Powerline is a technology for transmitting data over the AC grid. All devices provide an RJ45 Ethernet plug (and some also wifi and USB), so they support client devices of all operating systems. Basic configuration of encryption is likewise OS independent, as nearly all of them use a "pairing" button for that. However, to set the encryption key manually, to make more detailed settings, to read out speed statistics and to update the firmware most come with configuration tools that only work under Windows.

So, can we find a device that can be fully managed under Linux, ideally with free software? After a long search, this turns out to be a simple task. Just use any device that supports the Homeplug AV or Homeplug AV2 standard, and manage it with Open PLC Utils, a free software full-featured management tool developed by AV/AV2 chipset maker Atheros. It  allows full device configuration, info reading and upgrading for all INT6000/6300/6400/AR7420 devices, even tampering with the parameter set in the firmware. The only alternative are DS2 chipset based devices, since at least most of them can be fully configured via a built-in web interface (such as the COMTREND Powergrid 9020, their most modern device). However, a tool like Open PLC Utils is preferred here since it effectively replaces a part of the DS2 management software with free software, allowing scripting, modifications etc., and is more powerful in general.

Recommendable devices

It is said that it does not matter so much in terms of connection speed and quality which exact device you choose, as long as you choose the right chipse. Here, we focus on the Homeplug AV chipsets (INT6000, INT6300, INT6400) and there on the most modern one (INT6400). We avoid the Homeplug AV2 chipsets because they seem not yet mature (see below) and the DS2 chipsets because they are not as readily configurable under Linux.

Recommendation for Germany: Speedport Powerline 100. The best recommendation is so far: Telekom Speedport Powerline 100. It has the INT6400 chipset (most modern one for the Homeplug AV 200 Mbit/s devices), and it is dirt cheap (ca. 20 EUR incl. shipment for a pair of them, via ebay.de) because Telekom made Germany awash with these devices. It also is good quality, since it is a whitelabel product from well-known French brand LEA Networks – see also the very detailed test on tomsnetworking.de (in German). One can use the LEA-made software tool SOFTPLUG for settings beyond simple pairing for encryption, but it runs only under Windows. It is not needed however, as the free software tool Open PLC Utils can likewise be used, also running under Linux.

Discussion of alternatives: Devolo dLAN AVsmart+. These devices are quite nice, as they have an extended status display on the device – compare the manual. They are also readil available in used condition on eBay, but not as dirt cheap as the Speedport Powerline 100. However, they use the older INT6000 chipset [source], leading to a third less speed in long-range applications [source].

Discussion of alternatiives: COMTREND PowerGrid 9020. This is not a Homeplug AB/AV2 device, but uses the non-interoperable DS2 chipset. Reviews on Amazon are good. However, it can be fully managed under Linux as all settings are available within a web interface, as argued for and against above. The Powergrid 9020 is the most modern Powerline device of Madrid-based manufacturer COMTREND so far, and avaible in UK and Europe type plug versions. The UK plug versions are very readily available online, as they are provided by UK based large ISP Britich Telecom (BT) to their customers. The Europe plug versions are quite hard to find though (but here are some). Also see the installation guide and the  full manual.

Discussion of alternatives: Homeplug AV2 devices. There are the even more modern 500 Mbit/s Homeplug AV2 devices (using the AR7420 etc. chipsets), however as of 2014-09 this generation of technology seems to not be mature still, often suffering from connection breakdowns, low throughput, the devices running hot etc. (as judged from reviews on Amazon). So we avoid them here, also because they are still more expensive on the second-hand market. But your priorities and mileage may vary. They also can be fully managed with Open PLC Utils.

Linux software for powerline adapters

While Open PLC Utils is clearly the winner, the following list is all the Linux-based powerline software I came across:

  • Open PLC Utils. As said, clearly the winner: full-featured and free software.
  • Faifa. A manufacturer independent, free software Homeplug AV/AV2 utility for Linux. Allows low-level functions such as control frame dumps. Considered to be the successor to the older plconfig utility, see below.
  • plconfig. An older, simple Linux based configuration utility. For download on Github. Superseded by Faifa now.
  • dlanlist, dlanpasswd. Open source software that can be downloaded and compiled under Linux and is meant to list (and set the password of) Devolo dLAN devices. Since these conform to the Homeplug AV/AV2 standard, the software might be used to also configure other devices, after some simple modifications.
  • devolo Cockpit. A large configuration softwre for Devolo dLAN devices. Seemingly not available as a source version, so adaptations to other devices are not possible.
  • Intellon device manager for 3.x firmware (Windows software). Allows full management of INT6x00 chipset devices when using a 3.x firmware version, incl. editing firmware parameters. Its use is described in this article.
  • Intellon device manager for 4.x firmware (Windows software). In contrast to the version for 3.x firmwares, this does not support full management of the of INT6x00 chipset devices any more.

Background information

The following in-depth articles provide relevant background information about Powerline technology and their successful use:

Modding and hacking powerline adapters

At 10 EUR for a used device or less, powerline adapters are so cheap that they offer themselves to several non-standard uses. At least teh following come to mind:

  • Powerline noise filters. Devices that include an AC plug with noise filter (such as the SpeedportPowerline 100 recommended above) are the cheapest option to use them as frequency filters to prevent contamination of the 50 Hz frequency from other digital devices, mobile phone chargers etc..
  • Powerline bridge. It is also possible to create a simple bridge by connecting two of them with a crossover Cat5e cable (or a bridge device in between, if necessary). This should allow crossing phase boundaries in the home cabling, if necessary.
  • VDSL P2P modem replacements. And then, of course, these cheap devices are a natural candidate for creating a cheap DIY replacement for pairs of VDSL modems (usually 150 EUR per piece!). It works by connecting twisted phone wire to the signal (via soldering) before it gets modulated on the AC mains power. It is possible to use this for transmitting data over several hundred meters at least.

 

This is an intellectual challenge: how to design a generic, many-to-many communication system that prohibits surveillance entities from proving that you (1) read some website or (2) contributed content to some website, even if they do (1) capture and analyze all traffic on the Internet and (2) can break all encryption that is used for many-to-many communication (practically mostly SSL, which might be broken in many cases by NSA using MITM attacks). The only capabilities that we assume here that the surveillance body does not have is (1) breaking encryption used for local-only storage, such as TrueCrypt and (2) breaking encryption used for one-on-one encrypted communication between parties who know each other personally (which is comparatively simple to achieve with PGP etc.). So we're only talking here about them treating you as part of the big mass of people (one of the many activists out there …), not being one of the select few for which they do "targeted access operations" to infect your computer by software or hardware …

Note that, as we assume that the surveillance body captures all Internet communication globally, Tor can no longer be considered secure as they can then do timig correlations on the whole Tor network at once and with that information (simplified by running some own Tor nodes …) de-anonymize its participants. (For that reason, we cannot use realtime two-way communication at all.)

So: here's my proposal from three hours of thinking on today's evening about this. I guess it's pretty wanky 🙂 Anyway, your feedback is welcome.

The basic idea is to hide reading the website steganographically in reading another unsuspicious website, and contributing to the website steganographically in a botnet infection (and by contributing from public wi-fi only). So the surveillance body would see you communicating, but you can plausibly deny reading and writing on that forbidden website; you just read a photo blog and had a spam virus infection … can happen, right? 😛

Part by part:

Deniable reading: steganographic site-in-a-site

This needs an unsuspicious "host website" with considerable data traffic for every user. For example a photography forum or even a porn site. Being used as a host site could be negotiated in secret with the operators (if you are an activist with a valid cause to which people tend to agree), or the site could also be hacked for that purpose, or a site can be "reused" which happens to be a customer website on a web server you operate. But that's quite evil … . In any case, the site should have a large existing community so that everybody can justifiably claim that they just used the host site and did not know anything about the payload data hidden in its traffic.

So to read the "secret website" you want to access, you do a daily round on this "host website", looking at new posts etc.. You will use a special browser (started from a steganographically hidden and encrypted partition on your computer) with a plugin that extracts the new steganographic payload data from this host website. So every new day of updates on the host website also contain the new day of updates for the payload website. The updates are very compact, compressed, git-style updates, probably just plain text. Also, to make connecting input to users even harder, normally every post in the payload site is anonymous (not even pseudonymous!), but users could identify themselves with transient handles for just a few posts to create necessary context in a thread.

Instead of starting the payload extraction and decryption software from a steganographically hidden area, another alternative is to get it to be part of the basic operating system installation for everyone. Which is then likewise unsuspicious because it provides an alibi.

The payload website would not be encrypted. So the surveillance body would find out about it quickly, and it would take some weeks or months to get the host website switched off or its "infection" with the payload site removed (by choosing a proper jurisdiction for the server location, and by using Tor to hide its location somewhat, it can definitely take that long). At which point the payload site would switch to a different host site. Even better, it would always use different host sites in parallel for redundancy, and switching from one to the other would not need any re-downloading of previous data. Just the new "git commits".

But maybe it is better to have the payload data encrypted – if it helps to keep the "infection" from being detected for a long time, it definitely is better. That however implies that every user has to get their own specialized payload, encrypted with a PGP public key. So the host site cannot be a broadcast type of site (like a forum), but has to provide content to every user (like a PTT voice messaging site for example, since PTT voice messages can well take steganographic payload). The payload site server would also encode slightly randomized payload for the different users, and of course not log the random elements, to prevent the connections between the public keys (on the server) and the user accounts (of the host site) to be made when the server is compromised. Which means that even then, nobody can tell which users got data with payload and which are just normal users. Only when finding the users and seizing their computers one could tell that … but no, not even then, since (1) the users usually cannot be found and (2) their private keys for decryption are steganographically hidden on their computer (see below).

Against breaking communication encryption: anonymity by free wi-fi

There is no issue with encryption being broken (or content not being encrypted at all!) if this still does not give them a hint to your real-world identity. The solution is to not give them any connection between the IP address and personal identities. How to achieve this?

  • Use a mobile device that looks for open wi-fi networks while you walk around in a big city. If it finds one, it will connect to it quickly, send its data, and disconnect again. The data is a git-style, very compact update to the shared content of the website / forum you contribute to. With this method, you can sync to that website 1-2 times a day, which should be enough for most purposes.
  • If your country does not allow anonymous Internet access at all (such as in China), send your data by encrypted e-mail to somebody abroad whom you trust and who will perform the above procedure for you. If you don't have somebody you trust, you are doomed anyway 😉

The security and safety of this procedure can be enhanced by:

  • using directional wi-fi antennae hidden below your clothing (for example in your arm – the system will guide you to point your arm in the right direction to get the best connection to a remote wifi 😉
  • more importantly, by using a new, spoofed MAC address for every connection. Which is important in case the wi-fi network logs the MAC addresses of connections
  • choosing only wi-fi networks open to the general public (in bars, airports etc.), to avoid raising suspicion of the surveillance body against individuals whose wi-fi you would else compromise
  • disguising your optical appearance against face recognition through surveillance cameras etc.
  • unsuspicious behavior, to prevent raising suspicion in surveillance videos etc.; this however is a pretty low-grade threat, as it involes a lot of manual coordination work ("targeted access operations"), which a surveillance body cannot do for its whole population
  • writing from a different device than you use for reading; you would use commands like "reply-to:post452798" for placing your content at the right spot of the website; you would never ever exchange data between the two devices (since then, also data coming from a trojan by which the surveillance body infected your reading computer, could be transferred to your writing computer and could prove that you participate in the website instead of just "unknowingly" getting its data in steganograophic form)

Deniable contributions: a botnet is controlling your device!

This is a pretty funny idea: claiming that your computer (that you use for sending) does stuff that you don't even want it to do is perfectly reasonable. So even if you are caught sending through a free wi-fi network, you still have an alibi. Because there will indeed be a virus on this device, that also has the habit of sending out e-mail spam, but it is special in that you can control it. You can also justifiably deny doing so, since all the programs and data to do so (including your website contributions before being sent) are in a TrueCrypt-style partition with a full filesystem that is steganographically embedded in your personal library of self-made photos. Because these are your own photos (and you did not publish them anywhere!), nobody can claim that you steganographically modify them since they did not see them before.

But we need some more stuff: as spambots usually do, yours will auto-generate the spam e-mails you will send out, including many spelling errors, random input for changes to embedded images etc., "to pass the spam filters". But instead, these changes also allow you to add the steganographic input, which also will look just like random changes, so just like the spambot behavior. In reality, it is encrypted with a public key of the server from the website you contribute to, and as long as that private key keeps private, your alibi is safe. This is actually P2P encryption which we allowed above to be not broken. But even if it gets broken, you're still not caught by any means since you always use the free wi-fi for Internet access 🙂

The e-mails will travel to the server hosting the secret website (or to a P2P encryption connected, befriended server), with the alibi that it is also an e-mail server. The server will however claim that these e-mails are spam, and not forward them to its users. But of course, internally evaluate them to extract the payload data. The private key for doing that, and the whole "secret website" software has to be protected in the server, of course, and has to have "deniable existence". This is possible by, again, using steganographic storage of a TrueCrypt style partition, maybe in the image data of the "host website". When the server is physically accessed, it will quickly unmount that logical partition, delete the access key from its memory, and be just another normal webserver 🙂

Simplifications and optimizations

  • It is not needed to hack or infect a host site to use it for embedding another site. Just select one that allows anonymous image or video uploads. If doing so, it should however be a site where all the steganographic content is downloaded by regular users, too, so the steganographic users have an alibi. For example, a meme collection site that allows anonymous submissions and publishes daily updates is a good choice. Or a site that hosts pirated content or porn. This is much better than "infecting" sites and running a separate server for the steganographics. Since this way, no own server and no infected site can be taken down. All own software runs on the clients (which would have a little configuration file that selects what URLs to download for steganographic content, and which for cover, and a decryption key to access the extracted steganographic information. Depening on how far this key is shared, it becomes any software between steganographic 1:1 communciation or many-to-many communication.)
  • The important point is to make steganographic communication comfortable. Not like e-mail, but like a full forum, even with special features like calendars etc.. Only then one can organize social change with it. The way NNTP (Newsnet) works is a good paradigm: a desktop client software collects message / data packages from somewhere, and provides the frontend locally.
  • For anonymous posting on public wi-fi networks, maybe one can even use little quadrocopter or blimp drones, operating at night. During the day they would hide in some place not at your home, and in passing on your way to work etc. you would transfer the next set of data to upload to them.

In your twenties, you were a visionary. You wanted to learn it all, and fix it all. All the world.

Ever realized that you cannot do everything that is meaningful in your life? When you dedicate your life to help people with HIV, you can't go find a cure for HIV. Or find the quantum gravity model. Or develop sustainable government. Or find out and teach us all about the Transcendental and God (if you find there is God). Or clean up all the landmines. Or the ocean plastic. Or invent a fair-for-all mode for economic exchange. Or this. That.

Because your lifetime is limited.

And then you realize, it would be great to at least achieve one of these. And then you focus on that one.

And then you realize, you have neither time or money for even one of these meaningful contributions (… contributions to what, actually?). Because your parents might be old, needing your help. Or you made children, just like everyone else, and now have to care for them. Or you got fired from your job, the bank took your house, and now you're living in a tent. That you found in that garbage can. It's just a tarp actually. Or you get medical conditions, so you can be happy to make it through the day.

Because your lifetime is limited.

And then you realize, your life will pass and end as meaningless as everyone else's life. And life, what is life? It then seems like a meaningless aggregates of matter to you. You, yourself, just a bunch of atoms, with your conscience an unnecessary (and unpleasant) emergence of it.

And you start to enjoy that your lifetime is limited, not your limited lifetime.

Stop that.

Now, come back to your visions.

Just change one thing: it should be no longer your vision, now it's ours. Humanity's. We are all in our twenties again.

Everyone who has given up on seeking, and expecting to see, the abolition of greed, poverty and evil, and the introduction of immortality and freedom for all, has given up living while alive. Seek, and expect, again. Because now we seek, and expect, together. You were frustrated by your powerlessness as an individual. Now marvel at what seven billion can do. And what God will do, if there is a God, and seven billion seek him.

Yes, you should expect and seek God, because there might be God after all. But do not forget all the rest of what is good. Physical immortality. Good governance structures. Unextinction of animals. Desert forests. The Theory of Everything. Space colonization. So much before us!

Now what? It's all about how we organize. If your grandma cooks a simple healthy meal for scientists working on quantum gravity, she contributes. If you read news about political quarrels, visit touristic spots from your hard-earned surplus money, engage in any avoidable consumption, you do not.

Wake up, all of us!

The pieces are coming together already. Take note, organize yourselves, contribute. Some inspirations? Here you go:

And of course: Are we alone in the universe? What does it all mean? Are we sure about this? Why? Re-asking the big questions is probably one of our biggest challenged. Us modern folks got so used to the scientific storied of Big Bang, cosmic evolution, and biologic evolution. And now, scientific evolution comes along and puts to question the very concept of space-time. And with it, the existing notion of Big Bang.

Now, what?

This applies for example when you want to add a photovoltaics installation to your campervan, expedition vehicle, garden hut, off-grid house or similar. For having enough electricity year-round from photovoltaics alone, battery size and module size have to be properly dimensioned.

The best tool I found for this is the European Commission JRC's PV potential estimation utility. There, use the last tab "Stand-alone PV".

Note that that the tilting angle of the solar panels is important in winter. Differences of up to ca. 30° from the optimum have no large effect, but above that they get quite important. So having an angle of 0° (flat panels) while you should have an angle of 74° (Germany in winter for example) means you get only about 25% of the power you would get at a 74° angle. You can calculate the exact numbers for this with the SunAngle calculator.

This is my commentary on the analysis of monetary inflation and income development by Dr. Harald Wozniewski, as presented on kiwifo.de, especially on page "60 Jahre Währungsreform –
60 Jahre Geldmengenwachstum
".

Our task is first to determine the real inflation rate (not by means of a shopping basket, which is hedonically corrected etc.). This is simple: If the inflation rate grows only as much as the GDP, its speed of circulation stays the same, so also the "difficulty of aquiring money", so also the prices. Because, circulation speed is the ratio of GDP to money: Circulation speed of money = GDP / (M1 + cash). If this speed decreases, there is more money, and this means price inflation. This price inflation can however be hidden by the fact 

However, all this money is created by monetization: banks have securities in their books, and emit their own securities based on that, some of which (plus public bnonds) are accepted by the central bank. So other banks can borrow them, place them at the central bank, and get cash money delivered in return. So higher monetization is only an indicator of credit expansion (potentially made possible by wealth accumulation as goods, like real estate that banks can use as securities). But still, by allowing this increase of monetization, teh central bank allows the same amount of inflation. Which, minus the GDP growth, means the same devaluation of wages, which are paid in this money.

We see: Economic exclusion because of money scarcity does not happen because there's too little money in the system (teh opposite is the case). Instead, because this money is not paid as wages.

Measuring the GDP increase year by year, after deducting shopping-basket based inflation, measures efficiency gains, and in one sense this is indeed the growth of the economy: more wealth because of more efficient tech. These efficiency gains normally have to be forwarded to the workers by wage increases that are the same as GDP growth (to keep mass purchasing power). But what GDP change does not account for is, what proportion of this total wealth is available for purchase from a worker's income. This proportion steadily decreases because the monetary amount is more inflated than the GDP. In total, the "right of one EUR to a proportion of total GDP" has decreased by 74.3% from 1970 to 2012 [source, "Tabelle 2".U53]. Of course, the "right of 1% of total money amount to a proportion of total GDP" has not decreased, but to keep their income at the same proportion of the money amount, the income of workers would have to increase by the same amount as monetary inflation. Which it did not.

This does not mean that workers are now, in absolute terms, worse off than in the 70's: theres (1) profiting wealth accumulation because a house etc. can be used for decades, and (2) profiting from the increase of total wealth through advancement of technology. That's why German workers don't complain as much as they should. But in relative terms, they are much worse off: the entitlement from their monetary income to a proportion of the yearly produced total wealth ("GDP") in 2012 was only 25.7% of what it was in 1970.

This does however not necessarily mean that prices are four times higher than they should be if worker's would fare as well as in 1970 (or that workers would have to earn 4 times as much). It just means that, as they have less right to total wealth with their income, someone else has more right. But, as can be seen from the decrease of monetary circulation speed by 74.3% as well, they do not use that right, they just have it stored as money. Prices do not increase by monetary inflation automatically, but only if the circulation speed of the money decreases less than it is inflated. If those who have the addictional money would (could) use it as often as in the 1970's, that would of course lead to a fourfold price increase. But this is not even possible except as a one-time effect: their right to this money does not replenish as continually earned wages do (it only replenishes by interest), so the two cannot be compared easily.

So it is not justified from these findings of monetary inflation to say that workers don't earn their fair share (that may be found nonetheless from other arguments!). Instead, if anything, then the monetary inflation amount that is beyond real wage increase rate (which means 10%, as since the mid 90's there were no real wage increases) is a sum of money that is year by year distributed to "others" (banks, companies, privateers) while it should be distributed to the workers. This is for example 200 billion EUR from 20011 to 2012 [source, "Tabelle 2".M52-M53]. Distributed to 68.4 million adults in Germany (data form 2011-01), this would mean an added income of 2923 EUR yearly. Instead, it accumulates "somewhere else".

So what we have here is a phenomenon of wealth accumulation in money that was not there in earlier years. But since money is only a small part of a nation's accumulated wealth, it is by no means sufficient to look at monetary wealth accumulation alone to determine a problem with wealth accumulation in Germany. Instead, one has to look at total assets.

So, in my conclusions, the arguments by Dr. Harald Wozniewski are internally misguided. Still, lots of interesting figures to find there from which you may draw your own conclusions.

Hummingbird weathering the snow

First interview on this site – feels quite special 😉

This interview is with Gayane and Karine Akullian, two sisters from Barcelona, Spain, currently working on their latest book "Lucha" ("Struggle"). I like it a lot for being this fresh, out-of-the-box approach to the Spanish economic crisis: they focus on the personal, mental dimension of the problem and solution, while most everybody else tries to fix it at systems level (and fails, so far).

You can take a detailed look at the Akullian sisters' project at their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for "Struggle", and if you think their idea deserves some support they'd of course be happy if you send them some bucks. (This way, you can effectively pre-order their book as well!)

When I found out about this book and the authors' insights into the Spanish crisis' social dimension, I recognized the opportunity to get valuable input for setting up an alternative economy portal in Spain. (A project for which I actively seek collaborators for right now, myself providing the software development. The proposal is not online yet, but compare my earlier articles about the quite similar LRIS idea, on time banking currency, on Bitcoin, and experimental thoughts on creating undestructible economy and solving unemployment.)

So here are the interview questions I gave them – and I'm really grateful for their answers, which unveil surprising cultural facts, informing the design of alternative economy software for Spain.

Gayane and Karine – would you tell us a bit about your upcoming book  "Struggle"? How did you collect all the real-life content you will integrate in the storyline? What inspired you personally to explore the "psychologic dimension" of the Spanish crisis and the mental ways of coping with it?

Well, "STRUGGLE" pretends to be a psychological approach to the financial crisis Spain is living in. Spanish population is facing tough financial conditions and individuals find different ways to overcome the situation: some decide to struggle and think of a solution while others just give up, blame everyone except from themselves and reach extreme actions. This way, "STRUGGLE" will tell the traces of the crisis from its beginning up to now on 4 lives and how they manage to psychologically cope with it.

Working at a place where daily contact with hundreds of different people is a must, we’ve had the privilege to be front-line witnesses of the financial crisis consequences on Spanish population. Experiences, complaints, advices….anything we've been listening to as part of our routine for quite a long time immensely helped us, so we thought it could be useful to others as well. There are many people struggling to overcome this financially critical situation and others who just want to know a little bit more the insides of Spanish crisis. By writing down everything we’ve learned we have the intention to provide the information these people could be looking for.

By facing difficulties ourselves we came to realize that psychics and emotions are two of the most potential drivers on our lives and this is no different: in this case too, both are motors for us to move forward or stagnate where we are. You may think, what’s there so difficult to understand? Of course the sentence itself is easy, but to actually feel it is way more difficult and serious as it can change the course of events. That's the reason why we've decided to give a psychological approach to the issue.

What is your own mental approach to master the challenges that this crisis set before you? Or more specifically, what's the next step you want to learn on that way?

Only death has no remedy: I wouldn’t say we managed to be immune to the worldwide financial crisis, but it’s true we greatly eased our ways. We understood that if you’re falling into a deep and dark hole, you can stop the downfall holding on to something and then it’ll be in your hands to decide if going back up or keep going down. If you’ve already fallen to the bottom your only and obvious way will be going up. As we see it, nothing of this will be possible without the correct psychological approach.

From the impressions you have from talking with Spanish people about the crisis: Which people are generally open in their minds to try radical and new ideas for the economy and for making ends meet? Like cooperatives, consumption groups, emigrating? Which people are not, and what kind of thoughts, attitudes and circumstances hold them back?

I believe any person is open to radical changes and ideas depending on the seriousness of his or her situation. I can’t say Spain is any different from other countries around the globe: be it they have nothing to lose or a lot to invest, anyone who understands the value of a penny will be open to radical ideas, but there’s no average profile for people making the ends meet nor common ways to do so. It’s easier to say that if they are not against, then they are in favor of trying something new.

Maybe those who are against are a huge point to Spanish economic crisis; Spanish people are way too comfortable and this lifestyle stagnates Spanish economy compared to other countries. On the whole, I’d lie if I said Spanish population is characterized by the entrepreneur vibe.  The amount of young people, even up to their forties, whose only aspiration in life is to have a 1000€ per month salary working in a responsibility-free job or those that don’t recognize as work anything but what’s related to their careers or interests is alarming. What’s even more alarming is the amount of people in their late twenties that have yet to discover what a job is. This young comfortable generation is slowing down Spanish economic recovery as they are, in a great percentage, against radical ideas or changes no matter how harsh their financial situation could be. I myself can list acquaintances or friends that, having finished their careers and even majors, are offered work abroad in countries like the States or United Kingdom but reject those offers because it means a great effort to them to leave behind their lifestyles.

53% youth unemployment is a sad number in Spain. How do the young ones affected by unemployment cope with it, mentally and practically? They will use several approaches of course, but maybe you see a major approach / group attitude too?

Nowadays’ youth, used to the society our parents and grandparents built for us, is looking for the “perfect job” with the “perfect conditions” that “perfectly” meet its profession, which is obviously an almost non-existent situation. Used to the pre-crisis ways, youth finds it difficult to take on nowadays situation and in fact, many don’t even realize the seriousness of it. As I see it, many young people, employed and unemployed, have a distorted view of what this crisis really means due to the influence of media. This makes them take the wrong ways that in the long run cause them pessimistic perspectives in life. Some decide to stay home and live from their parents and unemployment benefits while others decide to take the streets and shout out their opinions and pleas. I believe that if even a small percentage of this youth decided to take another way, to open their minds to wider and more ambitious perspectives, to give up their conformist and comfortable lives for some time, to venture and look for ideas, the Spanish crisis would have a turning point.

What's the state of e-commerce / Internet shops in the Spanish culture? That is, how common is it to buy and sell there (for the young ones, for the older ones)? What are the issues that keep this from being more common (like trust issues maybe, or preferring to buy locally and from a real person)?

E-commerce full integration in Spain is just a matter of time. Buyers and sellers are realizing the lower costs that e-commerce is generating and therefore the great amount of money they are able to save without losing the comfort in their lives. The fact that Spanish people are rather traditional and at some point quite distrustful slows down fast e-commerce integration, but it doesn’t keep it from facing a remarkable presence in Spanish commercial interactions. Most of youth is getting used day by day to sell or buy what they need and want using e-commerce, while older people are still reluctant to do so.

Let's assume a "big new webshop portal" pops up in Spain where you can buy and offer goods for basic needs, all without Euro currency. Instead people would pay with a worktime-based currency, so that everybody can participate by investing time. But learning to use the site and new currency would need an effort, maybe somewhat more difficult than learning to use eBay and PayPal. What part of the Spanish population would use such a platform in the current economic situation?

Well, that’s a difficult question. It’s a great idea, so it would easily find followers, those who are not afraid of new ideas. Still, being this traditional, Spanish people usually find it difficult to change ways they already are used to, even if it would be beneficial for them. As an easy example would be Facebook; the integration of the huge social network in Spain took a much longer time compared to other countries as people here were already used to different sites with social interactions. While it’s true that if the idea is good then it will generate a users’ base for sure, it’s also a fact that Spanish people are used to take things slow and cool.

What regions in Spain would you consider the most promising ones for such an "alternative economy marketplace" on the Internet to gather a large user base in the population? And, do you think it would rather work in cities or in the countryside, or both?

With no doubt, northern regions, as well as Catalonia and Madrid, are the ones that have what it takes to be immersed in an alternative economy marketplace as we’re talking about the economic motors of Spain. In regard to the second question, it would rather work in cities as the countryside has a low percentage of youth and Internet users in general.

What is the Spanish culture about mutual credit between friends, family members or long-term business partners? Esp., how do young people deal with this? For example, can it be o.k. to owe a sum of money / worktime etc. to a friend, or do Spaniards try hard to avoid formalizing / quantifying such things and rather just want it to be considered a favor for a friend?
(Note: The question's background is that debt between mutually trusting people is a requirement for some alternative currency systems, which are based on "IOU" notes ("I owe you"). Also I know I'm generalizing a lot here … there is of course not an average mindset or culture but a lot of diversity.)

You’re right; it’s difficult to make a generalization on an average mindset regarding this issue. The tendency is rather a taboo and people are very discrete about it. As far as I’ve seen, Spanish people are reluctant to lend money even if it’s to family or friends but when they do, they never take it as a favor and the tendency is rather to constantly remind that there’s a debt between the parties. But, as I said before, Spanish people are very discrete about everything that has to do with money and even more if it’s related to lending money so it’s really hard to say an average mindset.

My heartfelt thanks for this interview, you two! Wish you the best of success and a good time for finishing "Struggle".

Hummingbird image licenced CC-BY-SA 2.0, based on image by Darcys which was published on Flickr under CC-BY-SA 2.0.
Flower image licenced CC-BY, based on image by Nanagyei which was published on Flickr under CC-BY.

Disclaimer due to legal implications: The following is not to be understood as legal or tax advice. I just document what I found out by my own research for myself, not intending that you try to do it likewise. There is no warranty for adequacy, correctness, or anything else.

As a practicioner of a voluntary simplicity lifestyle (and yes, I love tech), I am troubled with the German health insurance legislation. Self-employed people like me pay public health insurance fees for a so-called "fictional minimum income" even if they don't earn that or (like me) don't even want to earn that. So my propoportional pay for health insurance was way higher than the regular percentage. I have to do something about this, and here's the list of possible solutions I found. It's a complex issue, like everything in German society laugh

The problem for self-employed people really started in 2009-01-01, when a law came into effect that required plain everybody living in Germany to have health insurance [§ 193 Abs. 3 S. 1 VVG], which depending on ones job type and status would be public or private health insurance [source]. Simply having no health insurance is no longer possible – you can only cancel health insurance when showing that you just switch the insurer, and an insurer will require you to also pay aftwerwards for your uninsured times when taking you in.

The problem gets even more severe because the public health insurers have a rigid and merciless scheme of encashment, some essentially threatening legal enforcement when being 9 days behind the payment's due date, and even sending toll collectors for seizing. They tell such people they can always apply to German Jobcenter for the Hartz IV public benefit money, but as you all know, your life (life quality) is over once you enter into that … . So this kind of health insurance is essentially a humiliating and stressing experience, which is another reason why I find ways to work around this.

Normal health-insurance fees for self-employed in Germany

The normal fees for self-employed persons, from 2015 on, are:

  • 14.6% normal health insurance rate
  • + 0.9% additional health insurance rate (de: "Zusatzbeitrag") – in principle charging this or not can differ between health insurers based on competition, but in reality it does rather not …
  • + 2.35% for old-age care insurance [source]; was 2.05% in 2014
  • + 0.25% for old-age care insurance when not having children [source]
  • = 18.1%

When being self-employed, they have to be paid from a fictional minimum income of at least 1417.50 EUR as of 2015, even if not making that (so called "Mindestbemessungsgrundlade", earlier called "fiktives Mindesteinkommen" or "virtual minimum income", regulated in SGB V §240 (4); you calculate it for every year as 0.5 × Monatliche Bezugsgröße, using the value for West Germany). And even this is a variant "for self-employed persons in need". This fictional minimum income tends to be increased by 40-50 EUR a year, or about 3%: much higher than current inflation or wage increase, making the situation even worse year by year. Now on to solutions:

Ways to reduce health-insurance fees for self-employed in Germany

As of 2014-11, sorted by adequacy, the best solution first.

  1. Side-job self-employment without main job. As of 2015, this results in health insurance and old-age care insurance minimum fees of (combined) 171.05 EUR/month (calculated as 945 EUR × 0.181, which assumes the 0.9% Zusatzbeitrag and a childless person). It is the same rate as for all other "voluntary" members of German public health insurance, which is a way to look up the current fee for this category, which is often not published elsewhere. The 945 EUR is the "virtual minimum income", itself calculated as (1/3) × Monatliche Bezugsgröße [source], in 2015: (1/3) × 2835 EUR = 945 EUR. When exceeding this virtual minimum income (also called "Allgemeine Mindestbemessungsgrundlage" – source), the insurance fees increase proportionally.
      Since a change in the self-imposed rules of health insurers ("Gemeinsames Rundschreiben der Träger der gesetzlichen Sozialversicherung vom 11.06.2013: Grundsätzliche Hinweise zum Begriff der hauptberuflich selbstständigen Tätigkeit") to determine the self-employment status of people, which became effective 2013-07-01, this setup is quite simple and reliably to achieve and is the preferred option.
      This status and fee is granted if the self-employment is not considered as ones main job. As per the new rules, this requires a second major source of income that is at least 83.33% (100 of 120 parts) of the income from self-employment [source, section 3.2.3]. This figure is however just for orientation, so it's better to err on the safe side and have a second source of income that is larger than ones income from self-employment – which we'll use below. The simplest and safest way to prove such a second source of income is if it is contained in ones income tax statement under "other income". So if possible with no or minimal income tax implications, it makes sense to "voluntarily" list all other sources of income in ones income tax declaration, even if not required as they are income tax exempt (like fees below the 720 EUR honorary office exemption limit, profit from Bitcoin speculation after a holding period of a year etc.). In addition, ones income from self-employment should not exceed 673.75 monthly (25% of monatliche Bezugsgrößesource) if taking >30 hours weekly, or more relaxed values for less time invested, or else the health insurer will regularly assume that ones self-employment is the main source of ones income. This can be challenged as per these rules (section 3.2.3) by proving that ones second source of income is the major one, but again, it's simpler and better to err on the safe side.
      Now how to have that "major source of income" beyond your self-employment? Here are some creative options, and there are many more:

     

     

    • Donations for private projects. This is quite a wild construction, but sounds reasonable to me. Here is how it works: if you do a non-commercial hobby project, making carefully sure that it does not make a gain, this is not a company, but a private project. So if you collect donations for this, for example via crowdfunding, they are private income, to be stated under "other income" in your income tax statement. You just have to make sure that you don't profit personally (by buying food etc.), as that would make the project profit oriented, part of your company. Use all the donations for the project itself, and collect receipts to prove it. It is not difficult to collect a few thousand Euros a year in donations for a project with collective benefits that you would have liked to work on anyway. Think open source, open content, open hardare etc.. Even better, since in-kind donations have to be stated with their monetary value in an income tax statement, you can also use moneyless crowdfunding (like on Makerfox). Collecting donations in-kind should be even much simpler than collecting monetary donations, as money is always scarce for the 99%. In effect, you would add donation income on top of your monetary income, and the effect is both reducing your health insurance, increasing your spendable monetary income, and enabling you to work on what you love to do anyway (with the donations).
    • Profit from private sales. As a solo entrepreneur, it is still possible to sell private goods at the same time, also with a profit [source]. It must be in the scale of private wealh management, not a professional activity itself though. Profit from this would be stated in the "other income" section of your income tax statement, and that is what we want. See Wikipedia on Privates Veräußerungsgeschäft for details. To increase your "other income", you may want to report even profits that are income exempt due to a holding period of a year or longer (of your Bitcoins etc.). The benefit with here is that one can realize any desirable amount of gain on demand, depending on how much other income one needs, and under the condition that one holds profitable assets.
    • Honorary office fees offset by donations. I did not fully think this through, but there is an option (called Aufwandsspende) how people in a honorary office can make donations from what they would be entitled to get (expense remuneration, honorary office fee etc.). So no money has to flow, as it increases your income and your expenses at the same time, but the recipient organization legally must have the liquidity to pay the fees. The expenses are even tax-deductible donations up to 20% of the stated income.
    • Personal gifts. This is quite an elegany solution if you know a donor 🙂 Because donations have high income tax exemption limits [source] and would be in your "other income" section. They must be unconnected to your business activity, of course, and not require something in compensation from you. (So unfortunately, it is not legally permissive to agree to "gift back" every other year.)
    • Mini job. A mini job (≤450 EUR/month) does not come with its own health insurance, but can still serve as your other major sourcee of income to prove that your self-employment is not your main job.
    • Spouse's income. [source, example]
    • Housewife as a job. Stating that ones main job is "housewife" [discussion]. It would be quite similar to stating that ones other major income is support from ones spouse.
    • Credit. A credit from somebody; just an unproven wild idea though.
    • Proof by necessity. Or maybe you can try to explain to your insurer that you get these by getting non-cash benefits from friends and relatives or other supporters (like free food & stay for volunteer services) or that you get these means of subsistence by being modest and forgoing them – just say that they have to assume that the majority of means has to come from another source because nobody can live from what you live 😉 But that's just a wild guess, you'd have to try.
    • Grants, awards, prize money. This is not a workable option because: all grants, award and prize money that are connected to what you do professionally as a self-employed person have to be entered into your income tax statement as business turnover [source]. So they won't appear under "other income". Only if the award is paid for ones personality, it would be non-business income. But for example all awards that have an application process are usually assumed to be connected to professional activity [source]. So they are income-taxable business income even though most awards are not VAT taxable [source].
  2. Go abroad and use a travel health insurance. For this to work, it seems one has to leave the European Union and also cannot go to several other countries with which Germany has some health insurance related association agreement. Because when staying there and still having the regular residence inside Germany, one still has to pay German health insurance fees and will not be "let out" of German compulsory health insurance. The list of the countries where such an agreement exists is here – it is for pensioners' health insurance, but probably applies also to other cases (to be confirmed, though).
  3. Emigrate to a country with a national health system. This simply means, go abroad and also have your registered permanent residence there abroad. Then, one has nothing to do any more with the German health insurance system, instead paying into the one at ones location. And by selecting a country with a national (that is, tax subsidized) health system, this is much cheaper. For example, Italy or UK. It can be a bit complicated still to leave German compulsory health insurance since you will have to show a follow-up insurance (b/c you still reside in the EU) and the new insurance may require a confirmation of canceling your old one (which you cannot get before getting the new one …), but it can be worked out somwhow.
  4. Foreign national health insurance while in Germany. This is possible if that public or private foreign health insurance covers your medical needs while you are in Germany. Because then, you have fulfilled the need to have a health insurance within Germany.
  5. Foreign national health insurance abroad. This may be a public or private insurance scheme. Some countries like Spain have astonishing low fees for private health insurance, compared to German levels.
  6. Midi-job plus mini-job plus side-job self-employment. This is the ultimate way of low health insurance fees when living inside Germany and being self-employed. Namely, for 7.6% of 450.01 EUR (which is the employee's part of the 14.9% rate without sick pay). Which is 34.20 EUR per month, and the employer will pay approx. the same again. The monthly earnings possible with this scheme are: ca. 412 EUR net income from the midi job (2013 numbers), 400 EUR net income from the mini job, and 800 EUR net income from side-job self-employment. Because if your self-employment is a side job, you don't have to pay health insurance for that part of your work, but for your midi job employment instead. The incom from self-employment is calculated from a yearly average, and only 18 hours per week of worktime are allowed for it to be a side job (to-do: source for this).
  7. Employee job plus side-job self-employment. As an employee, you pay no additional health-insurance fee at all for a side-job self-employment (see however the conditions for this above). So in most cases, this will result in lower total fees, even when including the other social security fees you'll pay then.
  8. Self-employed with bulking up by public benefits ("Aufstocker"). This is done by approx. 1.4 million people in Germany, see Wikipedia on Aufstocker. In general, public benefits will bulk up what people do not earn in a month to secure their minimum for existence. It can include to have the health insurance paid by the state benefits, and in pratice can be a kind of "unconditional basic income". But like all kinds of public benefits, this is really the last variant to choose.
  9. Self-employed person "in need". In German, "bedürftiger Selbständiger". Self-employment can be your main job then. This rate is the one I mentioned above: 14.9% of 1347.50 EUR virtual minimum income for health insurance, 2.3% of that for pension care insurance. Taken together, ca. 232 EUR as of 2013. This rate was introduced 2007-04-01, and was a progress at that time as before that the minimum fee was about 300 EUR.
  10. Sue the government for the law that calculates health insurance fee based on a virtual minimum income. You'd sue against SGB V §240 (4). This has, in my view, no or very little chance for success because this case was basically decided by the highest court in Germany (BVerfG) in their decision of 2001-05-22 – 1 BvL 4/96. I read through that court decision, and newer changes in law seem to not affect their reasoning.

Time-series combination of these solutions: The most flexible way is, of course, to use the solution from the above list that is most adequaate for you at any given time. Note that you can switch between rates of the same public health insurer as often as you like – switching insurers is only possible every 18 months though.

Keywords (for Germans serarching in German): Krankenversicherung als Selbständiger, Krankenversicherung nebenberuflich selbständig, günstige Krankenversicherung selbständig