Pandemics, Trinidad and Tobago, Oh My

I’ve been looking for angles on how to write about this latest lockdown in Trinidad and Tobago. I considered writing something for TechNewsTT.com about the technology aspects, but the article always fell short in my mind and seemed to dance just a bit beyond a technology aspect. Then, too, writing anything critical in Trinidad and Tobago is like threading needles – plural – while riding a rollercoaster because of politics, because of what I perceive as a culture that demands progress but does it’s best to work against it with cultural inertia… And so there has been a bit of paralysis in my mind as this all plods along. 

And plod along it does. Social media has been drowning in disaster porn. The government of Trinidad and Tobago adds it’s deluge onto that with daily statistics that are confusing to those that don’t understand how they are created, and frustrating those that do. Imagine that the testing laboratory is closed on weekends, and always lags on Mondays, and how that skews statistics – but then, too, imagine so many being tested that to require staff to work weekends would be a bridge too far. It is fair to say that the Ministry of Health has been overwhelmed and performed well given the circumstances, but it is also fair to say that the fact that the Ministry of Health has been overwhelmed speaks to decades of stagnation in many regards. Health records immediately come to mind in a country that has de facto free medical care, to a point, and at some points pointless.

So then we get into threading one of the needles where we don’t criticize the people in the system but the system themselves, much like National Security in how it has had to deal with the State of Emergency which has not been invasive, to the chagrin of some who think that everyone who breaks the rules should be tossed in a cell somewhere – as if tossing them in cells doesn’t create new problems in a pandemic. Where do you house them? How do you feed them and handle basic necessities for them? It’s not so easy.

Meanwhile, the hunt for vaccines became a political stew and an international one at that, while all the time the local politicians hold press conferences on each other rather than the actual issues because, really, what do you do when decades of lack of progress in so many regards comes to a head in such a situation? While the pandemic is a new experience and has wreaked it’s own sort of havoc across the world, that havoc was largely made possible by failures in systems that were perceived as robust to the voting publics. In this regard, Trinidad and Tobago is not that different, but anyone familiar with modern history of Trinidad and Tobago will look back to the 1960s and 1970s and think of all the money just wasted and stolen rather than invested, with every government since working with less and less while the challenges become greater and greater.

So how does one even begin to write about this properly? Facts and figures aren’t enough because there is context, and there are so many contexts. Economic, education, medical, national security… How does one write about all of this without blessing or condemning anyone in government? While it’s popular to apply faces to blame, it’s almost never right – the odds of complete incompetence of any individual in any bureaucracy is limited by the bureaucracy, but it is also magnified by the bureaucracy.

I have spent months observing and reflecting on it and I have yet to find the right threads to begin tugging on when it comes to this tattered rug that has not been dealt with since the time of my grandparents, when it should have been, when it could have been.

But I have this parting note. Recently, I noted to some former classmates that when we graduated Secondary School, regardless of where our paths would take us, we lead with this thought that we could somehow make a difference… and some of us have, probably more than think they have, but when I look at the world and consider someone now that age looking at this tattered rug… somehow, it just doesn’t seem to measure up.

The Babel Problem

Babel TowerSome self-centric perspectives shared using social media creating a communication failure got me thinking more about information and how it affects us, as individuals, and how it affects humanity. It’s also something that I’ve been researching off and on, and one which has me working on a hobby software project related to it.

Information is everywhere. We’re all pattern recognition and information analysis experts in our own right. It’s a part of being human, as Stephen Pinker wrote about in the context of language, which is one of the  ways that we process and communicate information. There is the nature aspect, and there is the nurture aspect, which is often seen as a matter of which has more influence.

This is particularly interesting in this day and age for a variety of reasons, particularly when interacting using social media.

Language is the most obvious barrier, and translation algorithms are getting much better – but interpretation of translations leaves much to be desired at times. Another aspect is dialect, born of geography, which do not always translate well. There are some who will argue about cultural identity, but if cultural identity isolates, what use is that identity?

Another aspect is the ability of people to actually read and write to be understood.  While we may have a lot more literacy in the world than we did some decades ago, functional literacy is something different and is something that educational systems only measure within their own dialects. This leads to how people think, because people typically communicate as clearly as they think. And what affects how we think?

We get into world views – a factor of nurture, largely, and the ability to process the information of our world clearly. The most obvious aspect of these prejudices has to do with the color of skin of human beings – something that haunts us despite scientific evidence that there are no actual races. Other things are less obvious.

There are commonalities, as mentioned in a very thorough exploration by Pierre Levy in “The Semantic Sphere“, that weave commonality through concepts around the world despite language – but they can fail in that last mile of neurons, as people may have very different reactions to the same concepts.

When it comes to all of this, I live a very different life and look at things, at times, in very different ways than others. This has allowed me to sometimes solve problems that others could not solve.

Everyone looks at things differently, but commonly, people don’t look at things that differently when they read what everyone else reads, watch what everyone else watches, and thus think fairly closely to what other people think.

That, in turn, gives us the codification of problems in a way that is sometimes more popular than correct, and thus any solution may be solving the wrong problem. It’s a convoluted mess when you start thinking about it (and worse, trying to express it as I am here).

And that, really, is the core of this post. A thought of why the people who come up with appropriate solutions are typically the ones who can identify what the problems actually are… in a world of popularity.

 

Using Social Media.

It seems strange to me when people write about, ‘On Facebook’, or, ‘On Twitter’… or, ‘On Social Media’. I think it lends itself to the thought that people are above it. As if they have no responsibility for their actions and reactions, as well as what those reactions and actions cause.

In the same way, I’m not sure that ‘in’ social media is much better, because that lends itself to a thought of powerlessness – surrounded by.

Which is why I write, ‘using social media’, or, ‘using Facebook’, or… using whatever. These are tools, and unless Thoreau was correct about men becoming the tools of their tools…

We use tools.

So it may be semantic, but it might be powerfully so.

Digitized Paper Processes of Trinidad and Tobago

Computerize THIS.It drives me a bit nuts when I have to deal with some things in Trinidad and Tobago. When I signed up for electronic billing for Water (WASA) and for Electricity (T&TEC), not to mention Internet (Amplia), I foolishly expected a process that was not reliant on paper.

How foolish of me. I have to print these bills and take them somewhere to pay them, which isn’t really an electronic transaction at all – it just saves these companies money so that they don’t have to bill me for sending me a paper bill, and also, it allows me independence from the local post (TTPost) from sending me my bills late.

Bureaucracy / Bürokratie IITo add insult to injury, the bills don’t just print on one page – they require… 2 pages. Why? Because it’s the same bill that they used to mail to me… and experimentation has shown that, no, I can’t just go with one page. I require both pages to pay the bill.

I’m sure that there are educated people hiding behind this somewhere, but it does their education a disservice to come up with systems that are hardly intelligent. It’s reminiscent of the United States in the 1990s, when some people would not let their fax machines out of their clenched fists.

PaperworkThis goes beyond bill payment – which, of course, is cursed by lack of online payment options for the masses, causing people to lose hours of productivity so that they can stand in a line to create a paper trail. Nevermind the photocopies of identification that still go on.

On a trip to the bank today to deal with paying some maintenance fees, I half-joked to the teller that trips to the bank were like visiting another country. Stamp! Stamp!

Papers, please. Reason for transaction? What’s your dog’s mother’s maiden name? How long was your stay?

Last week, a woman stood before me, not long ago, modem in hand – trying to return it to bMobile – her 5th attempt, which she had documented well with her phone and envelopes full of paper. Why so much trouble? Did you need to ask?

It should be as simple as returning the modem, which they then check the serial number of – it then becomes clear that you’re no longer using it, or should, and be pretty much the disconnection of your account unless you have another modem you purchased yourself and they are already aware of it. But this is not the process.

All of these are symptomatic of people simply adding technology to a paper process – par for the course of a bureaucracy educated beyond it’s intelligence level.

One day, it may aspire to achieve to mediocrity. We’re waiting.

2019: New Year, Same Problems.

Experimenting with proximity and remote control with @anki Vector.I’ve managed to avoid the deluge of end of year posts by people, as well as their bright and shiny posts of what they expect in 2019. After you’ve seen enough of them, you know the recipe and you can make your own – even if it’s not a very good recipe, even if it typically doesn’t stand the test of time.

A ‘New Year’ is just another date on the calendar for me these days – and truth be told, it has been for some time. So I spent this ‘holiday’ running some experimental code associated with the Anki Vector I picked up.

As a way of tracking what changes and what doesn’t, years are fickle. As an example, when it comes to code, the thing we sent that is furthest is still running 8-bit code, and it still seems to be working well. Looks like hunspell (that’s what you call it for pip) is the droid I was looking for, though the documentation on that… well…

Things that haven’t changed that much is the acceleration of technology – because it continues to accelerate, and documentation on it is simply horrible in some areas. I spent roughly an hour delving into replacements for PyEnchant, as an example, reading all sorts of the same thing that Google thought would be useful – and which wasn’t.

And this is, sadly, the sort of detritus that software projects leave behind. As a friend mentioned today, a lack of documentation is better than bad/misleading documentation – and when it comes to documentation, a lack of date tagging condemns people to whatever algorithm the search engine uses when college students are trying to find hardly known authors to plagiarize from.

It goes beyond that. There’s a trend where technology gets disposed of so fast that there is almost no documentation on any of it, or if there is, it’s dated and/or misleading.

This is why we’re not fixing things as much, those of us that have that mindset – because there are always a few people, statistically, that can fix things – remember repair shops? And then there are the people who pay to fix things. The way intellectual property – really, copyright – has gone in a legal sense keeps a space between people who would repair and the owners of copyright. And the contracts, threats about warranty… even more space, starving the ability for products to be supported by third parties.

Heaven forbid you reverse engineer something to fix it. That can get you in trouble with people have chain-linked bracelets and lawyers who love killing trees.

That’s where Open Source and Free Software were supposed to step in, at least in the context of software – but after a few decades, it’s all relatively young and the documentation is done largely in crayon hieroglyphics. The successful projects are documented, at least to some degree.

If there’s one thing that I’d like to see change this year, it’s people getting better at documentation. It’s as if they think what they do isn’t worth that investment.

And when they don’t, it isn’t.

Exploring the Anki Vector SDK Alpha.

Installed the Vector SDK. @anki
Installing the SDK – which, fortunately, was easier since I am already running Anaconda (Python) for other things I’m fiddling with.

In my last post here, I said that the true value of the Anki Vector to me would be determined by the Software Development Kit (SDK), which wasn’t yet released.

I am a bit disappointed that no one at Anki answered my tweet on it to date – and so I used a Douglas Adams reference about hiding things when I tweeted them again.

A fair criticism of Anki is that they aren’t very good at organizing the information and updating customers when they’re doing pretty good things. Frankly, the beginning novelty of Vector and it’s potential is what seems to be allowing them not to pay as much for this faux pas. And too, I suspect, the project has grown faster than the company has – a testament to engineering. It has apparently sold well, a testament to their marketing. Yet when it comes to information on the product, it seems pretty hard to come by information users/expected are expected to have.

Installing the Vector SDK

I found the Vector SDK Alpha release note through an Anki blog entry not as easily found as I would have liked. Within it you’ll find the link to the SDK documentation, and within that you’ll find the actual downloads. I found this through force of will, largely because Vector was sitting impatiently on his charger for almost a week making R2D2-ish sounds while giving me the baleful look of Wall-E when I walked by.

It’s amazing how those eyes are really the center of how we see Vector.

I installed the Alpha SDK, and I configured Vector – which involves getting the IP address of Vector. It’s not available through the app on the phone, and there’s a trick to it (in case you’re looking for it yourself) – you have to tap Vector’s top button twice, then raise and lower his arm. Vetor’s IP address will then be shown where his eyes are. To get back to normal operation, raise and lower Vector’s arm again. Sacrificing a chicken is optional. Be careful with blood spatter; Vector is not fluid-proof.

After that, it was a simple matter of firing Spyder up – part of the Anaconda data science platform for Python, but available standalone – and ran some of the example code, tweaking it here and there to get a feel for the capabilities of the Vector SDK Alpha.

This is where they shine – when it comes to sharing the code. And the SDK documentation itself, so far, is pretty good.

The Reality of the SDK.

I think I was expecting a bit more from the SDK, which is my fault and I acknowledge that. I had expected more in the way of interacting with the cloud itself – for example, renaming Vector’s wake phrase/word, or allowing behavior change during normal operation. That’s presently not there, which effectively gives Vector a multiple personality disorder – with blackouts where, for better and worse, the SDK allows the hijacking of Vector.

Imagine waking up and not knowing how you got somewhere, what you just did, and where that eyebrow went. That’s a fair anthropomorphization.

The SDK works  through your wireless connection – the code/application has to be running on the same network as Vector, and your specific machine gets a certificate to run the code on Vector – a good security precaution or people would be hacking Vectors and checking out other people’s places.

It’s bad enough with the Alexa integration – I had an Alexa when they first came out but had enough creepy incidents with Amazon to get rid of mine. Still, the world of Amazonians wants it and it’s a good selling point for Anki, so I get it. That seems to be done well enough to please those that wanted it, so maybe they’ll focus on things other than that now.

In all, I’d like to transfer a version of what they have in the cloud into my personal systems and allow me to tinker with that as well.

Still, given what I have been playing with related to machine learning and natural language processing – it’s no mistake that I had the Anaconda distribution of Python installed already – I’m having a bit of fun playing with the SDK and testing the limitations of the hardware.

@anki Vector vide feed example. Rocking.Some things I noticed

The video from the Vector hardware platforms is good enough for some basic things, but lighting really does affect it. This is a limitation in it’s exploration, and it limits it’s facial recognition ability (the one thing I’ve found you can access from the cloud in a limited way).

I’ve been considering a polarizing film over the cameras for better images, and have even considered mounting a light source on Vector for darkness, which would have the misfortune of not being able to be controlled through Vector (but it could be controlled independently through code). I plan to play with the lights part of the SDK to see what I can get away with.

You don’t get to fiddle with facial recognition code, but there’s Python code for that – such as PyPi face_recognition.

The events ability does allow for more reactive things.

Making Vector use profanity is a must, if only once.

There are error codes that aren’t documented – I had the 915 error twice on Vector while I was writing this, and all I found was on Reddit. Without error codes, we don’t get error trapping with Vector – and that’s a problem that I hope they address in the Beta.

Overall – I’m happier with the SDK, which shows promise and a bit of effort on the part of Anki. The criticisms I have so far are of an Alpha SDK – which means that this will change in time.

They do need to get a bit better at the responsiveness, though – something I suspect that they are already aware of. To enjoy this level of success comes with painful growth. If only that were an engineering problem to solve.

The Anki Vector: Let’s Wait For the API.

Vector playing with cube.So, I got an Anki Vector. My reasons for buying one were pretty simple, really – it seemed like a throwback to the 70s when I had a Big Trak, a programmable machine that had me often shooting my mother with a laser and harassing the family dog.

With Big Trak’s Logo-ish programming, there were tangible results even if the ‘fire phaser’ command was really just a flashing light. It was the 1970s,  after all, in an era when Star Wars and Star Trek reigned supreme.

So the idea of the Anki Vector was pretty easy for me to contend with. I’ve been playing with the idea of building and programming a personal robot, and this would allow me to get away from ‘building’.

I hoped.

Out of the Box.

The Anki Vector needed some charging in it’s little home station, and I dutifully installed the application on the phone, following the instructions, connecting it to my Wifi – and while people said that they have had problems with the voice recognition, I have not. Just speak clearly and at an even pace, and Vector seems to handle things well.

The focal length that Vector’s camera(s) are limited to seems to be between 12-24 inches, based on it identifying me. It can identify me, even with glasses, after some training – roughly 30 minutes – as long as my face is withing 12-24 inches from it’s face.

It’s a near-sighted robot, apparently, which had me wondering if that would be something to work with through the API.

It is an expressive robot – it borrows from WALL-E in this regard, it seems. And while it can go to the Internet and impress your friends with it’s ability to use it’s voice to read stuff off of Wikipedia, it’s not actually that smart. In that regard, it’s Wikipedia on tracks with expressive eyes that, yes, you can change the color of.

Really, within the first hour, you run out of tricks with Vector at this time – the marketing team apparently wrote the technical documentation, which is certainly easy to read – largely because it doesn’t actually say much. I’m still trying to figure out why the cube came with it – somewhere, it said it helped Vector navigate outside of it’s ‘home area’ – but navigate and do what?

Explore and do what? Take a picture and see it where? There is a lack of clarity on things in the documentation. While petting Vector has an odd satisfaction to it, it doesn’t quite give me enough.

On December 6th, I tweeted to Anki and asked them about the API – because with the hardware in the Vector, I should be able to do some groovy things and expand it’s functionality.

Crickets for the last 3 days.

Without that API, I think the Vector is limited to the novelty part of the store… which is sad, because I had hopes that it would be a lot more.

Maybe that API will come out before I forget that I have a Vector.

Media Responsibility and Learning.

I often cringe when I read what people share on social media. Aside from the inner proofreader that was so necessary as a youth, I run across things like, “TTPS: Illegal entry into T&T is a crime“.

What else is illegal that is a crime? 

If the goal was to make the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service look illiterate – mission accomplished. If the goal was to make The Morning Brew, a local program, look a bit foolish – mission accomplished. And it’s there for all the world to see.

If you watch the video, though, the headline is does not represent what was actually said – a distillation that demonstrates a lack of thought and consideration.

Who came up with this headline, and do they even understand their mistake?

This prompted me to immediately mock it, of course – pondering with a friend as to what else that is illegal might be a crime.

Murder is illegal, so is it a crime?  Littering is illegal, so is it a crime? And so on and so forth – which amused me for a few minutes, but then it struck me:

There are people who may seriously be thinking in that way.

Words have a power all their own, and the way we all learn is not by reading dictionaries but through context.

So yes, I’m picking on this particular headline, which is unfair. In a world where all too often people share without reading the associated link, we’re implicitly showing people how to communicate by example. There could be a secondary school student right now writing an essay that may reach pull the ‘illegal’ and ‘crime’ thing out of their bag unwittingly… only to be openly mocked by an English teacher and their class.

Why? Because they made the mistake of learning from a media headline.

Career Advice from a Neo-generalist Perspective.

Compass StudyPeople ask me career advice now and then. Generally, people who do so can’t follow the beaten path.

There’s plenty of career advice out there for the beaten paths. The basic recipe is simple:

  • Secondary School
  • Tertiary Education
  • Maybe specialize further.
  • ?????
  • Profit!

I’ve met a few people who this has worked for – which means going in debt with student loans sometimes, or having a tether to parents paying for things, or what have you.

The last part, ‘Profit’, is delayed until after people are repaid – bad news, parents are never repaid. In the context of the United States, which is hardly a data model for the rest of the world (but my experience), we have the rising cost of not continuing one’s education versus the toll of student debt.  The fact that studies are largely done by people who followed the beaten path further confuses the issue at times.

How often do you hear a college say you don’t need to go to college? Of course they wouldn’t say that – and one could say that the student loan issue in the United States is akin to tossing out mortgages to people who can’t afford to pay the mortgages. It’s all very muddy water, and where once I had an opinion I just see a sea of biased data and biased opinions and have none myself.

My Path.

My life, my work history, my education – they don’t fit the accepted model of education, ???, profit. I grew up working through secondary school in a printery, in a electrical motor rewinding workshop, and whatever odd jobs came my way. Despite this, and I would later learn because of a former Irish brother who had married a nun, I did not get expelled and managed to graduate – well.

My parents didn’t put me through college, and the debt I did incur toward not finishing college in the late 80s is something I paid off about 22 years later. The interest was bad, but I managed to settle with the Department of Education for pennies on the dollar. Incidentally, despite being what one might term a minority, I wasn’t African or Hispanic enough to gobble up any grants specifically for those minorities. Equal opportunity ain’t so equal.

My time in the Navy was so busy that I never seemed to have time for college classes or college credits. It’s hard to study full time in NNPS and work on college credits at the same time, or work in emergency medicine and pop off whenever you needed to; when people’s lives are at stake you don’t have that luxury. And getting yourself together after being discharged while attempting to support an ill parent just didn’t leave much room for college, or debt – or paying a debt which I still owed, and thus couldn’t continue college. A nasty trap, that, even with the military deferment.

And so I found myself back behind a computer again through some luck, working at Honeywell and proving my worth. It was a cool job, and I had convinced my manager to give me a book allowance where I read the most bleeding edge stuff I could find back then. It was awesome, if only for a while. Others, like Dr. VcG, tried to help round me out and did so a bit, but really, I was focused on just…. learning.d,

I was told that they would pay for my classes to finish a degree so that they could promote me, which I then began – oceanography – and I was to find out that they wouldn’t pay for classes toward that end. No, they wanted me to get a degree in something they were already paying me to do. Why on Earth would I need a validation for them to be promoted when I was already validating it every day at work?

There was only so much I could learn there, and changes to the company started taking the ‘play’ out of it all.

I moved from this company to that, building up references, building up experience, but most importantly to me, knowledge. My knowledge wasn’t validated by some group of academics, it came from the Real World. As time progressed, the economy went down as my age went up, and I found myself working for money instead of knowledge. It was not fun anymore, and I moved on… to where I am now, with a few interesting stops on the way.

Serial Specialist, the Neo-Generalist.

The beauty of software engineering when I started out is that once you could get a computer to do what someone else wanted to do, you got to learn about what they wanted to do. I got to learn about business, banking, avionics, emergency communications, data analysis, science, robotics, and so much more – and I have this knowledge, hard won, without following the beaten path and getting a bunch of letters behind my name.

It’s where all that knowledge intersects that the cool and fun stuff happens. The beaten path could not have given me that.

Frankly, in my experience, the beaten path is pretty slow – which some say is a reflection of my ability. I don’t know that is true. What I do know is that the real world, paying bills and keeping abreast of responsibilities required me to learn faster than I could get a formal education, and I did. Simply put, I had to. I loved most of it, I hated parts of it.

Career Advice

When it comes to the beaten path that I did not take, I point at it. It works for a lot of people, though the ‘works’ does seem increasingly dubious to me as far as a return on investment. Go study something if you have the opportunity or if you can create the opportunity. Get your education validated, but don’t stop learning.

You see, what I can tell you with a degree of certainty is that the world is as bad as it is because of those who rest on their laurels after getting a certificate or a degree. I can also tell you with certainty that the world is as good as it is because of the people who keep learning and applying that knowledge toward good ends.

We don’t need people who are ‘educated’. We have enough of those clogging up the system. We need more of those that are constantly learning, certificate or degree or not – those are the ones who create true progress. Speaking for myself, I pace myself to 2 books a week or more on topics that range widely.

The world is interesting in many ways. You can make it more interesting by knowing how interesting it is from different perspectives.

Learn how to negotiate. Get as much as you can even though you don’t need it – a problem I had – because you don’t know when you will need it.

And avoid working for idiots if you can. You won’t be able to, and sometimes it’s not obvious until later on, but ditch them as soon as you can.