The Flashing Blue Lights of Trinidad and Tobago

Squad Car @ The Bridge
Police car at night in Titusville, Florida, published under a Creative Commons License by Flickr user GunnerVV

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) having their flashing blue lights on all the time. Be it simply being on patrol or running to Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch, the lights are strobing, day or night.

You can always tell when the police are coming. Always.

Meanwhile, in other countries, I’ve noted that there are different response codes that demonstrate different levels of visibility. Using the United States as an example:

    • Code 1: No lights, no siren.
    • Code 2: Lights, no siren.
    • Code 3: Lights and siren – running hot.

 

It varies from country to country, but there are different levels of visibility of police and EMS vehicles. The TTPS, though, is always at Code 2 for some reason – rarely at Code 3. As a former EMT in the U.S., I’ve noted the ambulances in Trinidad and Tobago have similar codes – most ambulances I see are constantly at Code 2, but that may be because they are supposed to in moving patients.

So, why are those lights on all the time? Given the advances in lighting technology with LEDs, the lights are less of a drain on batteries and they last longer so maybe they feel there’s less reason to turn them off. Of course, at night they can be blinding to drivers – and nevermind the LED billboards that flash blue and make people think that they are police.

I brought it up in a meeting. About how criminals are put on notice before the police actually get there, particularly at night, and how they react accordingly. The response from a member of the TTPS was that the blue lights made people feel comfortable.

There is some validity to that, but the patrolling blue light doesn’t actually stay in people’s homes – it’s a passing beacon of law enforcement that gives as much comfort as a shooting star, which lasts about as long.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a supermarket in the United States – K-Mart – that had flashing blue light specials. K-Mart was on the brink of being shut down in 2017

Times change. With crime in Trinidad and Tobago as much of an issue, it might make sense for police to stop warning criminals to get out of the way so that they might actually catch them.

I’m not a Law Enforcement professional and don’t pretend to be one.

I’m just someone who sees how a neighborhood changes when a blue light passes and how, once that blue light goes away, things return to the way they were.  I’m not sure that what TTPS want to do and what they are doing are compatible.

I simply question if it is an appropriate use of technology to catch criminals.

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On Foreign Exchange, Credit Cards and Trinidad and Tobago (2018)

Use of Credit CardsYesterday, at least one person in the media (Judy Kanhai) started circulating the raw press release from the present Minister of Finance in Trinidad and Tobago. You can click it and it will open in a new tab so you can read it more clearly.

Personal Context and a Sincere Disclaimer

I found this particularly interesting in my own context since, even as I write this, I am trying to send money to my sister to help cover my mother’s funeral expenses. Because of the bank (whose name remains something I will not discuss … yet?…) bureaucracy as related to foreign exchange, will require me to send only half of the expenses I am paying per day under two separate wires – which, of course, works for the banks. They get to charge me for two wire transfers and two fees for purchasing foreign exchange. I had tried to charge up my own Visa Travel Money (VTM) card for handling it, but my sister decided to nip it in the bud – and meanwhile, I can only charge $100 US/day on the VTM.

So I’m quite literally being punished financially for assisting with funeral expenses for my mother. They aren’t even really that much given how much funerals cost, but the present systems allow me to be nickeled and dimed by banks for something that – let’s face it – isn’t me shopping on Amazon.com to get things I might simply want.

Clearly I have a reason to be unhappy. Clearly I have a reason to be angry. I am just one person, of course, but there are other stories at banks throughout Trinidad and Tobago about people dealing with their own issues with foreign exchange – illnesses, deaths, what have you. We have to be nice in the bank; we need them to deal with foreign exchange because to do it without them is deemed illegal.

Criminals of desperation, be warned. Right?

Writ Large

It comes down to the global economy, the Internet, and the inability of local banks to get their acts together to make accepting foreign exchange easier on websites for small businesses.

Pushing aside my own personal feelings I encountered today at the bank, let’s really look at the data that was given by the Honourable Minister. Credit card payments, which would include VTMs, come to $1.2 Billion of $5.2 Billion in U.S. dollars of foreign exchange, and that comes to 23% of the foreign exchange.

So, given this data that we acknowledge is rounded, we know that 77% of foreign exchange was not credit card related. For those slow with math, that’s $4 billion US.

And yet, none of that really tells us anything.

We know, at least anecdotally, that some foreign exchange is used for:

    • Business
    • Personal

 

So, what percentage of the 5.2 billion was business related? That might be hard to discern, since because of the bureaucracy at least some businesses are using credit cards to get their foreign inventory, and they are being throttled by new limits of charging their VTMs up. What percentage was personal?

Where’s that data? We actually have been given pretty useless data for anything deductive, and it makes me wonder if that data even exists. For a nation whose national ICT plan includes ‘open data’, where we hear talk about transparency, we are really not getting worthwhile data and we have to question if it exists. If it doesn’t exist, how are decisions actually being made?

This, in a country that doesn’t manufacture as much in the way of consumer goods as much as it imports – anecdotal, of course – it seems at least to me that most businesses in Trinidad and Tobago are simply resellers of imported goods. Food is a case that is arguable and remains arguable because of a lack of worthwhile data (there it is again), but other than that, just about everything is imported.

Cars. Tires. Sugar – revel in that a moment. We buy imported brand name oil for our vehicles when we export oil. We import… everything. We make… well, I don’t want to disrespect anyone who is actually making anything, but I’m pretty sure that they themselves are importing materials.

With an economy without jobs – and let’s forget the de facto welfare state government jobs that only exist to keep people from not having jobs – people become purveyors of goods and services to make ends meet, or they get into crime.

I’d wager that the largest employer in Trinidad and Tobago is the government if you roll up all the ancillary corporations and State owned enterprises.

And where is the investment in manufacturing locally? The Ministry of Agriculture subsidizes farmers, but I’ve seen people with farmer’s badges on land that they do not own or have receipts for. People are collecting money from the government for that and… are they giving anything back to the government in the way of taxes? We don’t talk about that. We should.

But instead, we have people doing what they must inside a nation that hasn’t figured out that it probably could have used a Ministry of Technology (where did that go and why?). We have banks showing profits yet increasing fees on their own customers. A proper Ministry of Technology might streamline all the disparate technology and protocol incompatibilities between Ministries while perhaps even refining processes in other Ministries to be more efficient and therefore less corruptible.

And if you want to get paid late, the best group to be owed by is the government. I know personally; NIDCO owes myself and others money over the Pt. Fortin highway project and yet somehow NIDCO has money to clear a forest reserve in Aripo, allegedly illegally.

Yet credit card usage is somehow the issue of the day, with incomplete data, with a lack of understanding of the global economy and the slippery slope of not adapting technology quickly and appropriately enough to bring in foreign exchange from companies rather than bleed it out for things we could probably do ourselves.

We know we have goods that would sell overseas – a small business could set up shop and sell our pepper sauce, as an example. Or dried fruits. But instead, the idea of centralized businesses persists, maybe because that’s where campaign finance comes from, when the global economy proves over and over again that the network has more power than the old centralized systems. And so, the old guard tries to cut that off – to assure that they retain their financial power and thus political power over a populace doomed to purchase ugly neon plastic things.

The world has changed. AirBnB sells timeshares that they don’t have, Uber rents taxis that they don’t have. In Trinidad and Tobago, it seems our model is the government spending what they don’t have while not paying what they owe to people, all the while enabling systems corrupted to disempower people.

So we talk about credit cards without any actual data of worth in the conversation in Parliament and hope for the best, apparently.

On Trinidad and Tobago, Policing and Crime

I’m no expert on Law Enforcement. I am, however, a lifelong student of systems with experience ranging from agriculture to medicine, business to the military, and of different cultures. I’m sure I’ll aggravate some people with this, maybe these are the right people to be aggravated.

It’s difficult to live in Trinidad and Tobago and not consider crime. To the simple, it is simple, to the political, it’s politics, and there’s little difference between those two. How crime is considered by the populace affects crime itself – it affects the approaches, it affects the way things are implemented, it affects what is actually considered crime outside of the police service and justice systems. There are so many perspectives on it that, on a slow grey morning, I find the time to explore some of them with you, gentle reader.

The Broad Strokes: The Context

In his January 4th, 2018 Bitdepth, Mark Lyndersay mentions the pronounced dichotomy and the grey in between when it comes to how people see crime in Trinidad and Tobago:

…There are at least two societies active in T&T, one committed to all the lovely sentiments that church-going, law abiding citizens are supposed to abide by and another that LOLs at that type of thinking before stuffing a pistol into their cargo pants and going off to demand what they want…

This is, of course, a brief explanation that is accurate in being vague. It’s exactly right. Speaking for myself, as someone who is not church-going, I fall more closely to the first group than the last. And, because of the nature of Trinidad and Tobago, I end up drinking beer now and then around some more close to the latter at local bars. The street knows who the criminals are, and a balance is there between self-preservation and being an extreme law-abiding member of the South Oropouche Police Council for me.

It’s also interesting to note that Mark Lyndersay and I look at things differently in that we’re generally in different circles garnering the perspectives of different people in different ways. This is one of the many reasons I value what he thinks.

And yet, we can talk about crime in Trinidad and Tobago and come to similar conclusions. In fact, most people have very similar thoughts. I’m just taking the time to go deeper into my perspective.

In Trinidad and Tobago, like other places, there is a veil of what remains unspoken in most company. You just don’t talk about certain things, mainly because you don’t know who you’re talking to will talk to with your name attached. I’ve seen it come back and bite others soundly not in their posterior but in their neck over the years – why would decades of experience relent to yet another attempt by

The same is true of at least some members of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) that I encounter as well. With whispers of corruption echoing through the country beyond what occupies the traditional media, there’s a hard balance to be struck between the police service and the communities that they police. Trust is the core issue, but there is something more endemic: The criminals themselves are ‘law enforcement’ oftheir own areas, sometimes more so than the TTPS, but with their own local ‘laws’.

This leads to the ‘Community Leader’ label that has been applied by politicians for those that operate toward the darker side of grey. The only thing keeping some politicians from those labels are the Laws which don’t necessarily reflect Ethics in society; that so many politicians are lawyers is something that I consider now and then. Community Leaders know each other for what they are, some are just law abiding but have as fluid of ethics as their understanding of Law permits.

This didn’t all just happen one day. It didn’t happen because those without ethics woke up one morning and decided to go on sociopathic or psychopathic sprees; seeds do not grow in soil that is not suited for them.

Socioeconomics

Having came and left Trinidad and Tobago quite a few times over the decades, I have the luxury of snapshots that allow me to see some differences more easily. The poor, as they are, have always been poor. However, people living outside of their means seems to have escalated more. This is not just in Trinidad and Tobago; it’s global, but the degree here in a small island nation is a little more tangible and seems to have accelerated more quickly than other places I have seen.

Why? Well, the most obvious issue is that the economy is arguably not as diversified as it used to be. The sugar cane industry was lost due to government and private industry inefficiencies on a broad canvas of a decrease in demand in sugar due to different sources for sugar, such as corn. Generally, other businesses have been about importing things and reselling them locally; this does well when oil prices are high but it also developed an economical infrastructure that is crippled when oil prices are low. Factor in outright corruption and theft by people sitting comfortably abroad on their ill-gotten gains, and you have what we have now.

Because there was unemployment, the answer was having people cut grass and paint stones white. This was disguised under different acronyms attributed to different political parties by some. This work, sadly, became a means of income near enough to that of a recent University graduate to make it worthy of comparison. Factor in the national pastime of alcohol and politics, like everywhere else, and you find people doing less than more. The minimum wage, something I don’t really agree with in principle due to it’s easily being gamed, is hard pressed to keep abreast of the cost of living.

It seems that there are more single parents, it seems that there are more parents where both partners work to support the family. I write ‘seems’ because there’s really no publicly accessible statistics of worth that I know of; another issue that keeps coming back in my writings.

Because there seems to be more parents working to support their children, there’s less time effectively being spent with children. The moral majority, which is neither, will likely indicate that there are more children having children. Again, I have no statistics. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not, but it does seem like the nurture is increasingly required of primary and secondary school education systems whose ability to nurture has become more handicapped. Further, I’d say that the curriculum isn’t as challenging as when I went to school in Trinidad and Tobago – but I am biased and admit that openly.

Meanwhile, one of the other national pastimes of the country is leaving the country. This is what is termed as ‘brain drain’; as someone who could fall into that category, I can say that opportunity in this country is limited – it’s not so much about one’s ability to do things as much as knowing the right people and having enough letters behind your name to make you seem plausible to people who don’t know anything about what it is you do. Even in this downturned global economy, there does seem to be better opportunity for the young to go abroad than to stay… here. The system feeds itself by starving itself.

The centralization of the Trinidad and Tobago budget, too, is a little disturbing. On one hand, the government decides how to support those who supply something locally – for example, chicken – versus those who import. Where money influences politics and businesses that import with more influence, local suppliers are forced to compete at a global level within a limited economy. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I do know that I’m uncomfortable with a system so easily corrupted controlling such things.

The government now, with less in it’s coffers every year, wants to tax those who are earning less more to compensate for decades of poor planning and lack of diversification. It means less for the government to spend on things to correct the problems that the government created in the first place with bad policy and lack of diversification. Those who like talking about politics will now bring out their knives to stab at their opponents – but really, both sides of the political soap opera contributed and the political discussion simply keeps the easily distracted… easily distracted.

Public servants act like they’re doing you a favor sometimes; in some cases you can find tax-free businesses running to allow people to get through the rampant bureaucracy and poor customer service to get simple things done. Bribery is an open secret. Poor customer service is noted by at least one Minister publicly. This translates to time and money losses for citizens for things already paid for by the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago; in some cases these losses are necessary to avoid penalties and fines that are at least as antiquated as the processes involved.

On the ground, people are not happy with the government – and it’s not a matter of politics if you tune out the politicians. Right now, the national discussion is about how many murders there have been for the year already – more than New York City – and protests in various areas related to infrastructure. One more humorous protest even seems to have worked… so far.

This is, sadly, a result of systems that have worked exactly as designed – except with the perimeters well outside of what the systems were designed for.

Porous borders

I listened as a policeman formerly stationed in Cedros lamented to me that there were 25 points of entry and Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard support has to happen through calling Port of Spain. All manner of things make their way through the borders on an twin island Republic which boasts a Defence Force on land and a Coast Guard at sea – the former assisting the Police, the latter the Police cannot seem to work with. On islands. I’m no expert, but I would think having rapid response vessels in key areas might cut down on illegal trafficking – from guns to drugs, from people to animals.

Politics

I am amused every time someone laments that whoever is the Prime Minister is at fault for crime – and I write that because indirectly, they are in some ways, but the expectation seems to be that the sitting Prime Minister should don a spandex outfit and go fight crime themselves. There’s a reason, aside from not wanting to see anyone in politics wearing spandex, that this does not happen.

The second politicians directly control the police services, or other matters of national security, and they do so without appropriate checks and balances there is the potential for abuse. Don’t like your Opposition? To the Gulag! Don’t like journalists? To the Gulag! Don’t like someone for any reason? To the Gulag!

So, directly, politicians can’t be blamed for such things. And while we have had Ministers of National Security over the year and all sorts of toys bought by the government to support them, they are little more than figureheads. The problem is so well entrenched that it will not be removed overnight – and, as I pointed out above, the larger view of the nation requires that across the board, policies must be implemented that mitigate socioeconomic issues as well as access to government services.

Silver Bullet?

There is no silver bullet. There is no way to deal with this overnight; this goes well beyond simply ‘fighting crime’ but dealing with the issues that create the fertile ground in which it grows. We live in a connected world now, where the Internet allows people to see things faster than any leader can steer through – but steer they must. The delays of antiquated bureaucracies need to be streamlined with common sense and appropriate technology usage (what we’ve seen so far in technology leaves much to be desired).

It boils down to trust – not trust in politicians, we change those like diapers, but trust in systems of governance.

Net Neutrality, Competition and Target Blindness.

Yesterday I had the misfortune of attempting to have a conversation with someone who was certain that there was no problem with competition without net neutrality.

Instead, I explored their perspective. The only thing I could come up with is that when some people speak of competition, they think of competition between Internet Service Providers  (ISPs). They do not think of the ISPs themselves competing with services that are simply accessed through their network.

It’s mind-boggling to me that people don’t understand that issue of disruption within the Internet.

It also boggles me that such people are in regulatory frameworks, and these are people who define discussions had about such neutrality. It’s no wonder that assuring equity between companies providing services on the internet and ISPs is such a moot point at this time.

And therefore, we can’t get beyond network neutrality to the real crux of things.

Beyond Naughty Processors.

meltdown-spectreThe world is abuzz with stuff about the Intel bugs – so much so that Meltdown and Spectre are explained by xkcd better to the masses than most technical articles. It’s as if the world woke up and saw a small bit of what can happen within computing systems and, unfortunately for Intel, gets branded with Intel.

Did I mention Intel? Oh, don’t worry, it’s not the only brand that is getting sucked into this. Apple’s vulnerability to Meltdown and Spectre has also been admitted.

The potential is serious. But then, having seen code over the years that allowed pretty much the same thing– clearly, I fixed it where I saw it – I’m not as disturbed as the people presently flailing their arms until the next thing comes along. People will forget soon.

I’m not a chip designer, but the overall problem is pretty close to the Software Engineering issues the world presently faces.

People, generally – I still think of them as users – don’t care too much about technology. I’d say the same about management, too, in most companies – in the early 90s I said, “Management doesn’t know there is a fire until the flames are licking their asses.” This held true in just about every company I worked with until 2016, when I opted to start early on other endeavors to mitigate the risk of being an X-gen Software Engineer in a market that wanted millenial code monkeys.

Here’s the dilemma: Writing good code costs more time and money than most companies want to dedicate because, cyclically, they need to show profit faster because of increased competition in the sector.

Code monkeys are appreciated for fixing the bugs that they created in the first place, Software Engineers aren’t appreciated for the bugs that they keep from being introduced. And so, HR is always looking for code monkeys instead of true software engineers.

Venture capitalists and financiers care more about the commodity of  Intellectual Property than the service of Intellectual property, mainly because people find it difficult to think of copyrighted or patented – or even company secrets – as a service. We live in an age where information and processes do not stand still; it’s not that there is Intellectual Property anymore that you can sit on – it’s that there is Intellectual Property that you have to build on.

But Intellectual Property as a commodity is how trading is done – like the statistics on a baseball card (for the Americans reading) of a living player that will be outdated the very next game. Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks, Trade Secrets – these are snapshots in time. They are not as fluid as what they represent. They are bureaucratic stop gaps to elicit profit, which has worked for a very long time because they were designed to. But what they were designed on is changing faster than this bureaucracy can accommodate.

So all of this leads to design flaws because the designs can’t possibly cover all permutations of how something can be used. It’s getting better, but by getting better it gives a false sense of security that makes the more elusive problems worse for our systems. As I wrote to someone querying about whether foreign processors would have the issue or other issues, I said, “Nothing is secure. Act like it.”

The world is changing more rapidly than the people changing it can keep up with.

Let that sink in.

And then, if you suffer some history, you’ll find it has always been this way. The future has a mind of it’s own.

The only way to mitigate things – the only true way – is for people to be more conscious of what they use. When I was growing up, because of how I grew up, I picked up the habit of understanding at least the basic functionality of everything I used. If it broke, back in the days before the Internet, in a ‘developing’ country, I had to fix it or throw it away.

Now, landfills are filled by slowed phones and antiquated technology. If I’m a dinosaur, I see the meteors and appreciate keeping things around a while when others are quick to buy the next new (untested) thing.

It’s a brave new world.

I’ll be in my garden.

Coding For Fun.

Here I am, waiting for the errant landlord to show up at 7 a.m. when it’s now 8 a.m. (where is he? Who knows), to fix a breaker issue, when… suddenly… I think of something to code – not that I was looking anymore, but probably exactly because I wasn’t looking anymore.

It’s an exercise, I suppose – an idea – and following it up in Python is probably going to be more interesting than anything else you can do when stuck at home. In Trinidad and Tobago, if you have human dependencies, you’re pretty much stuck waiting on someone who is waiting on someone who is – well, you get the point.

And so – Python on Windows reinstalling; Anaconda of course (because you found this entry, I fully expect you can find Anaconda and the installation documentation).

Now, here’s the thing. Unlike when I was running my own company, and unlike when I was working for other companies, there’s no race. There’s no need for me to worry about whether or not a competitor will get to it in time, and whether they can do it better, or what have you.

And oddly, it allows me to leverage some pre-existing code I’d been working on. You’ll note I didn’t say re-use – that code reuse thing is a trap, much as using code from Stack Overflow can be for plug and pray ‘coders’.

Anyway, back to a little coding fun again after about a year without, nose firmly thumbed at corporate coding.

The Age of Dune

The-Spice-Must-Flow-PosterWe’re in a strange age of Dune, metaphorically. If you haven’t read the books or, for the reading impaired, the movie, you won’t get the metaphor – you should go do either immediately and not return to the internet until you have.

If you’ll recall, the book was about Spice – and how the spice must flow. Last century, it was a metaphor for oil, and this century, it’s a metaphor for information.

I bring this all up because of the Russian submarines making NATO nervous because they’re prowling near underwater cables. The conversations around this speculated on them eavesdropping – relatively tinfoil hat – when a real threat is the severing off those cables. Remember how Mua’dib rose to power? Who can destroy the Spice controls the Spice, and who controls the Spice is the real power.

Factor in the death of network neutrality, which has been long dead in other ways while people have been discussing the imminent rigor mortis while poking it with a stick. It’s not as if Facebook has been deleting accounts at the requests of the U.S. and Israeli governments.  It’s not as if any despot of any sort hasn’t at least tried to control the information flow. The trouble is that most people don’t understand information and don’t understand data beyond the definitions in dictionaries and antiquated textbooks.

Information flows. In a battlefield somewhere, a severed submarine cable can mean chaos on the ground somewhere. In a world where cables connect markets, severed cables mean being unable to get access to those markets. It means isolation.

The spice must flow, the information must flow. And those who seek to destroy information, from burning books to limiting access for people to information is about isolating, about controlling, and about power. How will it end?

I’ll be in my garden, monitoring the situation. You kids play nice.

2018: Tech and Society

Brighter FutureOn the human meta level, it’s pretty clear that robotics and AI will continue making inroads into our societies in ways that we aren’t yet prepared for. Personally, it’s amusing when what got me into software engineering for a living as a young man increasingly becomes a reality 2 decades later. In fact, it’s the only reason I code these days, and coding itself as we know it is in it’s twilight.

While blue collar jobs have always been what has been worried about as far as ‘machines taking jobs’, there is a clear bias to deal with expense. Where technology can make things cheaper, it does, so those with high salaries and jobs that can be automated will be increasingly put on notice. This leaves us with the dilemma of how people will earn a living, a real problem in a world where bureaucracies have demonstrably been slow to react to these changes, where politics around the world has somehow become more palpably connected with fear, where people see things faster, and where our ability to use technology to communicate dwarfs our ability to do so.

Renewable energy has gone beyond being a novelty – even here in Trinidad and Tobago, when over a decade ago my father tried to sell the government on solar powered street lights, the local electricity company – state owned T&TEC – announced in late 2017 that they’ll be doing stuff with it. Technology lags in countries around the world, and 2018 will continue increasing that divide – but a nation’s ability to use technology does not define it’s advancement, as economic policies on a global scale have the developed world in for a redefinition. BRIC is a reality, and network power continues to make them powerhouses.

I think of my nieces in college, my nephews about to start college, and how their education can be made worthwhile by simply being relevant over the next few decades of their lives – but their lives will be redefined by things larger than the education systems that they will be indentured to. We are on the precipice of change that we cannot possibly understand the implications of until we’re on the other side of it.

And 2018 will be increasingly about that.