The Failure To Communicate. [Updated 22 Aug 2018]

Giant cucumbers from Doug and Ariana.
Cucumbers, which are not sex toys, provided here as a neutral image for this article. Use through a Creative Commons License which can be found by clicking the image.

I found yesterday (21 Aug 2018) that I had made an error in this; the Customs Act does in fact have something on obscene materials. The mistake I made was in assuming that they had searchable text. They do not have searchable text in the PDFs they have online, something worthy of note – but not an excuse. Lesson learned. 

When the Great Ban on Sex Toys in Trinidad and Tobago was announced, I was both slightly amused and curious. It’s not that I write about such topics, it’s that I’m human and that Trinidad and Tobago in it’s entirety doesn’t cease to surprise me when it comes to odd things.

You see, there were articles written as if it weren’t a developing story – there was no notation, as an example, that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s Customs and Excise Division website did not make mention of ‘sex toys’. Of course, maybe it just wasn’t updated, but a search of the Trinidad and Tobago Gazette didn’t reveal any new changes either. That took me less than 30 minutes to go through as an uninterested person, not a journalist. And I’m not a lawyer. So it seems to be a spurious claim, one that doesn’t jive. Update: Section 45 l of the Customs Act does mention things that can be related to ‘sex toys’, but not directly. 

The law being quoted is Section 46(g) of the Criminal Offences Act which says: “Any person who offers for sale or distribution or who exhibits to public view any profane, indecent, or obscene, paper, print, drawing, painting or representation may be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and if found liable, to imprisonment for two years.” Update: They were quoting the wrong law in the article. The Customs Act was the appropriate Act to quote, which would have been 45 L. 

It says nothing about importation. Granted, the last group of people I’d want to know what I do with myself would be the government and it’s employees, but the published Acts and Amendments related to Customs and Excise says nothing about sex toys, or anything profane, indecent, or obscene…

So I’m writing this, despite my misgivings about the topic, because to me the topic at issue is not sex toys, but instead appropriate research for an article that is supposed to inform the public. There is a big question here that, sure, Ministers should be able to answer – but they’re ducking it.

Selling the items is one thing. Importing for personal use seems to be quite another.

And while I wouldn’t want to know what the government would tax on sex toys, given how much I paid on a simple book recently, I don’t know that anyone would think it worthwhile – but articles that are about an alleged ban of importation of sex toys doesn’t make sense to anyone who bothers with a short amount of research.

And can someone, please, give a legal definition of a sex toy that isn’t subjective?

This is a failure of the media, in my eyes, though my eyes see the world differently than others. I view the media’s job to inform and question appropriately. The very first article should have been able to say that no one has mentioned the laws related to customs and excise, that the law quoted was about the sale of the items.

This has blaring questions attached that are so apparent that they might as well be painted bright neon pink.

And made to vibrate.

Now, if they start dealing with Internet Enabled… devices… and privacy issues, such as this data breach, I’ll write more about it. But to me, this is all about improper communication from the people we depend on to communicate.  

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The Reading Tax: Trinidad and Tobago.

The last copy I'm buying. Too many given away or stolen.While we live in an era where digital books are prevalent, and I have many of them, there are certain books that I like to have physically. And I like to have them in hardcover because, if a book is worth having physically, it’s worth having the hardcover.

So I ordered the book on the right through Amazon.com- the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. It’s somewhat rare as seen, so it ended up costing me $58 U.S. from a third party vendor through Amazon.com. I got it today, after Aeropost covered customs for me – which cost an additional $24.39 US (or $164.35 TT).

All in all, this specific book cost me $82.39 US, or $555.18 TT. It’s something I’m willing to pay for; it’s an important book for me.

Still, that is a little pricey, isn’t it? If it wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t bother.

I recalled that Nigel Khan’s bookstore used to do special orders years ago, and I thought maybe it would be worth exploring – they do, after all, import books. So I wandered into Southpark and asked the lady about it, and she said ‘yes’. I provided her a few titles I wanted in hardcover, English translations… and started off with ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (Paulo Freire).

She dutifully tapped away at her keyboard, then asked me to come around and choose which edition I wanted. When I wandered around, my mind’s internal jaw dropped.

I was staring at Amazon.com’s page search for ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

Still, this was an experiment and I wanted to see where this would go. Maybe they had a better deal for me. Maybe it would be something worthwhile, maybe there would be some value added to me somehow. So I chose the 50th year anniversary hardcover of ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, which I saw was clearly was $64.47 US.

And we worked through the other book – Musashi’s, “Book of Five Rings”.

Then, she whipped out her calculator – because no one uses the calculator on the computer they access the Internet on (there’s money down the tubes) – and she started working out the pricing.

Now, I paid about 30% markup on the Douglas Adams book myself, which is pretty steep for any book – but let’s work with a 30% markup. So, at $64.47 US, I should be looking at about $84 US to bring the book in. That’s about $566-570 TT.  In my head, I averaged roughly $575 TT, which wasn’t too far off as I write this.

That solar powered calculator had other numbers in mind.

It spoke with the woman’s voice and told me $1200 TT/$180 US.

For a $65 US book. For something I could bring in myself for roughly $84 US.

What?! For one book? That’s effectively buying the same book almost 3 times and getting only one copy. I buy the government a copy they don’t get, I buy the bookstore a copy they don’t get, and I get one.

I’ll bring it in myself when I’m ready. Or, at those prices, maybe I should fly to the U.S. and bring in a suitcase of books.

Everybody knows it.

But people in Trinidad and Tobago, largely, know this. And this is one aspect of living in small economy with little purchasing power, subject to pricing necessary to maintain a business presence in Trinidad and Tobago based on importation. I can get screwed by the government alone by bringing it in myself, or I can get screwed by the government who subsequently screws a business that’s screwing me.

Yet not everyone can order the books off of Amazon – foreign exchange is a commodity unto itself in Trinidad and Tobago. So if you want a book and you can’t get the foreign exchange together, which is just about everybody these days, you get charged about 3 times the book price for a special order.

And can everyone afford that? No.

Reading in Trinidad and Tobago seems to have become a luxury. We live in a global information economy, and these prices for books in the Trinidad and Tobago Information Fiefdom do not bode well for the future.

Filling Voids

VoidI’m paying much more attention to my writing these days and, stepping back for a moment last night, I realized that some of the things I’ve been writing are to fill voids.

There’s the issue of purchasing land in Trinidad and Tobago, which isn’t actually hard, but it is something a significant amount of people I have encountered in the world and social media have not gotten right. When so many people are screwing something up, one has to wonder why that is. It’s easily dismissed as people being stupid, but it’s improperly dismissed that way. People simply don’t know. Despite writing that article, there’s a demographic that will still screw it up – but I’ve done my part.

That lead me to wonder why local media hasn’t successfully addressed the problem, if at all. Of course, they may have covered it – I spend less and less time reading local media – but the problem persists. So if that article helps one person, it will have done it’s job. If it helps 100, it’s a success. If it influences 1,000 people to do things properly, it will be slightly awesome. It will have served a purpose.

There are things people need to know. In the world, information like that is guarded for no real reason, and it keeps people back.

In a world of information, we have information fiefdoms guarded by gatekeepers. There’s no reason for any of this to be hard or difficult other than the highest priority of a gatekeeper seems to be self-preservation.

The truth is, I like the voids. As a software engineer, I fell in love with the problems no one else could solve, even with the advent of the Internet and search engines – the bleeding edge.

There’s plenty of bleeding edge outside of technology, too – we tend to think of things on the horizon when that bleeding edge is instead getting people to tie their shoes so that they don’t trip on the way there.

Having tripped on my shoelaces so often while staring into a void, I do not find it amusing to see other people do it.

Writing Bios.

P1000895We live in a world where there’s video, where there’s audio… and there’s the writing.

Many people write every day. Some, not at all. Writing, like everything else, takes practice.

I got a message today from a close friend:

How do you write so seemingly effortlessly? I’ve been trying to write a simple staff bio for a website for the past 8 hours and I have one sentence. 😥

Years ago, I would have looked at this and been astonished that anyone thought that of me – that I could write ‘seemingly effortlessly’. Nowadays, I’ll take what I get. So I responded to her, told her to just write and write and write about anything – leave, then look at what you wrote. It’s called ‘free writing’…

Sadly, I don’t think my advice helped that much. Her response was that she was going to mow the lawn.

I’ve been there. I think any writer has been there.

And I think anyone who has had to write an awful bio about themselves most certainly has been there. The Geneva Convention should have something to say about that.

Bios are horrible. How do you want to be seen? Who will be reading it? What will they think of me? What’s the line between pretentious and confident? And what do they mean 3 paragraphs? Or just one?

How can you possibly boil yourself down into one paragraph? Or three? I think that most autobiographies started off as bios where writers didn’t stop.

But a bio is not too hard, really. Clearly you can’t show people the entirety of you in one paragraph – there’d have to be a very unimpressive you. So stop thinking about who you want to be seen as.

Instead, ask yourself, “Who would these people want to know?”

That’s the secret. Generally, people want to feel confident about the person that they’re trusting with… something. So, if you’re writing a bio related to baking, you might want to write how long you’ve been doing it, what sort of baking you’ve done, and where you’ve done it.

That’s not too hard. Done right, that’s one sentence. You have a few more sentences to go. What else about you would they want to know? Well, people want to know that you’re passionate about something (hopefully baking).  And what else? What makes you a human being? What makes you human like the rest of us?

Don’t say, for example, that you collect frogs. I did that once and it went sideways. I had a few plagues of frog related things from people for about a decade. Maybe you like photography. Maybe you read. Maybe you write. Maybe you spend time with your kids, or your nephews and nieces, or maybe you like to simply sit down and read a book.

So, here’s your bio so far:

[Insert name here] has been with the company for [?] years, and has been baking for [?] years. She spends her time reading Baking Technology websites and playing with her dog, Mr. Cupcake, who also requires gluten free pastries.

There. You have a basic bio. You could add some edge to it, depending on the company or organization, but edgy cuts both ways.

It’s not hard to flesh that out from there if they want a longer bio. Play with those two parts, stretch them, and then see what is worth keeping.

And don’t be too hard on yourself. That someone wants you to write a bio typically means that they think you should have one – so do your best.

See An Attorney: Purchasing Land in T&T

Survey PointThere’s always a deal too good to be true anywhere, but in Trinidad and Tobago it seems those that are easily swindled are found all over – I’ve met more than a few.

This post on Facebook about an allegedly dishonest real estate agent is what prompted this post. I’ve seen it too many times, partly because I own property.

It’s easy for anyone to say derogatory things about people who fall for land related fraud. I see it as an issue of a lack of education, of desperation, and the promise of something too good to be true. And on the flip side, there are enough people out there with property that don’t understand the process themselves and dig their own holes.

And, to be clear, I am not an attorney. I just know one thing that should be the mantra of anyone who is going to purchase property: Consult an attorney with land conveyance experience.

What I share beyond that is subject to about 20 years of indirect experience and 13 years of direct experience of dealing with property sales in Trinidad and Tobago.

The First Steps

The first step is, so that everyone knows, not to build a house and hope that the owner never shows up. It’s actually to have a conversation with the landowner – and from there, the following should be done if a sale is agreed upon:

(1) A deed search: Don’t buy property without a deed because then… you’re not really buying property. You may be buying rights, and I’ve seen instances where the rights are dubious.

Any attorney can do a deed search. It verifies that the deed is legitimate. However, it doesn’t verify that the deed being shown represents the land that is being sold. See part II.

If someone is selling rights, that’s a legal process as well which involves notifying the landowner. 

(2) A survey: You can’t buy or sell anything without defining what it is.

Get a survey.  That survey will also verify that the deed shown in step 1 is the same one being dealt with.

Purchase agreements can be done without surveys, but without very specific circumstances the best bet is to have a survey – and I think it’s in the purchaser’s interests to have their surveyor do it.

(3) Purchase Agreement: Once everyone agrees to a price for the property being sold – conveyed –  everyone goes to an attorney to do the purchase agreement. The purchaser can select their own attorney (I encourage it).

It usually means putting 10% down, as well as other things that the attorney will advise you on –  such things can change, so I won’t get into that. Attorneys get paid to stay on top of that. See one.

Do not simply hand money over to someone without a signed agreement.

(4) At the end of the purchase agreement period, pay off what is owed. You pay the lawyer for services, as well as deed registration, and so on.

You’ll need an assessment number as well – the attorney should already have that from the people selling – and you’ll go get your own assessment number, which is it’s own process.

And that’s basically how you purchase land/property. And even with this simple thing, you’ll note you always start at an attorney to verify that the deed is legitimate, and you should get your advice about everything else right then and there. I don’t expect the overall process to change, but your attorney will advise you.

Do it right or don’t do it at all. Don’t cry fraud if you never went to see an attorney, you just look silly.

Ferrying The Wrong Questions Without Data

leaving TrinidadPeople have been talking a lot about the new ferry between Trinidad and Tobago, the MV Galleon’s Passage. There’s been plenty of coverage in the media – some I’m certain I haven’t seen – but I ignored much of it because it was apparent that people talking about the ship and the one it had replaced didn’t know too much about ships.

I found myself staring at a comparison between the MF Panorama and the MV Galleon’s Passage on Facebook. Assuming the information is correct, there’s a lot to speculate on – but there’s not enough.

Ship Name MF PANORAMA MV GALLEONS PASSAGE
Built 1987 2016
Length 101.28 m 74 m
Breadth 17.54 m 22 m
Speed (Top) 14.6 knots (19 knots) 11.6 knots (22 knots)
# Passengers 1,000 700
# beds 45 0
# cars 145 100
Time to Tobago 5 hours 6-8 hours

Let’s assume for a moment that this is all correct – I’m not sure.

On the surface, this is a pretty clear comparison between two ships. In this comparison, the new ship, the MV Galleons Passage is smaller by length, yet wider. It’s maximum speed is slower. It carries less passengers. It has no beds, and it carries less cars. That’s all pretty damning, right?

Not really. Probably the most important aspect of a ferry is the displacement. You can have a ship that has lower length and breadth that has a higher displacement. I’m not saying that this is the case here, I’m saying that information isn’t available here and can’t be found easily on the Internet, if it exists at all. The draft of the ships could have hinted at that. A read of ship measurements might be revealing.

The point is, the data we have here really doesn’t demonstrate much except some decreases – the number of passengers, cars and beds have decreased – the beds all the way out of existence – but then we get into different things that should have been considered when looking at getting a ferry.

What does the ferry need to do?

The ferry needs to transport people and things back and forth between Trinidad and Tobago. We could leave it at that – in fact, it seems everyone has – but really, it’s more complicated than it has been framed in the media and by politicians.

When purchasing something, we should be looking not only at it’s capacity – it’s value, per se – as well as it’s cost. If you don’t know the difference between cost and value, hold your breath. The cost of air is presently free. The value of air is revealed the as you hold your breath. Take your time.

So, like everything else, there’s an initial cost. There are also maintenance costs. In the context of a ship, you’re looking at electromechanical maintenance, other maintenance (painting, et al), as well as the cost of the ship’s complement (the people who work on the ship) and their salaries. Where’s this data?

And while we’re here, while there are no beds for people to take naps in the new ships, this information is lacking something probably more important to businesses and people in Tobago: how much cargo can be packed in there? That isn’t mentioned at all – and the difference between the Loaded and Light displacement might tell us something. We don’t have that.

That can also be a factor in speed. Most people know that if you want to go fast, you get a sports car. If you have cargo, you want a heavier vehicle which is typically slower. We don’t know that the new ship is slower because of this, but it’s worth considering.

And that gets us into historical data, as well as present day demands.

Where’s The Historical Data?

How many passengers at most need to be transported at a time? How many vehicles at a time? How many people at a time prefer a slow boat over a short hop on a plane? How does that change throughout the year?

The short answer is, we don’t know. We simply don’t have that data, and we assume that the government has that data hidden away somewhere and we would hope that the best decision would be made that fits the requirements of the ship as well as affordability. But we don’t actually have any of that data available.

There’s no actual transparency here, and while we can hope that journalists asked these questions, we don’t have evidence of that.

Open Data

And this is where we can drag it to the Trinidad and Tobago National ICT plan. There’s supposed to be ‘open data’, allowing the general public of Trinidad and Tobago information in decisions such as this. All we’ve really had is a lot of guided conversation, without actual information that shows whether the decision is good, bad, or simply the best fit with the options available. Regardless of political stripe, this information would at the least allow more sensible conversation.

In essence, we’re asking for the government not just for the right answer, but to show it’s working. And that means not only do we have to ask the right questions – journalists and, failing them, otherwise – and we have to have access to the answers to those questions.

A More Climate-Smart Caribbean? [Updated]

Usain Bolt with NX300-4
Usain Bolt with NX300-4, courtesy SamSung, Belgium. Some Rights Reserved (through Image Link)

From Richard Branson’s comment on his post – thank you – here is his response with what  countries are on the list:


“Hi Taran – the countries already signed up are: Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, US Virgin Islands, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Belize, Barbados, Bahamas, Guyana, Suriname, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, St Vincent & The Grenadines, Panama, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras. I hope to see more join the list!?”

————————————————————————

I was perusing my networks and came across this post by Richard Branson on LinkedIn about creating a cleaner Caribbean, complete with a picture of him chatting with Usain Bolt. This, in turn, leads to a post about creating the world’s first Climate Smart Zone.

I knew nothing about it. Here I am, in Trinidad and Tobago  – a part of the Caribbean – and I’m getting this news from Richard Branson on LinkedIn. That’s peculiar, isn’t it? So I dug in, particularly interested in aspects related to Trinidad and Tobago. Short answer: Nothing specific about any country, really.

In spending about an hour doing some research on it this morning, I saw no particular references to Trinidad and Tobago related to the ‘Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator‘. The name alone is a mouthful, distills to an unwieldy acronym, and doesn’t actually get into much detail. It’s boiler-plate NGO/Government communications, the message diluted for the people who probably should know more about it.

Caricom Today has an interesting article on it – “Caribbean Aims to Become World’s First Climate Smart Zone“:

Core partners include the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, CARICOM, and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

Over the next five years, the accelerator will create the right environment for private and public funds to flow into investments in clean energy, building resilience and climate-smart cities and healthy oceans.

Oh. And it mentions something rather interesting as well – that US $200 million is earmarked for this. Hidden in plain sight.

There’s more from the Inter-American Development Bank here:

The deadly havoc that was caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 posed huge challenges to many Caribbean countries. While the Caribbean has historically been vulnerable to natural disasters, climate change is exacerbating these risks and is threatening the region’s quest for sustainable development. Unless confronted with substantial resources, the economic impact for the region could exceed US$22 billion per year by 2050, or about ten percent of current GDP. Speaking at an event, Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group said:“Our goal is ambitious and bold: we are creating the world’s first climate-smart zone. We have a vision of the Caribbean which is greener, stronger and more resilient than ever before – built on innovation, powered by clean, sustainable energy and accelerated by public and private investment”.

And this, apparently, has been a thing since at least December, 2017, as this World Bank article demonstrates.

And yet, there are claims of all these ‘Caribbean countries’ being involved, but no real list of them. I found nothing about Trinidad and Tobago in there. When we write, “Caribbean Countries”, it’s a nebulous thing.

So, I’m not sure about much of this – I’ll be paying more attention to it, but there needs to be more detail in what they send out.

The people of the Caribbean certainly would be interested in this, if only there were usable information… which is always the problem with such things.

Information Fiefdoms

Social Media Information OverloadYesterday, I found myself standing in Nigel Khan’s bookstore in Southpark, looking at what I consider old books.

I have a habit when I look at books, something I picked up in Trinidad some years ago after the Internet became more than a novelty. I check the date a book was published. It keeps me from buying antiques, though I have also been known to buy books in thrift shops abroad (though I am very picky).

I found myself looking at Tim Wu’s ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires‘. Given some of the stuff I’d been talking about in different circles, it interested me – and Tim Wu I knew from his work with Network Neutrality. I checked the publication date.

November, 2010.
It’s August, 2018.

8 years. 5.33 evolutions of Moore’s Law, which is unfair since it isn’t a technology book – but it’s an indicator. Things change quickly. Information empires rise and fall in less time these days – someone was celebrating integrating something with OneNote in one of the groups I participate in, thinking that he’d finally gotten things on track – when, in fact, it’s just a snapshot more subject to Moore’s Law than anyone cares admit – except for the people who want to sell you more hardware and more software. They’ve evolved to the subscription model to make their financial flow rates more consistent, while you, dear subscriber, don’t actually own anything you subscribe to.

You’re building a house with everything on loan from the hardware store. When your subscription is up, the house disappears.

Information empires indeed. Your information may be your own, but how you get to it is controlled by someone who might not be there tomorrow.

We tend to think of information in very limited ways when we are in fact surrounded by it. We are information. From our DNA to our fingerprints, from our ears to our hair follicles – we are information, information that moves around and interacts with other information. We still haven’t figured out our brains, a depressing fact since it seems a few of us have them, but there we have it.

Information empires. What separates data from information is only really one thing – being used. Data sits there; it’s a scalar. Information is a vector – and really, information has more than one vector. Your mother is only a mother to you – she might be an aunt to someone else, a boss to someone else, an employee to someone else, and a daughter to your grandmother. Information allows context, and there’s more than one context.

If you’re fortunate, you see at least one tree a day. That tree says a lot, and you may not know it. Some trees need a lot of water, some don’t. Some require rich soil, some don’t. Simply by existing, it tells us about the environment it is in. Information surrounds us.

Yet we tend to think of information in the context of libraries, or of database tables. And we tend to look at Information Empires – be they by copyright, by access (Net Neutrality, digital divide, et al), or simply because of incompatible technologies. They come and go, increasingly not entering the public domain, increasingly lost – perhaps sometimes for good.

And if you go outside right now and stand, breathing the air, feeling the wind, watching the foliage shift left and right, you are awash in information that you take for granted – an empire older than we are, information going between plants through fungus.

There are truly no information empires in humanity other than those that are protected by laws. These are fiefdoms, gatekeepers to information.

The information empire – there is only one – surrounds us.

Browser Tab Hell: There’s a Chrome Extension For It.

I might have too many tabs open (300+)I rebooted the system I use for writing most this morning after I did a firmware update.

Then, I opened my browser. This happened roughly 4 hours ago and I went about things normally.

Suddenly, I have 24 tabs open.

I can’t tell you how it happened.

The part of me that doesn’t want to take responsibility for my actions was quick to come up with a theory that browser tabs actually procreate and have children tabs. This makes sense since at least some of the tabs are clearly descendants of others, despite the fact that they are graphically shown as a line across the top of my browser.

In a way, they are descendants… and I’m apparently the medium through which they procreate. It’s hard not to feel a little dirty and used when you think about things that way.

In the end, I am responsible for this mess. I did this to myself. How can I possibly avoid it? One school of thought is that one should avoid opening tabs. I don’t subscribe to that point of view.

What I would subscribe to, however, is improving browsers so that they don’t keep tabs open beyond an amount of time that I want them to stay open, degrading like leaves on a wet day.

Well look at that. Despite coming up with the idea on my own, someone beat me to it – if you’re running Chrome, check out this Tab Autoclose Timer so you won’t have to ponder the existentialism of browser tabs.

Facebook And Your Finances

broken suicidal pigJust as Facebook is recovering from the privacy concerns related to Cambridge Analytica, including threat of lawsuit from one UK group, is now even more interested in your data.

Facebook is after your financial data:

…Facebook already has smaller agreements with financial institutions, including PayPal and American Express, that allow users to do things such as review transaction receipts on Facebook Messenger. In March, Facebook launched a service that would allow Citibank customers in Singapore to ask a Messenger chatbot for their account balance, their recent transactions and credit card rewards.

It’s a strange world we live in where we trust those that have not been trustworthy in the past. ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine.’

Are you divine? I’m not. I’m sure, though, that connecting the accounts will require buy-in from consumers.

In Trinidad and Tobago, I’m sure it will mean more photocopies.