Rebuilding Trinidad and Tobago.

800px-Flag_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago.svgI have been observing fairly quietly the way things are going in Trinidad and Tobago, and it’s hard to say that things are going well by any stretch. Even Global Voices has picked up on the disconnect between politicians and the people that they allegedly serve, and even after that politicians continued speaking in quite condescending ways to the public.
In grand Trinidad and Tobago picong, the Trinidad and Tobago Express was happy to point out that coal pot sales are still slow.

The Chinese have a proverb: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Clearly those accused of leadership in the country are still digging – perhaps digging up the nation’s roads so that citizens can repair their own roads. I am not immune to a little picong myself.

Then there’s the ongoing crime issue, where the Minister of National Security Minister downplayed a shooting ‘200m from a school’ when videos were going around Whatsapp of children hiding under desks and scared – without seeming to understand that a 9mm round can go up to 3 miles, and as if a shooting even 200 meters from a school is acceptable. For those of you uncertain, it is not acceptable and should not be considered acceptable. It’s not as if schools have a special zone around them where people who are going to shoot at each other agree not to shoot. The fact that they are shooting at each other in the first place might be a hint, though I am probably not as qualified as a Minister of National Security on such things.
For years, I have sat and watched even as a $500 million dollar overpass is being built when either side of it consistently floods with heavy rains, even as another project in South Trinidad had a road collapse earlier this year – a road I once traveled daily.

People quietly talk about how Trinidad and Tobago got where it is. I have been watching, observing, not writing about each and every thing because to do that would be a full time job for groups of journalists. In this regard, I imagine that there’s steady employment – slews of editorials trying to connect the dots, with everyone trying to come up with people to blame, political sides to blame, and even broad brush attempts to come up with silver bullets for every mythical creature out there that could be to blame.

In speaking with friends, there is this shared thought that something must be done, that something needs to change. That has always been there, but there is a sense of urgency now that has inspired me to write this.

Apolitical

Two party political systems have a tendency to devolve into power sharing, where either side of the coin blames the other side, continuing to spin the coin that powers what is best termed as bacchanal. I generally don’t write about these things because it’s easy to get labeled in the popular ad hominem defenses that someone has a political side simply by one thing being written. In Trinidad and Tobago, we have the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (UNC) with very little in between – two parties that have swapped power, the UNC once under the guise of a coalition that it didn’t seem too interested in.

I know people in both parties. I know people who support either party, and generally surround myself with those that are more interested in the issues than the political soap opera of the elite.

The reality is not the politics, but the politics parades as reality for many. This is not political fodder. This is about reality.

The State Company Issue

When Caroni 1975 Ltd, the state owned sugar company, was closed, it was because it was not profitable. A mixture of incompetence of management and corruption. When Petrotrin was closed down, it was seen to be the same thing regardless of how it was described. There were no attempts to fix these issues.

We see it in the plethora of State owned Corporations. T&TEC, the national supplier of electricity, dealt with outages all over it’s network, but the most memorable one was a single tree falling causing an outage throughout Trinidad. WASA, the nation’s water and sewage company, has been plagued by lack of profitability, failing infrastructure that even recently left people without water, and has a plant down still, as far as I know, because of turbid water conditions on a river– something worthy of question on an island with a wet and dry season.
Crime has regained prominence as shootings continue, debates over legal firearms continue, and yet Trinidad and Tobago’s landed Defence Force seems to be more prominent than the Coast Guard. On a dual island nation one would expect the borders to be less permeable for guns and drugs through the efforts of a Coast Guard, yet the Defence Force seems to be the answer that both political parties have reached for every time.

Then there are the plethora of regional corporations and other state entities that one needs a special dictionary for to translate the acronyms into who is responsible for what.

It seems oddly appropriate that the only police escorts are for Members of Parliament and prisoners on the way to Court.

“How did it become this way?”, people ask, though sounding much more local with seasoned adjectives. Everyone seems to have something to say on that.

I do too.

How It Got This Way.

It can be boiled down to three things: Nepotism, corruption, and lack of diversification of the economy. Where corruption is suspected and is not present, transparency is the issue. The lack of economic diversification deserves it’s own section.

Nepotism sometimes lends itself to incompetence, sometimes to corruption, sometimes both. This has gone on for decades, and much like Putin’s equipment that failed in Ukraine, and continues to fail, the infrastructure of Trinidad and Tobago fails with a little rain. We could bring climate change into this but that’s a broader topic, a global topic, and one some dismiss outright. Yet the reality is that the nation of Trinidad and Tobago is small, and therefore nepotism is not as avoidable. It’s simply a reality that must be better balanced with transparency.

When I sat on some land I owned adjacent to what National Infrastructure and Development Corporation (NIDCO) took from me about a decade ago (still haven’t been paid for it) I watched the highway shift more than once for people to get paid even when the highway didn’t affect the land. Even as WASA ran the water line next to the highway, I saw their materials being taken for other things by other people – but I do know that there’s not much sand around that water line as was sourced for. I imagine that line will leak as the clay around it dries and is soaked in the seasons, maybe leading to larger issues later on.

I’ve watched this Diego Martin Overpass being constructed, and attended the public meetings. I took my time in one meeting and took apart what NIDCO had submitted to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), from the clear boundaries of waterways in the project that itself stated it would not impact waterways, to the omission of the orange winged parrots and red rumped agouti in the area. It was clear the document was copied and pasted from other documents, with part of it claiming an increase in traffic while also pointing out that the population in the area was declining. At the meetings, there was no one advocating the $500 million overpass. The fact that they took the land that people in the environs were told would be a park and a swimming pool to honor George Bovell for the overpass pleased no one in the area that I could tell. No one stood up in a public meeting and said, “We want this!”, but many asked serious questions that were never quite answered.

When it rains heavily these days, the Diego Martin Highway on either side of the overpass sees flooding. In my mind, that would have been the thing to spend the $TT500m on.

When I was on the Board of Victoria Keyes – a volunteer position I resigned when I saw the politics entering the management of the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) leased property – I had dealings with the contractors and there were verbal promises made, but it’s apparent since Victoria Keyes to date has no concurrent lease, that the residents there, and in the adjacent Powder Magazine would have little to no say. The lessor, HDC, and NIDCO, two state run enterprises, will do what they will behind closed doors.

There is a pattern of this, almost fractal in nature, and I imagine administrating this must be a nightmare. It certainly creates many of them.

These are just some hints as to the larger picture, where the government is the largest employer in the country through a number of state enterprises. To speak ill of the government if you work for the government would be career limiting regardless of which political party is dominant and which is in opposition, though at least one person characterized as a blogger seems to sometimes do so, but in doing so has raised more questions. There is a need for more transparency, but that transparency must not be considered biased – a curse the media itself has been accused of by politicians and vagrants alike.

The reality is that both parties are responsible for where we are, and those that try to fill in the middle are dismissed out of sheer inertia.

Trinidad and Tobago is the victim of it’s choices. A better choice has yet to evolve.

Lack of Diversification of the Economy.
The issue of Crime is an issue of economy. The economic disparity in Trinidad and Tobago is not something that is discussed politely, and perhaps it should not be spoken of politely. Regardless, the reality is that the socioeconomics related to geographic areas combined with the government’s decades of failure has lead to less options for those young souls looking for their place in the world. I was fortunate not that I had good socioeconomic status – I did not – but I had opportunity and I was able to leverage it.

Since I became aware of the larger world around the end of my teenage years, every government has mentioned ‘diversifying the economy’. This gives my personal experience being that of 35 years. I imagine it could be more but I can write only what I know. That was an exciting period to grow up in, as personal computers became prominent throughout the world. I went on to become a Software Engineer for roughly 26 of those 35 years, working abroad since no jobs were available in the country. While many believe that Canada, the United States and the UK are the lands of milk and honey, they are really the lands of milking cows and beekeeping – you work hard. You generally don’t get paid enough and you spend much of what you earn on keeping the ability to earn. This is not to say that some money is not used irresponsibly by individuals, or that bad choices aren’t made, but those are also learning opportunities and in retrospect, experience.

The secret of Silicon Valley isn’t it’s successes, but the constant failures that build experience in those that work there. Trinidad and Tobago, if it chooses to, can do much.

At one point, a senior engineer at Honeywell asked me what I was doing working since what he planned to do for his retirement was to buy some land in the Caribbean and retire here. That conversation echoed in my mind for decades because the Internet had come into being, and what one can do in one country one can also do in another when it came to software. Unfortunately, the plans for Trinidad and Tobago to become an Internet hub, as I understand it, were neglected by the government, while the banks did nothing of worth to allow for credit card transactions online. Even now I’m fairly certain that it’s not that easy. PayPal doesn’t like the Caribbean that much other than accepting money from it. When I spoke with banks in the United States and Canada, they said they had issues with money laundering from Trinidad and Tobago and that’s why they didn’t like dealing with the banks.

I’d like to think that has improved. I can’t say I see results of improvement, but like everyone, I am subject to availability bias and look forward to being proven wrong.

When ‘businessmen’ are spoken of, you’ll rarely find those that export, instead finding a definite bias toward importation. That Trinidad and Tobago could be exporting software and other intellectual property, the metaphorical oil of the last decades, has been a thought tickled now and then but never taken seriously.

Is it the brain drain as people leave the country for better pastures where they can advance based on merit? Is it the crime situation that has, despite claims otherwise, been a prominent issue since the 1990s with only mild breaks in between? Is it the steady stream of developed nation media projecting promises and attracting bright minds?Is it that the opportunity some seek simply cannot be found in Trinidad and Tobago? It’s likely all of those and more; everyone who leaves will have their own reasons and broad brushes neglect the details.

In casting one’s eyes around the Caribbean, it’s easy to see economies of smaller islands with smaller populations rapidly diversifying, and the largest English speaking island, Jamaica, has certainly made it’s own strides in areas. I’m not well enough researched on these things to say whether they are better or worse, to project what the outcomes will be. What I can say is that these nations are trying to do something. They seem to be doing more than making announcements.

Problem Solving

Governments around the world are very good at announcing how much money they will throw at a problem to make it go away. Trinidad and Tobago does much the same, and it also has this propensity toward creating Yet More Bureaucracy. At no point does anyone seem to think in an era of technology that perhaps less bureaucracy would be a good idea, maybe because that may threaten income for those that profit from it.

Bureaucracies maintain a status quo and they are quite good at it. Enlightened self-interest within bureaucratic systems assures that the resistance to change is granular. Someone recently asked me about the relatively new Ministry of Digital Transformation and I laughed from the gut. Since the 1980s I have worked on ‘digital transformation’ in it’s various iterations and it never required a Ministry, but to show that something is being done, bureaucrats create new bureaucracies. It is the way of things, and it is beguiling. That the existing Ministries simply did not take on digital transformation as a long term project within their own Ministries is a bit disturbing. What have they been doing for decades? We can see what they haven’t been doing.

Political administrations have changed during those decades. What changes less often than the politicians, which rarely change in Trinidad and Tobago? The bureaucracies.

People of Trinidad and Tobago have a lot of ideas outside of politics to fix things and, as can be found on social media and in the press, there is an increasing amount of self-help in this regard. In this regard, I do hope that the new Ministry of Digital Transformation finds success, yet having watched various iterations attempting to solve the same problem, I fear it will end up not doing so. Why? Because that paradigm has not shown much success.

So how does all of this get solved?  What we do know is that doing more of the same will get more of the same, and it seems we’re saturated with the same. It’s time for Trinidad and Tobago to throw the politics and associated narratives under the broken down electric bus (it will be a news story sooner or later) and create new narratives, more sustainable narratives that permit for progress rather than simple change.

Closing

Oddly enough, while stationary in traffic yesterday, my vehicle got rubbed the wrong way and so, we went to the police station to do our reports. It was, even the police mentioned, rare that two adults who had an accident were as friendly as the two of us ended up being about the whole matter. Insurance will take care of the stupid stuff, more than likely, but standing up there we took the time to actually meet each other. While the young policeman dutifully filled out the report, asking questions and seeking clarifications, we spoke about life in Trinidad and Tobago. We were both amused that a police vehicle was behind him and saw the whole thing but did not stop.

It was a bit much, really, the questioning, the handwritten form the officer dutifully filled out without a computer in sight. This was my first time doing one, so I was interested in the whole process because it’s my nature to try to understand these things. One question stood out, where each of us were asked if we were left or right handed.

The policemen both hid smiles when, upon the other gentleman revealing he was left-handed, I pointed at him with a smile and exclaimed, “Ahah!”, as if it had some bearing on what happened. It, of course, did not and everyone standing within 5 feet of that form knew that.

I found this a suitable metaphor to end this with on many different levels.

First, the our dominant hand had nothing to do with the accident itself, but was a question on the form that no one seems to have interrogated in some time – I would suggest a rubber hose and a bright light. Secondly, technology could have expedited the work for the officer, which would have allowed for more parking at the police station for the need to make the report in the first place and for him to be doing something else. Last, but not least, the police vehicle that was behind him could well have stopped and handled the whole thing in much shorter time, if only the way of doing things were subject to change.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the government is left or right handed. It doesn’t matter how many announcements and pronouncements are made, and the length of the speeches has nothing to do with the results. It’s about the results, the solutions, and the ability to see those solutions through beyond election cycles. In this regard, Trinidad and Tobago needs to create a new narrative, and in my mind, that new narrative cannot come from those steeped in the old narratives.

The media, social and traditional, has a major part to play in that, from the seasoned journalists to the news editors to the social media postings.

Left or right hand matters not. Use both. It’s not as if there’s much time.

Goodbye, Flickr.

Recently, my subscription to Flickr expired and on logging in today, they asked me once again to upgrade. Something like $143 for 2 years, or $6+ a month. I balanced this in my mind. When I was exploring photography and truly enjoying making so many mistakes, Flickr was a pretty good deal.

Now, not so much.

First of all, I have learned that I don’t like walking around with a camera all the time. In Trinidad and Tobago, that’s a good way to lose a camera to someone who wants it more than you. This has happened to me once when I left a camera in an unlocked car (my fault), so I’m a bit paranoid about that. And since I mostly shoot nature, I tend to walk with longer lenses which do not allow for being inconspicuous when wandering around.

Second, I shoot less photos because I have become better at it. Flickr allowed me to see which photos were most liked, but really, many of my photos during periods were different shots of the same thing. There’s only so many landscape photos on the same beach that someone will like, but I plunged forward because I enjoyed it – and I did – and because it allowed me to get better at it.

Lastly, the camera on my phone has improved enough for most things I would shoot with the exception of some niche wildlife shots, and the sharing of photos in that regard is easy, cheap, and doesn’t require Flickr.

The technology has changed, the competition has changed, I have changed, and I suppose Flickr will be freeing up space for someone else soon enough.

I must say, I like the direction they are going in, but I suppose we have grown apart. I wish them well.

If You Boost Content.

Brick-Moji Thinking face by Ochre Jelly on Flickr - public domain Aug 4 2022Out of the blue last week, someone I knew said they knew a way that I could get the site to make $500 a  month if I simply continued thrashing out content like a mad monkey.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but that’s how I read it. Of course, he wanted to schedule a meeting to talk about how this could be done and… well, I’m a person who reads and evaluates, not talks and evaluates. Something of worth in my mind sells itself and meetings are… well, let’s be honest. Meetings aren’t very exciting and I avoid them unless absolutely necessary.
This leads to things I have been considering over the past month or so as I wrote a lot but published nothing on the web. I have this idea I’m fleshing out and I don’t want to jump the gun on it – and oddly enough it started off as a post I was writing for RealityFragments.com.

I’m more focused on the reading and writing now than the publishing and monetization. There’s also this pressure on the Internet to write frequently when I’d rather take my time and be happy with what I put out for a variety of reasons. When something comes with money, it generally asks for a bias and I’d rather the bias be mine or the readers, or a combination of the two. Money can easily change that when someone wants to pay you. This isn’t my first rodeo.

What also happens with such things is that for lack of something to write, you end up rewriting, and if I have written about something I generally don’t revisit it until something has changed. I don’t write reviews of technology because you only really know how good a technology is until years later. Hype, as it is, is overhyped.

However, what I was pointing out was how silly it is that, being in Trinidad and Tobago, I would have to start a company in the United States to get paid by Stripe for WordPress, etc. And that’s a problem I think that can and perhaps should be avoided. I am slowly working on some solution(s) on that.

Dealing With Information: Why I’m Back To Physical Books.

RandomBooks0Before the Internet, I remember when Hypertext was first covered in Byte Magazine back in the 1980s. I thought that hypertext would be awesome since it could link to relative terms, as Wikipedia does now, and a teenage version of me was floored by the potential.

It didn’t go quite the way I thought it would.

The Internet came around, and we now had this ability to link to pages of seemingly infinite length. Anyone who has seriously researched the Internet on just about anything found themselves getting easily sidetracked by some interesting tidbit elsewhere, which was a real tyranny before tabbed browsing.

Forward, back, it also links here, click a different link, back… Tabbed browsing saved us from that only to give us a plethora of tabs that we leave open, some forgotten, and sometimes one of them will suddenly start making noise and we have to track down which it was…. but now we can mute tabs, so that’s not so bad if we’re organized.

Enter the electronic book. What I had hoped for was being able to have my own little library where I could scribble notes here and there, sort of like a Wiki but with my books in it. It’s a grand idea, I think, and one I have taken stabs at more than once when I had this thing we call ‘spare time’. It never quite worked out. Truth be told, I’d have rather been reading and cross-pollinating ideas in my head.

In 2007, I was one of the early adopters of the Amazon Kindle – that first generation. I’d end up giving that one to my mother when I upgraded, and she seemed to like it, but I noted that she did what I did – she still accumulated physical books much to my chagrin. When she moved around during that period, I was the beast of burden who often asked her why she didn’t collect lighter things. This is beasts of burden should not be sentient.

I upgraded again, and again… I presently have 3 kindles, and they have all been nice to read one book at a time, but I’m not a one book at a time sort of person. I flit between books and scribbled notes, as well as the Internet and even emailing authors and experts (which is really, really cool when they respond – thank you!). I’m looking for ways to understand the world, as we all are, and the more it doesn’t make sense, the more I research. It’s a Sisyphean task.

Then books started getting removed off of electronic devices without warning or recourse, and it ends up when you buy a book from a store like Amazon for your reader, you don’t have as much control as a physical book. Besides being unable to scribble archaic thoughts in the margins and even pointing to other things in other books… you don’t actually own the book. You have this ‘license’, of sorts, that doesn’t really permit you to lend your friend a book, or for a friend to lend you a book.

You can’t gift a book to someone that you’ve already read, which admittedly isn’t the way perceive gifts. You can’t wander through an old store filled with used electronic books and pick up some eccentric titles from yesteryear, aside from what good projects like Project Gutenberg do.

Organically, unconsciously, I once again became a closet physical book user, with little sticky notes and the omnipresent pen at the ready.

And as I write this, I have a stack of books ordered to be picked up hopefully this week.

Why is it this way? Because people are more interested in selling books than sharing knowledge? I don’t know. I do know that in the age of electronics, I’m reading on paper still and I find it better for my needs.

A Need For Patches

Brick-Moji Thinking face by Ochre Jelly on Flickr - public domain Aug 4 2022Yesterday I was just sitting around and thinking about a bunch of sentient beings on a moon of some planet way off in imaginary-land and ended up thinking a bit about education. I don’t think it was profound, really, but I think it might be of use when we think about society and how it pushes and pulls based on the bias of what we consider to be intelligent, and what we consider to be educated.

Those of us who have truly explored our world and the minds in it understand that an educated mind isn’t necessarily intelligent, and that an intelligent mind doesn’t necessarily have to be educated. Even then, we can’t decide if there is a bias in testing – some say yes, there is a bias, and some say no. Now here’s where it gets warped: The people that made it through the education system are the ones considered to be experts, saying that if there is bias, it’s negligible because other people who made it through an education system say so. I’m not an expert and won’t pretend to be, but my experience in my life shows me that there is bias, and not just of the educational system but of the systems that feed into the educational systems. It’s complex.

Spoiler: I don’t know the answer, and given my own experience I’ll say that there is room for a lot of thinking about it beyond what is said by either side of that debate.

In my mind, it’s perfectly fine to entertain more than one side of a conversation. It doesn’t mean that I have to charge off and defend arguments on one side or the other, it means I should be tearing them apart and trying to see what’s wrong with what everyone is saying and figure it out myself so that I can have an opinion on my own. That, I think, is what learning should be, and by extension I think that’s what education should prepare use to do – not recite memorized things to pass tests.

In an age of social media, where everyone is snapping off witty one liners and dropping to ad hominem attacks when they don’t work, I think we forget that we should be thinking more and typing less.

Oddly enough, my Twitter feed provided me with, “Thoughts Without a Thinker: Cognitive decline in an age of brilliance“. John Nosta writes of the Medieval era when there was a Trivium that consisted of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. From there, the Quadvrium, or ‘subects’, were taught:

“…Each of the three part play an important role in a student’s educational foundation. Grammar helped students to understand the structure of language and how it worked. Dialectic helped them to ask questions and probe beneath the surface of things. And Rhetoric helped them to express their understanding in a clear and persuasive way. In a very basic way, the Trivium taught students how assimilate and process information — in other words, how to think!…”

It’s something I didn’t know and thus a pleasure to read.

My comparisons are generally with the German University because I’d read, “Academic Freedom in the Age of the University” (Walter Metzger, 1961), where Metzger wrote quite a bit about Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lehrnefreheite (freedom to learn), which are not quite the same but I imagine built from the Trivium and Quadvrium and inherited from it. Perhaps some scholar will correct me, I look forward to that.

In the days of the Trivium, things were a bit simpler. There weren’t things like atoms, or software. In fact, calculus wasn’t around til Leibniz and Newton came up with it at the same time independently. The world was about observation and interpretation. Education was simpler because there was less to learn, and what we learn at this point by the end of a secondary school education likely exceeded a full education in that period, which took significantly more time.

In the last century alone, the leaps and bounds we have made in science alone are mind-boggling. Consider that Penicillin, invented by Alexander Fleming, in 1928. That’s less than 100 years ago, and now we’ve not only treated infections, we have created vaccinations that protect us from various diseases. We know so much more. Granted, we may not learn this stuff in secondary school, but we probably should. 

But this leads us to the education system itself. Consider what Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens (2018):

“…You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions…”

In Medieval times, the Trivium would have gone with the imagined order of the class divisions, the Church (likely Catholic in that period), and so on. In modern America, it would be the freedom, individuality, and so on – derived from, oddly enough, the Church where all souls were considered equal, and thus we get from the Declaration of Independence:

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Harare takes that apart and rebuilds it in his book in an interesting and some may think disturbing way, but the point is that there is a change in that imagined order. There’s nothing wrong with the imagined order, but we have to understand that these are all imagined orders of the way things are that, unless we have had some part in changing the imagined order, it was the way it was. In the same breath, we can talk about how that Declaration of Independence didn’t apply to former slaves of African descent, and how how Malcolm X pointed out that, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” 

That imagined order where slavery was permissible in the United States went away. Educational segregation went away in an uproar with young Linda Brown at the center. And the imagined order changed.

In 1920, women in the United States were recognized as having the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. Again, the imagined order changed.

That’s just the big stuff. There’s a lot in between that happened as well, and all the while, the 1920s saw the beginnings of AM radio broadcasting, the 1930s began FM broadcasting (which your radio likely still uses), television was beginning in parallel… no longer did one have to wait for updates on the world through newspapers. Personal letters may still travel by ship, since the first commercial airplane flights were happening about 100 years ago as well…

Our imagined order of things has shifted significantly. And in all of this, with the advent of social media in the last few decades, we have a generation growing up with a lot of different ‘imagined orders’ around the world competing. In fact right now, the biggest issue seems to be between authoritarian and democratic systems, but there are plenty of other things based on religion and culture as well.

In all of this – all of this – it comes back to what John Nosta wrote within his last paragraph, which I encourage you to read:

“Thoughts are the fabric of society.”

My friends, I do believe we need to patch a few things.






Why Social Media Moderation Fails

Ukrainian Military Tractor Pulling Moscow Parody
A clear parody of a Ukrainian tractor pulling the Moscow.

Moderation of content has become a bit ridiculous on social media sites of late. Given that this post will show up on Facebook, and the image at top will be shown, it’s quite possible that the Facebook algorithms that have run amok with me over similiar things, clear parody, may further restrict my account. I clearly marked the image as a parody.

Let’s see what happens. I imagine they’ll just toss more restrictions on me, which is why Facebook and I aren’t as close as we once were. Anyone who thinks a tractor pulling the sunk Moskva really happened should probably have their head examined, but this is the issue of such algorithms left unchecked. It quite simply is impossible, implausible, and… yes, funny, because Ukrainian tractors have invariably been the heroes of the conflict, even having been blown up when their owners were simply trying to reap their harvests.

But this is not about that.

This is about understanding how social media moderation works, and doesn’t, and why it does, and doesn’t.

What The Hell Do You Know?

Honestly, not that much. As a user, I’ve steered clear of most problems with social networks simply by knowing it’s not a private place where I can do as I please – and even where I can, I have rules of conduct I live by that are generally compatible with the laws of society.

What I do know is that when I was working on the Alert Retrieval Cache way back when, before Twitter, the problem I saw with this disaster communication software was the potential for bad information. Since I couldn’t work on it by myself because of the infrastructural constraints of Trinidad and Tobago (which still defies them for emergency communications), I started working on the other aspects of it, and the core issue was ‘trusted sources’.

Trusted Sources.

To understand this problem, you go to a mechanic for car problems, you go to a doctor for medical problems, and so on. Your mechanic is a trusted source for your car (you would hope). But what if your mechanic specializes in your car, but your friend has a BMW that spends more time in the shop than on the road? He might be a trusted source.

You don’t see a proctologist when you have a problem with your throat, though maybe some people should. And this is where the General Practitioner comes in to basically give you directions on what specialist you should see. With a flourish of a pen in alien handwriting, you are sent off to a trusted source related to your medical issue – we hope.

In a disaster situation, you have on the ground people you have on the ground. You might be lucky enough to have doctors, nurses, EMTs and people with some experience in dealing with a disaster of whatever variety that’s on the table, and so you have to do the best with what you have. For information, some sources will be better than others. For getting things done, again, it depends a lot on the person on the ground.

So the Alert Retrieval Cache I was working on after it’s instantiation was going to have to deal with these very human issues, and the best way to deal with that is with other humans. We’re kind of good at that, and it’s not something that AI is very good at because AI is built by specialists and beyond job skills, most people are generalists.You don’t have to be a plumber to fix a toilet, and you don’t have to be a doctor to put a bandage on someone. What’s more, people can grow beyond their pasts despite an infatuation in Human Resources with the past.

Nobody hires you to do what you did, they hire you to do what they want to do in the future.

So just in a disaster scenario, trusted sources are fluid. In an open system not confined to disasters, open to all manner of cute animal pictures, wars, protests, and even politicians (the worst of the lot in my opinion), trusted sources is a complete crapshoot. This leads everyone to trust nothing, or some to trust everything.

Generally, if it goes with your cognitive bias, you run with it. We’re all guilty of it to some degree. The phrase, “Trust but verify” is important.

In social media networks, ‘fact checking’ became the greatest thing since giving up one’s citizenship before a public offering. So fact checking happens, and for the most part is good – but, when applied to parody, it fails. Why? Because algorithms don’t have a sense of humor. It’s either a fact, or it’s not. And so when I posted the pictures of Ukrainian tanks towing everything, Facebook had a hissy fit, restricted my account and apparently had a field day going through past things I posted that were also parody. It’s stupid, but that’s their platform and they don’t have to defend themselves to me.

Is it annoying? You bet. Particularly since no one knows how their algorithms work. I sincerely doubt that they do. But this is a part of how they moderate content.

In protest, does it make sense to post even more of the same sort of content? Of course not. That would be shooting one’s self in the foot (as I may be doing now when this posts to Facebook), but if you’ve already lost your feet, how much does that matter?

Social media sites fail when they don’t explain their policies. But it gets worse.

Piling on Users.

One thing I’ve seen on Twitter that has me shaking my head, as I mentioned in the more human side of Advocacy and Social Networks, is the ‘Pile On’, where a group of people can get onto a thread and overload someone’s ability to respond to one of their posts. On most networks there is some ‘slow down’ mechanism to avoid that happening, and I imagine Twitter is no different, but that might be just from one specific account. Get enough accounts doing the same thing to the same person, it can get overwhelming from the technical side, and if it’s coordinated – maybe everyone has the same sort of avatar as an example – well, that’s a problem because it’s basically a Distributed Denial of Service on another user.

Now, this could be about all manner of stuff, but the algorithms involved don’t care about how passionate people might feel about a subject. They could easily see commonalities in the ‘attack’ on a user’s post, and even on the user. A group could easily be identified as doing pile ons, and their complaints could be ‘demoted’ on the platform, essentially making it an eyeroll and, “Ahh.These people again.”

It has nothing to do with the content. Should it? I would think it should, but then I would want them to agree with my perspective because if they didn’t, I would say it’s unfair. As Lessig wrote, Code is Law. So there could well be algorithms watching that. Are there? I have no earthly idea, but it’ something I could see easily implemented.

And for being someone who does it, if this happens? It could well cause problems for the very users trying to advocate a position. Traffic lights can be a real pain.

Not All In The Group Are Saints.

If we assume that everyone in our group can do no wrong, we’re idiots. As groups grow larger, the likelihood of getting something wrong increases. As groups grow larger, there’s increased delineation from other groups, there’s a mob mentality and there’s no apology to be had because there’s no real structure to many of these collective groups. When Howard Rheingold wrote about Smart Mobs, I waited for him to write about “Absolutely Stupid Mobs”, but I imagine that book would not have sold that well.

Members of groups can break terms of service. Now, we assume that the account is looked at individually. What happens if they can be loosely grouped? We have the technology for that. Known associates, etc, etc. You might be going through your Twitter home page and find someone you know being attacked by a mob of angry clowns – it’s always angry clowns, no matter how they dress – and jump in, passionately supporting someone who may have well caused the entire situation.

Meanwhile, Twitter, Facebook, all of them simply don’t have the number of people to handle what must be a very large flaming bag of complaints on their doorstep every few microseconds. Overwhelmed, they may just go with what the algorithms say and call it a night so that they can go home before the people in the clown cars create traffic.

We don’t know.

We have Terms of Service for guidelines, but we really don’t know the algorithms these social media sites run to check things out. It has to be at least a hybrid system, if not almost completely automated. I know people on Twitter who are on their third accounts. I just unfollowed one today because I didn’t enjoy the microsecond updates on how much fun they were having jerking the chains of some group that I won’t get into. Why is it their third account? They broke the Terms of Service.

What should you not do on a network? Break the Terms of Service.

But when the terms of service are ambiguous, how much do they really know? What constitutes an ‘offensive’ video? An ‘offensive’ image? An ‘offensive’ word? Dave Chappelle could wax poetic about it, I’m sure, as could Ricky Gervais, but they are comedians – people who show us the humor in an ugly world, when permitted.

Yet, if somehow the group gets known to the platform, and enough members break Terms of Service, could they? Would they? Should they?

We don’t know. And people could be shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s Not Our Platform.

As someone who has developed platforms – not the massive social media platforms we have now, but I’ve done a thing or two here and there – I know that behind the scenes things can get hectic. Bad algorithms happen. Good algorithms can have bad consequences. Bad algorithms can have good consequences. Meanwhile, these larger platforms have stock prices to worry about, shareholders to impress, and if they screw up some things, well, shucks, there’s plenty of people on the platform.

People like to talk about freedom of speech a lot, but that’s not really legitimate when you’re on someone else’s website. They can make it as close as they can, following the rules and laws of many nations or those of a few, but really, underneath it all, their algorithms can cause issues for anyone. They don’t have to explain to you why the picture of your stepmother with her middle finger up was offensive, or why a tractor towing a Russian flag ship needed to be fact checked.

In the end, there’s hopefully a person at the end of the algorithm who could be having a bad day, or could just suck at their job, or could even just not like you because of your picture and name. We. Don’t. Know.

So when dealing with these social networks, bear that in mind.

Constitutionality and Creativity

webRam Singh
the late Uncle Ram, a few years before his death.

Happy Emancipation Day, Trinidad and Tobago.

I have no personal stories related to Emancipation other than my father’s death coinciding some years ago, but I think this falls under ‘Emancipation from Bureaucracy’.

My late great-Uncle on my paternal grandmother’s side was quite a character, someone who lead an interesting life. Before he died, he would visit and he would tell me of his youth, late into the night.

One such story he told me involved his uncle, Simbhoonath Capildeo. As he told the story, as a young man he built his own bicycle. Once built, he rode it to show a police friend at the local police station somewhere in Chaguanas, Trinidad, and was promptly charged with not having a license for his bicycle. This would have happened around the World War II period, perhaps a little after.

There was a time when you needed a license for a bicycle in Trinidad and Tobago, and it ends up the only places you could get such a license were the places that sold them. Having built his own bicycle from spare parts, he couldn’t get a license.

He was a scared young man in the Chaguanas courthouse one day when his Uncle Simbhoo saw him and asked him why he was there. From the way Uncle Ram explained it, he was intimidated by the courthouse, and then having one’s Uncle show up when you’d broken the law just added to his anxiety. Still, he explained to Uncle Simbhoo, and Uncle Simbhoo said he would represent him.

And so he did. From what Uncle Ram said, Simbhoonath Capildeo argued that the law regarding bicycle licenses was unconstitutional since it didn’t allow young, bright people to build their own bicycles, using their own abilities and what was available to do so because licenses were only available from people who sold bicycles. Uncle Ram begged off a bit in the story here since he didn’t understand all the intricacies, but the result was he owed no debt to society for building his own bicycle.

I haven’t tried to verify the story; it was during the times of British rule in Trinidad and Tobago and I’m not sure that records exist for that era anymore, and if they are there, how I would even start looking. I imagine there would be a lot of mundane stuff to leaf through on tattered pages in a dark and dusty room somewhere. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to check it’s veracity, it means it’s a good story and I’d like to believe it. Even if it’s not true, it’s a good story, and we could use a few good stories.

I would like to believe it’s true. And if someone has ideas on how to check, or wants to check independently, feel free to let me know!

It’s no mistake at the time that I had been talking about Lessig’s Free Culture at the time with him.

Writing For Myself: Issues.

NSB Aug 25 2014I’ve been looking into self-publishing, and other ways to write the things that I want and make a bit of cash on the side. Certainly, it’s not a way to get rich since we all can’t be bestselling authors, but it’s a way to do what I enjoy and derive some income. I know people who are on Substack, who are on Medium, etc, but all of those sites are dependent on Stripe.com, which doesn’t work well with being in the Caribbean unless you start incorporate in the United States. That seems like a ridiculous step, really. And given Stripe.com is the default for WordPress.com for accepting revenue, and my sites are on WordPress.com, it’s even sillier. Not that PayPal is much better. They are good enough in countries they support, but really, they suck outside of them, and with the issues I have had in PayPal in the past with them just deciding to lock an account for no reason and then unlock it without explanation… well, you can see how that would be a problem.

The Caribbean has had many writers of value out there, published, etc, so the problem is not the content in the Caribbean. It’s that the Caribbean is not getting a fair shake.

I am not ashamed to say that the acquaintances I have on social media do not seem to read, or share. Facebook algorithms presently have me in account restriction because I had uploaded a parody video that got their algorithm hot and sweaty, which in turn means my posts there aren’t highlighted at the top.

So Facebook is useless.

What does one do? Well, I’m not sure yet, but I know I’ll keep writing and working on the book. Maybe I’ll just self-publish and let the public sandpaper it into shape.

Still, it makes one think about the disparity caused by the way that the entire Internet socioeconomic ecosystem works, and what feeds the artificial intelligences that they are training online. That isn’t too far from technocolonialism.

Thus, a challenge. Something I’ll continue working on.

Restarting and Reimagining.

Mayaro Sunrise 2016

KnowProSE.com has been my core domain for roughly 20 years, probably more like 22, but I’m uncertain and don’t care to check. In that period it has morphed, it has been many things, and at the core of it my personal evolution and it’s evolution grew to become an issue. I even thought last year that I would finally put it to rest, instead working on RealityFragments.com, but only recently have I been working consistently on that site.

Much has changed. For a while, these past few months, I had ideas on rebuilding the site in Python to do some really cool stuff, but while I do enjoy the coding, and I do enjoy the ideas, I think I was getting a bit ahead of myself.

Something happened, though, that got me back to this and addressing the site. I encountered a like minded person with similar challenges, and in listening to her and her accomplishments, she’s figuring out what to do. That is something I know about, the reinvention of myself as I have moved from one place to another, from one interest to another… and so I told her on the phone yesterday, “Maybe the trick isn’t figuring out what you should do based on what you have done but instead figuring out what you’re going to do in the future.” Something to that effect. She thought it was profound, or said as much, and I sat there thinking it was high time to take my own advice.

How do we move forward? The Internet has turned most of my accomplishments into detritus, with people with megaphones talking about their accomplishments in print, while the accomplishments I have made over the years- decades- have had their pixels recycled. I just wrote a little about that in WorldChangin, but it’s a bit bigger than that one example. Companies I have worked for are gone, closed or bought out, websites that I have written on have disappeared, and everything I have done seems to be like sand through one’s fingers. It’s all been meaningless, one might think, but that’s not true at all.

I’m still here, and I’m more than the sum of what I have done. Part of this is my own doing. I don’t self promote, instead thinking that my works should stand on their own. This particular naivete is something I think I will stand by because it’s not about me except for one thing: I’d like to think, in some way, that what I did helps move the world to a better place. I have tried. I will continue to try. I don’t want the limelight, and I never have – and when I had it, I didn’t capitalize on it as so many have. I suppose my narcissism gene was malnourished in my youth.

Then there’s the practicality: Income is a bit of a necessity. It doesn’t need to be much, but with the world going as it is, a positive flow is necessary.

So what does this mean? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I need to work things out, including KnowProSE.com. I have been working on a book, but who hasn’t?

Here, I think, I’ll focus on the more professional parts of myself, while RealityFragments.com will be where I fiddle and play.

And maybe, just maybe, something will work out. Expect daily updates again, for there is much to write about.

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.