The Property Tax of Trinidad and Tobago: Privacy

Property Taxes IconWith all the media coverage on the new (2017) Property Tax here in Trinidad and Tobago, it’s hard to pick one article out of all of them to get a cohesive idea of what it is. In fact, most of the articles I’ve seen have been devoid of facts and full of opinions – let’s just say that there is a communications issue.

Frankly, if the roll-out had been done with better communication, it would have been less the political football it has become.

I own property – a fair amount – and people know this, so they ask me about it. My land is agricultural, so the new tax is almost straightforward for me. Almost.

But who reads these forms? Who has access to these forms? With people being asked to take pictures of their property and give personal details, one of the main questions I have heard from more moderate voices revolves around privacy.

And there are privacy issues to consider with crime as endemic as the common cold, and allegations in foreign news:

A project that Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad in 2013 brings all the elements in this story together. Just as Robert Mercer began his negotiations with SCL boss Alexander Nix about an acquisition, SCL was retained by several government ministers in Trinidad and Tobago. The brief involved developing a micro-targeting programme for the governing party of the time. And AggregateIQ – the same company involved in delivering Brexit for Vote Leave – was brought in to build the targeting platform.

David said: “The standard SCL/CA method is that you get a government contract from the ruling party. And this pays for the political work. So, it’s often some bullshit health project that’s just a cover for getting the minister re-elected. But in this case, our government contacts were with Trinidad’s national security council.”

The security work was to be the prize for the political work. Documents seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.

“The plan put to the minister was Minority Report. It was pre-crime…

The sole local article I saw on that was hereI admit I don’t read the local newspapers too much, so I might have missed a few other articles. 

Now, being sensible and intelligent, you’ll ask me how this all ties in to the question of privacy as related to the property tax information being voluntarily sent in. That quote isn’t about the reported 105 warrants to intercept communications with 1 arrest (Less than 1% success if you bother with math). We’re talking about other stuff.

We all know that there are issues with corruption – such as the open secret of passing bribes in the Licensing Office. Anyone who lives in Trinidad and Tobago knows that there is rampant corruption in government – which, to my understanding, happens to be the largest employer in the country. And if they can’t even pay their people, when there are meetings about not purchasing toilet paper, you have a security risk. You have a privacy risk.

The privacy is a legitimate concern. Who has access to this information? How will it be used in other ways? Who is speaking to the populace being comfortable about that?

Certainly, I understand that the government needs to build it’s data – the log books of old would take decades to computerize, and I do applaud the genius of crowd-sourcing from the populace… but… privacy.

I’m of low confidence.

And that’s the press of this entry.

A little ad lib below.

Some Personal Notes On The Property Tax.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of a property tax where one can forfeit property if one doesn’t pay it for 5 years. It’s a de facto tenancy to the State at that point, and I think that’s wrong. People pay stamp duty when they purchase, and many other taxes are levied.
However.
I also don’t like speed limits as they are in Trinidad and Tobago, but if I break them I get a ticket, so I obey them. I don’t agree to a lot of silly laws, but I also understand that a society of laws is necessary. I don’t have to like them.
I bring this up because a lot of people are saying that people shouldn’t submit their forms, particularly in grassroots meetings. It’s a matter of Civil Disobedience, I suppose, and I doubt that few people who are considering it know the story of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – about how he didn’t believe in the Church tax, and how he was thrown in jail. What many people tend to overlook is that he only got out of jail because someone came by and paid his Church tax for him.
I will not advise anyone to take this course of action. If the person or people advising you to do this will pay the $500 fine you’ll get for not submitting… well, you decide. It is the Law.

The Human Factor: Tangible Results

Mas allá de lo tangibleOne of the issues I faced across the decades of my professional and private technology endeavors has been, simply put, the amount of intangible there was.

A visit from my father in the late 1990s saw him proud of what I was accomplishing, but he had really little idea of what I was doing. He was of the electro-mechanical engineering sphere, a meshing of the arcane art of visualizing the magnetic fields of motors and the results that they churned out, physically. He enjoyed the recliner, the space in my apartment, and the ability to watch a flat screen in any room he was in – he appreciated the rewards of my work but not the work itself. Later, when he saw me strip myself of those ‘rewards’, he had no idea what I was doing even when I was getting media attention.

The human factor of sharing any achievements is difficult enough given the shifting sands of technology and the ability to comprehend them to understand the achievements. Dealing with things covered with Non-disclosure agreements, non-compete agreements, trade secrets and so forth creates a divide between people one doesn’t work with – sometimes unbridgeable. The idea of being the keeper of secrets is a romantic notion when it can be pretty tragic. I know I lost a few girlfriends to my being lost in thought about something that we could not communicate about. Call it a personality flaw. Mine. I live what I’m doing and employers and businesses loved me for it.

And then there’s the disconnect within a business, where the tangible results are misted by horrid implementations of the Agile processes. It’s why I prefer a more DevOps methodology. In the latter, there are tangible results with Operations, who are part of the process.

There is no complaint in any of that, simply a statement of fact. I bring this up because in comparing my battling the Trinidad Roseau versus Software Cost Estimation.  On one hand, I have tangible results that I can write about and share with others, and on the other hand I am writing about how developers can’t properly estimate given the effective silos in a company that keep them from being a true part of the larger project. This is where startups are awesome to work with.

Everyone has a balance. Some people can balance these things better than I can, some people cannot balance them at all – at points, I balanced them well – but life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

But I do think that Software Engineers and others in Information Technology deserve more in the way of expressing tangible results not just to others, but for themselves.

On Software Cost Estimation

University of Maryland and Sourcefire Announce New Cybersecurity PartnershipA recent video had me considering the problems of software engineering cost estimation – something that has plagued software engineering. It has also plagued people who think software engineering is just coding because, frankly, they’re idiots.

Since I’m out of the industry – by my choice and on my terms – I can now tackle some topics and speak my mind more freely without worry of repercussions when it comes to the next contract, or the next job.

The video is, “How To Price Design Services“, and I’ll embed it at the end of this post.

Now, when it comes to software cost estimation, we start off by gathering requirements. We come up with a design, or alternative designs, built on architectures and technologies that may be new or not, that a company might have the resources to do or not, etc. Some people call this ‘discovery’. Based on what is found in discovery, an estimate is done by reading tea leaves, a magic 8 ball, estimates of coders, and perhaps killing a gluten-free chicken and reading it’s entrails. That’s about as scientific as most people do it.

And how does one get the estimates? As a software engineer over the decades, I know an estimate given by someone writing code (not necessarily a software engineer) is:

  • based on assumptions based on the documented or communicated (mistake 1) information that leads to assumptions (mistake 2).
  • based on their skill level and experience, as well as innate ability.
  • dependent on how much pressure is applied to them, with different thresholds for different individuals.
  • usually wrong.
  • never tied to the value for the company.

Now, I’m not saying that the value of a project for the company should be the estimate – far from it, that’s just not how business works. But let’s talk about profitability – immediate and recurring.

The immediate profit usually doesn’t work out unless a marketing department is brilliant, or there is a monopoly, or both. So it’s about recurring profit. How much would be expected as a return withing – oh, let’s say – 6 months?

The point is that there is a value associated with the project that is rarely communicated to the development team, which is usually – hopefully – smart enough to pick this apart. And the people asking for the project almost never want to let the development team know the value that they’re contributing because those salaried employees will want more money.

Meanwhile, every software project encounters problems because of technology changes, changes on the development team (a problem of poor hiring or poor retention policy), requirements creep (‘someone in the sales department just had a great idea!’), design flaws (they happen), architecture problems and…. well, just about everything.

The main problem with all of this is that estimates simply aren’t accurate – which, actually, is exactly what they are supposed to be. An estimate is never accurate. It approximates, and people don’t get fired too often off of teams because of their coding abilities, but because of their or someone else’s estimation abilities.

There is a point here. That point is that the development team is only as invested in the project as the business team and management permits them to be – and if they’re better invested… productivity will increase and there will also be more careful and thoughtful estimates.

Now, does ‘invested’ mean ‘more money’? Sometimes. Free gummi bears and a gym might work in Silicon Valley, but they also make a metric buttload more money than a development team in – oh, let’s say Orlando, Florida. No, that ‘incentive’ is to get people to stay physically in place in a brick and mortar establishment which, sadly, is still the norm. But they don’t actually make people tweak that bit of code just a little more efficiently. You don’t toss gummi worms at developers and they prance around.

It’s about being vested. And that’s the core problem of cost estimation – the developers are given a black box to fill with little to no actual information from the business.

Oh. That video:

Speaking In Tongues To Recruiters.

Grim JoyRecruiters still reach out to me. To be fair, my digital shadow is still on numerous job sites, and I should endeavor to clean that up so that I no longer get their emails, but even where it is cleaned up I still get recruiters contacting me.

You see, despite what you might see as a grim appearance, I am content. I did my time in the Code Mines, in meetings where mediocrity ran supreme, talking to bosses more interested in the shiny than the needed infrastructure. I have tales I might write as I laugh about how I seem to have traded my time and frustration for the pittances paid me and the insulting raises.

Despite my description, I’m not bitter. That’s on me. That was the mistake of my youth.

And if these recruiters warrant a response, if they pique my interest enough for me to take a look at what they have to offer me, I imagine them reading it and wondering whether I’m sane. That they might stare at their monitor and wonder who gave them such a response. The odds are better that they don’t even read it and just scan it, so I toss in keywords like ‘telecommuting’ and ‘part-time’ so that they know where to file it.

In their minds, I suppose, I’m an alien. A layperson in sociology might consider me a GenXer tired of a world that didn’t reward despite my experience and abilities, often overshadowed by the more passionate and sometimes even smarter kids growing up – but being ‘smarter’ or more passionate doesn’t bring the real world experience needed for good projects. In fact, more often than not, it results in failures that bleed a company or have catastrophic results. For me, it’s often akin to watching a bus being steered off a bridge all while you’re shouting from the back, “No, no, no!”

Life is funny that way, and I thank every company I’ve worked for and with for that. Those experiences proved to me that I’m not an idiot; they proved to me that I could do better, and in some instances – few but there – I was completely wrong and learned those lessons. Lessons I paid for with my time, with my health, with my youth.

I cannot get my youth back, but I can keep my time and better my health. If I don’t have to sit behind a desk 14 hours a day fixing other people’s messes, I find my health improves significantly. Life is funny that way.

Now my time is worth more to me. This is alien to recruiters, those people who broker careers on commission, and companies that think that they’re all going to save the world. A word to those aspiring to be wise: Your company won’t save the world. You won’t save the world. It might change things, and maybe things will be better because of your efforts. Maybe.

If you want my time or help, it’s now on my terms. And that’s just alien to recruiters, particularly when there are people who would jump at what they think are opportunities – and which well could be for other people.

I didn’t apply for that jobs the recruiters are writing me about. I have my life to do, and if your problem is interesting enough and you meet my basic requirements, I might help you out.

Tech, Bureaucracy, and the Humans

In my sojourns, I came across someone who had worked with Social Services in Siparia, Trinidad and Tobago, and took the opportunity to hear some of their experiences. In my world, I connect with people of all types in society, and there is much to be learned from that.

He tells me an old woman made him cry. It’s a very human story, where the children abandoned the mother, but the meat for this post is in the beginning of the story, where he lays the context:

“Every year pensioners have to come in and sign a document to show that they’re not dead.”, he said.

I looked at him, appreciating what he said and how he said it – how silly it is. I smiled.

“No, really, that’s the only reason that these people have to come in. To show that they’re not dead.”

I got it the first time, which he wasn’t used to, but here’s why that is something I had to smile at and why he felt he needed to repeat himself: Within the last decade, births and deaths – it’s buried in some Ministry somewhere, I don’t really care which – became computerized, and they’ve been busy updating birth certificates to the point where the populace is a bit tired of having to go get an updated document from Births and Deaths.

So that information exists in computer readable form in one tendril of the vast bureaucracy. Yet, somehow, it is not connected to the pensioner’s information. Now, people do have to go in and sign because others had been collecting pensions for the dead, so now someone has to wander in and prove that they are still alive. “I’m here! I’m breathing! Here’s my signature!”

But the data could be connected. It could allow the pensioners to stay home, and if there are questions, why not go to them? Having recently dealt with the death of someone close to me who was a pensioner and having seen what her son went through, it seems peculiar that we need to torture the old and the weak to prove that they still get a payment deposited to their account. There are so many ways to deal with that.

It’s these little things that technology, properly done, could help with. It’s these little things that technology doesn’t in Trinidad and Tobago.

Maybe privatization is the way to go to make things more human, but then with corruption and poor analyses of what actually exists, who is to say that it would get done? Therein lies the rub.

Given the opportunity, I’m sure that people could fix that. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see silly little things like that fixed. Pensioners are already on the downhill slope, why subject them to a gauntlet of 1,000 papercuts?

A Few Thoughts on the techAgri Expo 2017

Given my return to Trinidad and Tobago, which my last post gave some context to, and the fact that I own agricultural land in Trinidad and Tobago, I went to the UWI techAgri Expo armed with my decades of experience as a software engineer, years of experience dealing with land, and my own trials and tribulations at growing things not just on my land, but over the years. I had good counsel on the latter from established farmers in Trinidad and Tobago, but I am not an expert.

I purposefully left my camera behind. People treat you differently when you have a camera, and I wasn’t going as some sort of media person or pretending to be. I was going for information. I didn’t need a camera for that.

Generally, I thought it was worthwhile. One person I know remarked that it was more like a bazaar in that people were selling things – I see that as a factor of any expo to get foot traffic. Another criticism is that the students didn’t have all the answers to the questions asked, but a quick analysis of that criticism reveals an unrealistic expectation in the critic. They are students, after all. Someone said that it could have been held inside, but then, what of all the plants? So, personally, I dismissed a lot of the criticisms.

The farming equipment was plainly visible. Children packed into the tractors for photo opportunities, and every now and then people would inquire about prices. Plants galore – the savanna was alive with plants, and there were many people leaving with plants.

I bumped into the tent where they had information on the apps – things like Maps.tt I would find an immediate benefit from, and their land suitability app looks promising. The AgriDiagnose Mobile App also looked very useful. The data from NAMDEVCO could be useful, but in it’s present forms it’s not too useful for people planning to do things – more on that later. A brief chat with Dr. Bernard showed we knew some of the same people.

Moving on, I came across rabbits at the UWI Faculty of Food and Agriculture University Field Station – dealing with academia must be a preparation for long German – and I saw rabbits and agouti. There were signs about entrepreneurship behind these creatures imprisoned in their cages, so I asked around about the market for them. They had no idea. They had no idea where to find such information. Well, they were students, so no need to be hard on them.

Continuing my walk, I had some interesting conversations with some international folk, a few criticisms from staff about getting interdepartmental assistance for some things (a few people knew me and the criticisms were more specific, but I know the unpleasant frustration of academic silos), and I came across a business that was marketing rabbit meat.

Well, here we are. They’ll have answers. So I spoke with them about the market for rabbit meat and rabbits in general, and as expected, it wasn’t exactly a high demand market. It’s not as if I see ‘rabbit roti’ on the roti shop walls. It’s more of an exotic market, and more for pets than pots. Completely understandable and expected, so I thanked the lady for her candor and moved on.

The Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) was interesting, though I’m not sure that it was all accurate. They advertise great interest rates for agricultural and aquaculture projects, but when I spoke about the specifics of things I was looking at doing, I asked about whether I should split some land off for collateral and repeatedly told I didn’t need to do that. That seems peculiar. Established farmers I know have criticized the ADB in that while their interest rates seem low, with all the fees one ends up paying, it’s effectively the same as banks with higher advertised interest rates. An after discussion with someone who knows more about interests rates revealed the 3-5% was effectively around 8-9%, but that advertised bank rates at 8% were closer to 14% in reality.

So, the ADB didn’t really sell me on anything in the end.
I was finding holes. Opportunities. Flaws in the bureaucracy, as there always are and always will be.

The rest of the expo was as informative to me on aquaculture, agriculture, potential markets.

Try Cafe Vega. They had a stall. I met Dr. Floyd Homer, and we talked about beans and all sorts of things. How could I pass up a cup of local coffee? Good stuff.

The NAMDEVCO Data

The thing that jumped out at me most was market data.  What’s published is Open Data – it’s one of the founding principles, it seems, but it’s not as open as you would think. If you take a look at the data available from NAMDEVCO, it gives you averages of monthly data over the years (starting in December 2016), but it doesn’t show you volatility. It is lacking, and part of that may be that NAMDEVCO simply wasn’t designed for it – or the people who want to do it are getting crushed by the gears of bureaucracy (been there, done that), or it simply hasn’t entered into people’s minds.

But I’ve spoken to farmers. One successful farmer revealed his success one time with cabbage, being able to buy a car for cash after reaping one cabbage crop. That’s an outlier. So there is volatility in these markets that farmers have to be able to plan for. Granted, the app that shows the immediate prices is good, but if you’re getting into a market, you want more data. It is there at the link, but it has to be hand typed in from the images in the monthly PDFs to get what you want… when I tried the contact link on their website, I was greeted by a configuration error. So I can’t really tell them about the error, now can I? Try it. Maybe they’ll fix it. Let me know.

In all, I think my only real criticism of the techAgri expo is that I wish it were more helpful to me – but that’s not so much on them. I’m a demanding person when it comes to information, and I know how to deal with Big Data – something lacking around Trinidad and Tobago, really – and my criticism is more of an identification of opportunities for myself and others. There is further analysis that can be done, and there are opportunities that you can find… if you have the gift of seeing what doesn’t exist yet.

A Walk Down High Street.

It was a walk to see what had changed, to see if I could get a few things I needed. It was a walk to reconnect me with something that I felt I should reconnect with. My feet had pummeled there throughout the 1980s, when I often wore the Presentation College uniform. It was where I went into every business to try to sell advertising for my father’s ‘Trini Trader’ magazine, or to do things for the printery, or to desperately check for the latest computer magazines at Victor Manhin’s, long gone.

It was where I haunted when I ‘broke biche’, playing hookie in my last few years at Presentation College, hiding in an amazingly small coffee shop you would not know was there unless someone told you – to either meet with skirts of both shades of blue, or to read. It was where I hiked down to the old Muscle Connection Gym to work out and to later get my free Tandoori chicken meal at Tara’s Kitchen in Carlton Center. I paid for neither, having bartered for the first and earned the last through friendship.

Of course, most of it was gone, as the old dustbins that used to be were. I hadn’t walked down in that area for close to a decade. I was surprised to find it more clean than it had been, though it was still dirty. Library Corner no longer had the library. A facade in front of the old Library would have made me worry that it would suffer the same problems of the Red House, but on the way I had seen where it was relocated. A mental note to swing in there sometime.

A walk down the street saw me looking for the sports store that was no longer there, saw me heading down to look at shoes to replace the tired old running shoes I had – these were 10 years old, detritus from my last period of life in Trinidad, not looking worn but the bounce of the sole lost in time like the bounce of so many souls. I shopped around, toward the bottom of High Street, seeing all manner of shoes costing thousands of dollars that I would never be seen in public with. Gaudy. Eye catching colors. A culture I shunned in footwear and in most other things, preferring to remain as unnoticed as possible on the streets where I always stood out anyway. “The Professor”, as they called me back then on the Coffee and the Carib, liked to blend in but somehow always stood out. Damn it.

One store I was ushered into had me go down some stairs, into a basement that reeked of mold. Where there’s mold, there’s compromised inventory. To the credit of their honesty, they didn’t even try to cover the smell – maybe the product of having tried and failed over time. To their credit, they had their display shoes in clear plastic bags that had seen much reuse. But the scent. I have seen what mold does to shoes. To walls. How it secretes itself insidiously on everything. And then I remembered this plaza for the work my father had done on their electrical. I remembered the owner, who I am certain has not changed.

I was permitted an opening as the worker spoke with someone else very seriously about why their shoes were better priced than anything else in the area – but the price for the shoes I would put on my feet was still higher than what I saw in Detour. I went back to Detour, stood by the shoes and was attended briefly, they brought the shoes down and I purchased them without hesitation – 25% of the price of the majority of the shoes, 20% lower than comparable shoes where I saw them. The Syrian gentleman smiled slightly at this; he had seen me there 10 minutes earlier, he had seen what I did, and he also saw that I immediately put the new Nikes on and tossed the others, leaving them with box and bag.

Hands swinging.

I walked up further, finding new spaces where old ones were. The sidewalk was the same. The street smelled the same – that odor of dry season dust with the occasion of stale urine. No one talks about that pungent aroma in cities when they say that they love them. New York. Orlando. Dallas. Honolulu. Panama. Managua. Port of Spain. San Fernando. The list goes on about which brochures should have scratch and sniff photos.

Or the smell of the casual vagrant. That lurid smell of sweat upon layers of sweat, a topology on the sinuses not easily forgotten.

A new book store. A casual conversation revealed why there were only books marketed to women (read: romance) on the shelves, though it was spared 50 Shades of Bad Writing by the Muslim owner. Another bookstore I frequented with it’s meager selection poorly laid out so it seemed like they had more of a variety.

I stopped in one store, saw an old school friend who worked there and we chatted. Caught up.

I left High Street, striding home in new shoes and old memories, thinking as I kept an eye on the shadows near my own and the sound of footfalls behind me – a habit over the years. I thought about how big High Street had been for me in the 1980s, and how small it seemed now.

When I was younger, it was a window to the world. Thriving. Knowledge I craved was pooled in bookstores that no longer exist. The street had become smaller not because I had gotten larger, but because it was a window into what could sell in a country where the buying power of the average citizen limited choices of what businesses could bring in and make a profit from. The only local thing was a side stall of leather belts and sandals, a throwback to a forgotten age when Medford Gas Station was at the bottom of High Street.

The walk told me what I already knew. San Fernando had changed but not grown, just as the rest of Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps it was the error of my younger eyes to have seen so much potential.