in this case is the very existence of the discretionary authority of the State Secretary. There are no rules for the use of that authority. The State Secretary can decide to grant permanent residency permits to those who have been denied one by the courts as he sees fit and without explanation. This introduces arbitrary decision making in the process. Asylum seekers like Lili and Howick, who are able to play the media and public opinion, do get a permit, while those who are not well-publicized are deported. The very reason we have judges is to prevent arbitrariness and decide objectively if the law was applied correctly. There should not be any discretionary authority with the executive branch to sweep aside rulings made by the legislative branch.

My sentiments about arbitrariness and the stimulation of going underground are apparently shared by the public servants of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. Meanwhile a committee has been appointed to investigate how these sort of situations can be prevented. Apparently stacking legal procedures and appeals for years is hard to prevent because of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. If so, that treaty should be changed.

The abolition of the dividend tax

The plan of the Rutte III cabinet to abolish the dividend tax is continuously receiving negative attention in the media. The cabinet couldn’t deliver convincing evidence that the plan would have a positive effect on job creation. The plan also tears a hole of 2 billion in the budget.

Recently there was news that abolition of the dividend tax seemed to be necessary for legal reasons. Currently the Dutch dividend tax only affects foreign investors because Dutch investors can deduct the dividend tax from their tax return. Denmark had the same rule, but was sued by foreign investors. The European Court of Justice found in favor of the foreign investors because it considered the policy discriminatory. If the Dutch state would lose in a similar court case it would mean that foreign investors would be allowed submit a request for a tax refund as well. Because the Netherlands Tax and Customs Administration would not be able to deal with such a change, it would de facto necessitate abolishment of the the dividend tax. I don’t understand however why plan B – no tax refund for Dutch and foreign investors – is not possible.

I suspect the politicians of the VVD (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is the largest party in the Rutte III) launched the plan because the lobby of the multinationals whispered it in their ears. According to the news item the legal argument may have been the real reason for Rutte III. It wouldn’t have been communicated openly because public servants had advised not to mention the legal aspect. It would have weakened the legal position of the Dutch state. Did Rutte III really create a smoke screen? Often the simple explanation is the better one: the VVD politicians are not political masterminds but the pawns of the multinationals. The lobby for this plan goes back for years and the legal dimension only entered the spotlight very recently.

Whatever the true reason may be, in principle no one likes discrimination? Certainly not if we are discriminated, as with the German road toll plan. This plan entails that foreigners pay tolls for the use of German highways, while Germans get a refund on their road tax for the tolls they pay. At the end of last year the Dutch state decided to join other EU member states in a legal case against Germany at the European Court of Justice. Is it not consistent then to deal with the dividend tax as well?

In the end, what really matters for me is if the abolition of the dividend tax is honestly compensated by higher taxes on capital and profit (specifically including corporate tax on the profits of companies). We will have to wait for the upcoming government budget later this month, but it does seem to go that way. The plan would be to cancel the intended reduction of the highest corporate tax to 21%. Instead, it would be reduced to 22% to compensate for the loss of the dividend tax.

The problem is that the highest tariff of the corporate tax currently is 25% and used to be 46%. The Netherlands allows itself to be dragged into a race to the bottom for tax competition along with other states. The idea is that corporate taxes should constantly be reduced because companies might relocate to other states where taxes are lower. Consider some statistics. The tax burden (total revenue of taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product) has risen from 37,2% in 1995 to 38,5% in 2017. The revenue of the corporate tax as percentage of the gross domestic product rose from 2,87% in 1995 to 2,90% in 2017.

The tax burden evidently rose while the share of the corporate tax remained virtually unchanged. This small change is more grave in reality. The Netherlands Bureau of Policy Analysis (CPB) can partially explain the leveled revenues of the corporate tax with two causes. On the one hand the lowered tariffs were compensated by a broader tax base, caused by less room for tax deductions, depreciation and such. On the other hand there is a shift in the legal entity used by companies, for example from sole proprietorship to the private limited company (plc). A business using the sole proprietorship entity pays income tax and a plc pays corporate tax. Because corporate tax is lower, it is attractive to convert the sole proprietorship legal entity to a plc. The consequence is that revenues from the income tax take a hit.

The above is of course only a part of the answer because we only discussed corporate tax. Unfortunately I can’t find any good historical statistics on the division of the tax burden between companies and households. I have a strong suspicion that these would show that the share contributed by companies has decreased while the share contributed by households has increased. Lowering the corporate tax tariffs slightly less sharply is not going to solve the problem.

The tobacco smoking ban at street-level

On 3 August it was announced that the municipality of Rotterdam has plans to impose a ban on tobacco smoking for several streets. The Erasmus Medical Center, the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Erasmiaans Gymnasium launched this initiative to protect public health. To guarantee that there will be no smoking in front of their entrances, there would effectively be a smoking ban on three streets near their buildings. Apparently other municipalities are also eager to designate non-smoking zones in their Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening (APV, a local ordinance in Dutch law).

Actually I’m surprised that smoking in public is still allowed. I suspect electoral motives are playing a role here. Because there are so many smokers, a ban on smoking could cost votes for the political parties who enact such a ban. Perhaps the fact that smoking is on a slow decline in the Netherlands is the reason that we are seeing more action on this issue today.

It’s strange that smoking is dealt with so weakly in comparison with other drugs. Take cannabis, a drug which poses a health risk roughly equal to or lower than tobacco. Smoking cannabis in public is already banned in most municipalities, who also use the APV for this. Or psilocybin mushrooms, mushrooms with a psychedelic effect. Even though these are not addictive and are barely harmful for public health, they were banned completely in 2008. By comparison tobacco is a mass murderer which faces almost no constraints.

We should distinguish between how damaging a drug can be for public space in theory and in practice. In an ideal situation we aren’t troubled by tobacco smokers who smoke at a good distance from other people. In practice however I see that many smokers on the bus stations and platforms of Utrecht Centraal don’t keep that distance. They smoke close to other groups of people waiting for the train or bus, who still receive second-hand smoke.

Many smokers also throw their cigarette butts on the street because cleaning up is too much work for them. The excuse is probably that they can’t throw a cigarette which isn’t extinguished in the litter bin. When I recently seated myself on a bench in a park in The Hague during my lunch break, I noticed the ground around the bench was littered with cigarette butts. It looked like they had accumulated there over some days or weeks. Apart from that smoking in public always gives a bad example to children.

This ambition to ban smoking in public comes late, but is very welcome. I do hope that we can institute a nationwide ban on smoking in public instead of having to wait for every individual municipality in our country to take action. There is no reason why smoking should be banned in some streets in Rotterdam while it would still be allowed on the Grote Marktstraat in The Hague.

Because a complete smoking ban might play into the hands of illegal production and criminals, I don’t wouldn’t advocate a complete smoking ban. I would treat tobacco roughly equal to cannabis, assuming that cannabis production will probably be legalized in the near future. So only legal sale in coffee shops (so no tobacco sale in super markets and such!) and use banned in public.

How to talk to a colleague about strained collaboration?

A month ago I wrote that I had found a new job in The Hague and had difficulties in collaborating with a specific colleague there. I planned to have a conversation with him about it to solve the problem, but I kept postponing it because I dreaded the idea. This continued until a workday at the end of July, when the colleague in question was giving serious criticism. His complaints he addressed at me about the timely processing of customer support requests where the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. To my own frustration I didn’t have enough time for customer support due to other tasks.

I was about to explode, but remained calm and asked the colleague if he had time for a private conversation about our collaboration in a few hours. Those extra hours proved useful to me to calm down. Because the conversation could easily degrade the relationship further if I handled it poorly, I considered the conversation tactics I would follow.

First the most important one: don’t assume bad intentions. Even though you might experience the interactions of a colleague as structurally negative and disdainful, it doesn’t mean the collegue intended it so. Many people, myself included, often don’t understand what kind of impression they leave with others. This means it’s better to ask a question like “are you dissatisfied with our collaboration?” instead of more closed questions which make assumptions. Such as for example the question “why can’t you work together with me?”, which presupposes that colleague can’t stand you. I was surprised to hear that my colleague didn’t have an issue with me.

With this knowledge you can continue to talk about the impression the communication of your colleague leaves with you. Do this without making any claims, for example don’t say “you are constantly complaining about me” which comes across as accusative. Focus on the fact that it’s about your impression or interpretation and leave out the intent of your colleague. If you say “I get the impression that you are always dissatisfied with my work” it’s easier for the colleague to say that this isn’t correct. The colleague will likely understand that he should tone down his criticism and convey it better.

Try to give examples of recent interactions with the colleague which you considered uncomfortable. This makes the issues easier to understand. On one issue, my colleague’s tendency to micromanage me and others, I couldn’t mention clear and recent examples. We saved it for later discussion if necessary, but because I mentioned it I did get the idea that the message landed.

Some smaller problems are quickly solved. My colleague promised to use my complete first name instead of “Alex” and to avoid the “what do you think yourself?” question if I discussed a problem with him.

To conclude, it is important to remember that not only the colleague should change, but you as well. I promised that I would bundle my questions more so that I would ask him for help only once or twice during the day. I sometimes have the tendency to ask questions too often, which interrupts my colleagues in their work too frequently.  I would perform a more comprehensive investigation before I presented a problem to him. Though he didn’t ask for it, I said I would write more documentation to explain complex procedures. If the documentation is good, the assistance of the colleague is needed less often.

Do we still dare to speak out against anti-social behavior?

In July I enjoyed a weekend of holiday in the Dutch province of Zeeland with my family. At one moment I was riding a bicycle with my brother, his wife, their baby and Stephanie in northern direction over the Oosterscheldekering and we arrived at a sluice called the Roompotsluis. Both bridges over this sluice are not wide enough to allow simultaneous passage of two cars, yet traffic from both directions is allowed. So drivers have to allow other drivers to pass if they arrive at the bridge at the same time.

At the moment we arrived at the eastern bridge over this sluice two drivers wanted to pass over the bridge. From the norther direction came a car with an older couple, around sixty years of age. From the southern half a Mercedes Benz SUV drove on, with a couple approximately fifty years old. Both drivers obviously wanted to pass the bridge first and didn’t want to let the other pass first. Both stopped on the bridge itself, with the noses of their cars facing each other.

While we drove on the bridge the driver of the Mercedes Benz stepped out to do something about the impasse that had arisen. I could have thought of many ways to solve the situation with good deliberation. Throw a coin, be the first to guess a number under ten. Or just simply giving the other driver some room and letting them pass first. But Mercedes man had other ideas. He stepped out, walked over to the other driver’s opened window and said approximately “I was first and if you don’t make way now I’ll do something to you”. I didn’t follow exactly what happened next, but it looked like the other driver didn’t say anything in response. In any case, the Mercedes man walked back to his car and the other driver drove backwards.

While he was walking back to his car we passed him at the center of the bridge. For some reason it always takes some time before these kinds of stressful situations with anti-social behavior register with me. A few seconds later we had passed the bridge and I said we should have told the Mercedes man that his behavior was unacceptable. My brother and his wife responded that they had ignored the event because my brother was vulnerable with their baby in the cargo bicycle. And because the Mercedes man could later use his car to ram us off the road.

I’m ashamed of myself for doing nothing, because I don’t consider my ‘freezing’ to be an excuse. In my rich fantasy the event keeps replaying, with alternative endings based on how I respond. In one version I have such a commanding presence that I convince the Mercedes man to apologize to the other driver for his threat. In another version I seethe with anger as soon as I hear the threat being uttered. I grab the Mercedes man by the collar and shake him up while I, screaming, make him clear how far he has crossed the line. Then the Mercedes man feels for himself what it is like to be on the receiving end of intimidation.

It is reasonable to consider whether intervention in this kind of situation is wise or not. If a group of drunk people passes me at night in a deserted street and exhibits aggressive behavior I would also avoid them and call the police at a safe distance. However, I get the idea that we make to choice against intervention too easily. The Mercedes man wasn’t drunk and was accompanied by his wife in his car. In the unlikely event of a fight I or my brother would have easily gotten the better of him. It didn‘t seem likely that he would damage his expensive car to ram us off the road a moment later. He behaved sufficiently rational to realize that his license plate would have been remembered. If every one of us in our group would have spoken out against his threat he most likely would have been scared off.

All of this is of course reasoning in hindsight, but the question is what kind of society we want to live. A risk averse society in which everyone has to fend for themselves, or a society in which we dare to stand up for strangers? De other driver who was intimidated by the Mercedes man must have seen us abandoning him. We can always think of some reason why we shouldn’t address others if their behavior is out of line. But what if you were that other driver? Would you have had sympathy for a group of cyclists who pass you and act as if they hear no threatening language?

I remember an event from about fifteen years ago quite well. When I was walking through the center of Culemborg a man on a moped was driving aggressively through the traffic. He snapped at a woman on a bicycle that she had to move out of the way. Almost directly he was called out on his behavior by another man on a bike, who told him resolutely that his behavior was detestable. The man on the moped, obviously surprised, drove along calm and quiet. There were more people around, but the man on the bicycle was the only one who intervened. My memory of this event is so clear because I look up to this man. Someone who, given an acceptable risk, stands up for others and reprimands bad behavior without freezing.