A New Chapter for Trinidad and Tobago

P1070144
Petrotrin at night, courtesy Gavin, made available through this Creative Commons License.

I’ve never written about the oil and gas industry. I’m certainly no expert – there are plenty of people claiming to be with or without credentials, and I don’t wish to intrude upon their space.

Oil and gas, after all, is a messy affair. In Trinidad and Tobago, even more so since it has and continues to depend so much on this sector for income – something that I do write about in the context of diversifying the economy through technology, which in turn could finance further development in those areas. That’s crazy thinking in Trinidad and Tobago for anyone in a position to do anything about it.

So first I’m not going to write about Trinidad and Tobago. I’m going to write about a place few from Trinidad and Tobago have ventured to before I bring it all back to Trinidad and Tobago.

The place?

Beloit, Wisconsin Watertower
Photo by me, July, 2010.

Beloit, Wisconsin.

This was a place that Margaret Mead, a renowned cultural anthropologist, once called ‘America in microcosm’. Many families there once worked for a company some have heard of – General Motors (GM).

The nearby GM assembly plant was open in 1919, and lasted until 2009 – 90 years. So it was pretty much settled that as children grew up, they’d get a job at GM. In 1970, the peak employment of that plant was 7,000.

When I got to Beloit in 2010 or so, it was a very different Beloit. I didn’t get to see it on the upswing – I am too young for that – and I didn’t see it dwindle. I saw the results – a small economy within Wisconsin that had high unemployment and all the stuff that goes with it.

An interesting and unrelated thing to note is that the city fines people who don’t keep their lawns mowed or their houses painted. This had resulted in even small time criminals maintaining nice lawns, and some pretty annoyingly colored houses as a form of rebellion.

The economy was hyper-dependent on GM. And I expect that even now, the recovery from that weaning was difficult.

Now, Beloit was in a quandary when GM shut down operations in the area. They likely still are.

Downtown Beloit Sunset
Downtown Beloit at Sunset, also by me. 2012.

Yet, they have one of the most highly rated Main Streets, and in 2015 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index ranked the Janesville-Beloit metropolitan area #4 by how well they created and sustained jobs and economic growth.

I don’t know much about what happened when I left – what I do know is that Beloit was in trouble. And I saw opportunity for technology companies there – and some showed up, though I’m not certain how that all worked out.

But I do know one thing. Beloit’s still there.

Petrotrin oil refinery
Petrotrin Oil Refinery at Night, made available by Marc Aberdeen through this Creative Commons License.

Back to Trinidad and Tobago and Petrotrin: There are parallels with Beloit, and there are some things that are not. For example, Petrotrin is only a part of the oil and gas sector in Trinidad and Tobago – and also, it’s government owned – though the Wikipedia article presently discusses Petrotrin in a past tense.

This morning, I watched Curtis Williams say that the Trinidad and Tobago government bought the refinery, now being closed according to a leaked internal memo, to save 3,000 jobs. He went on to say that this seemingly remained the main thrust of what Petrotrin did in later years – profitability was never really seen as important.

Now, some people talk about this as a business – as they should. Still, the government buying the refinery was a risky proposition for the long term. But politics requires jobs – and every political party that has been in power has kept that ball in the air.

That ball in the air is now a can being kicked around on the ground now.

And so, the conversations about privatization I’ve seen have been lacking in understanding that it’s simply a bad business proposition for a private entity to run. The cost of production is, from most reports, too high.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t dig into the financials – I could, but if I dig into the books of any company, I’m only looking at what is reported – and no one has reported anything good.

So the question is whether it’s worth keeping at all. There’s enough inefficiency that it should be a wake up call; to me it seems an indictment of a culture that allowed it to happen – something no one in Trinidad and Tobago wants to hear.

But if they look carefully, they can see it.

I will point out that Beloit, Wisconsin has found ways to recover – and I’m pretty sure there are at least parts of it that are unpopular. Beloit survives. So will Trinidad and Tobago. But there are necessary differences between what they were and what they must become.

The time for thinking about economic diversification is over. With a lowering interest in oil and gas technologies, it’s time for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago – as well as it’s stakeholders, every citizen, to start working on that diversification.

Want things to change? Read more. Think more. Think about repercussions of actions at even the most personal of levels – there is opportunity in even the most dire of circumstances, if only the Government and people would get out of their own way.

Or you could paint your house a bright orange in protest – an appropriate mix of red and yellow political filters – and hope for the best.

I’m not a big fan of orange, yellow or red.

Advertisements

Shirts and P10s: Function vs. Form, Import Businesses vs. The Online Tax.

I’ve been spending some time shopping here and there. I went looking for shirts, and found that the ones with designs I liked lacked pockets, and the ones with pockets were not to my liking. I don’t understand the war on pockets of all these imported shirts, particularly when everyone these days has a mobile phone that they could place there instead of near their posterior – rubbing their posterior against their mouth and ear by proxy.

It should be as unattractive as it sounds, shouldn’t it?

This isn’t really be about shirts. I’m certainly not in charge of fashion; I personally admit a fondness for function over form and make no apology. There is a room for pretty in my world, but it has to do more than look pretty.

Another thing I was looking at, and more on topic, is the Huawei P10. I presently have a P10 Lite that, for whatever reason, no one seems to have cases for – a shortcoming of Huawei I’ve found pretty consistent, at least in South-West Trinidad. So, the first month I bought it, I cracked the screen.

Truth be told, I wanted a P10 because Mark Lyndersay keeps showing off his great shots through the Leicos lenses. And now, having cracked the screen of a fairly decent camera that has more than earned it’s keep, I walked into bMobile to see if I could purchase one. I find their pre-paid bundles work best for me, and I don’t really like contracts. Their P10 was available only under a post-paid plan, apparently with a 2 year contract.

I don’t know anyone who walks into bMobile, or Digicel, and says, “Hey! I want a 2 year contract that I won’t take to a lawyer to advise me on!”. I don’t know anyone like that. I do know people who say, “I want to upgrade my phone.”

So I saw one today at an outlet, and I asked the person who was selling it, “Do you have a case for it?”

“No.”

I was about to plunk down the money. I really was. But if you’re not going to support what you’re selling even with a simple case for someone to protect their investment, I’d offer you’re not a shrewd businessperson. And as much as I like Mark and love his photos, this lack of cases is a horrible thing for someone who spends a lot of time off the beaten track. We get back to function and form.

Let’s take a deeper dive.

This should all be simple enough to solve, but in a small consumer base such as that of Trinidad and Tobago, it’s a problem. Foreign exchange is at an increasing premium. Importers haven’t necessarily been putting their best foot forward over the years because when money flowed like oil – excuse me, it still does – but when it flowed through the economy at a higher rate, people bought all sorts of things with their disposable income.

The oil price reduction as well as severe lack of economic diversification over the decades by every administration has lead to sub-optimum disposable income. In plain English, people aren’t spending money because they aren’t getting it.

This means that companies that import goods other than food have these stocks of inventory that they can’t return. They made choices in products that, at least to some, are outright silly. When I drive by and see fluorescent colored plastic home goods, I can’t help but wonder what the person importing was thinking. “Fluorescent pink and green laundry hampers will fly off the shelves!”, said no sane person ever. 

So, the only sane thing to do when you can’t get what you want is to get what you want online through an online tax of 7% that is inconsistent for the very same items imported twice. It’s the new gambling system put in place by the government, a government that is going to send out people to evaluate properties probably as inconsistently as they handle the online tax.

To some, the online tax roulette is worth it if you can find the foreign exchange to play the game. If you need a case for a P10 or P10 Lite, as an example. Or if you want to buy fender flares for your pickup, or if you want to buy shirts with pockets.

To others, what they wear and use is framed by what importers have in their inventory. The illusion of choice is just that, more so in smaller economies.

The Age of Dune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018: Tech and Society

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

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

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

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

And 2018 will be increasingly about that.

Net Neutrality and Trinidad and Tobago

Internet Innovation is The Goose That Laid the Golden EggThe global debate on Net Neutrality persists and the consequences are writ large for consumers everywhere.

Yet, there’s almost no interest in the Net Neutrality issues arising lately – I spent my time advocating for it to the uncaring masses who are more intent on other things that they believe are more important.

It is important though. Very important.

David Pogue of Scientific American has a great summarization of the net neutrality debate. I suppose the core of the problems happening over the heads of those in the world – not just the United States – is how the FCC classifies things in an antiquated system rather than create a new classification. The lines between being a provider of telecommunications and providing telecommunication services are said to be blurred, but the reality is that they no longer exist. The people who own the infrastructure are competing with those that don’t.

Businesses that do not own the infrastructure are at a disadvantage. They can be squeezed out by those who do own the infrastructure, effectively monopolizing user services. The end user – us, all of us – doesn’t get the variety that it would otherwise have when those that control the infrastructure can make sure that their services can run faster than their competitors. That’s the core of the issue for users.

The Local Context.

In Trinidad and Tobago and likely throughout the Caribbean, Digicel is cheering the repeal of what was called Network Neutrality (I could say it wasn’t for a variety of reasons). Their premise is actually quite real – they are rolling out infrastructure in the region at a cost, and shouldn’t they get their cost back? Of course they should, why would anyone invest in something that they don’t get paid back for? There is no digital philanthropy here, and Trinidad and Tobago’s National ICT Plans have always pushed broadband penetration, enough so that I’m surprised an over-exuberant feminist hasn’t accused the phrasing of misogyny.

Others in the local context of telecommunications have been relatively silent so far – perhaps wisely so – despite the fact that we’re connected to the U.S. pretty directly economically, through Internet connections, and through other things.

What it means, though, is that applications not owned by local providers – Digicel and bMobile mainly, since the most common data usage is through mobile phones, is that they could create competing applications to… for example… WhatsApp, and make WhatsApp undependable in the same twist. And of course, since these same providers have to report to the government by Law, will give away the encrypted anonymity that seems to only hide poor political commentary and bad pornography. Maybe there’s more to it than that, but I haven’t been added to the LOLCats group (please, don’t invite me).

It means local startup companies will have to get the blessings of those who own the infrastructure and maintain a relationship with them – practically at gunpoint.

Yet Digicel makes a valid point: Why invest in infrastructure if you don’t get paid for it?

The debate is much more nuanced than what is presented – arguably, by design. Show me a Member or Parliament, though, who has taken a stance on network neutrality. They don’t really care too much, and that National ICT plan doesn’t address it in any way. It makes us completely dependent on our own legislation, and our own legislation – despite some bold and debatable efforts by the present government – is not fast, is not as comprehensive as they might like to think, and is going to require more intellectual capital to debate and enforce than anyone seems interested in mustering.

We’re along for the ride in Trinidad and Tobago, hoping for a water taxi but instead getting a ferry to Tobago in a country that should be making strides toward progress… not stagnation. It should be making bold moves – debatable moves – that push the envelope for local talent to strike it’s colours boldly on an infrastructure being built rather than making a mockery of it by making it consumption only with no regard to using it for creating foreign exchange (we can talk about those banks another time, right?).

We could be using our infrastructure to leverage foreign exchange income, subsidizing it’s roll out while diversifying the economy. That’s not what we’re doing, and that’s why Network Neutrality is not even discussed outside of Digicel Press Releases.

Economy and Collaboration (2015)

Bee and Flower macros

Colin Shaw’s post on LinkedIn, “Collaboration Is Dead: Long Live Symbiosis“, indirectly addresses one of the key problems with understanding Open Source and Free Software, not to mention Open Content.

Sure, with Free Software/Open Source and Open Content there is collaboration – but if you look at the most successful projects, you’ll find one major thing: An economy surrounding it. Linux grew its economy by decreasing the cost of servers and other hardware by ‘removing’ the cost of software licensing. The software is still paid for but it costs the end user less. WordPress has an economy around it, as does Drupal – though the economies are quite different between the two. The point is that all of these well known open source projects have an economy that reinvests in the projects. Sure, we can call it collaboration and do a happy dance – that has been done for at least 10 odd years (in both senses of the word), but the reality transcends collaboration and is more accurately called symbiosis. It’s something that has bothered myself and some other people for some time but… for some reason I never jumped at ‘symbiosis’. Shame on me.

Symbiosis is truly key in any business sense and far too often open source, Free Software and Open Content advocates do not acknowledge that. ‘Free as in Freedom‘ has to take into account TANSTAAFL – where the Free Lunch was never about the freedom to eat lunch. You can only write so much free software/open source before the bill collectors say, “Hey man. Love your code. Pay me.” The same applies to open content.

The same applies to Social Media – or just about anything except, hopefully, childhoods. In the context of social media, it’s about getting at least as much as you give to your network.

Symbiotic relationships where the profit is mutually exclusive are seen throughout nature, much like the bee in the photograph. The bee gets something. The flowering plant gets something. Everyone’s happy.

I think it’s time to put collaboration in the rightful place – decremented – while symbiosis is really the goal.

The sound of one hand clapping is a very lonely sound.

Image at top left is my own; you can view more of my pictures either through my Flickr photostream or in my Photography Showcase.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Future Is Not The Enterprise You Know

Greetings from Guyana to New YorkStory time.

When I was in Georgetown, Guyana in 20051, I snapped that picture of the television in my room. People called in to the station to relay messages to expatriates in New York so that they wouldn’t incur the cost of a phone call from the local phone company.

In the developed world, or the Global North, or the West, or whatever you want to call it, VoIP had already shaken telecommunications by 2005 and won. In the other parts of the world, state-owned or subsidized telephone companies fought to stay relevant.

In the context of Guyana, it took until 2015 for the Caribbean Court of Justice to rule against the telephone company. And I imagine that battle isn’t over. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen it in my travels, and it’s not the first technology either. It also won’t be the last.

Having now worked a bit directly with telephony and SIP trunks, spending late nights catching up to where the company was and then studying beyond it2, I have a good feel for what is possible. And I also know that the future is global, that infrastructure is subject to licensing across geopolitical lines, and that technology waits for nothing but ideas whose time has come. Having been involved at the World Summit for Information Society level at first directly and now vicariously, to get global the industries built around Enterprise have to change. Having been a part of a Pre-twitter clone (we copied them when we grabbed a flux capacitor?), we saw things change a year before Twitter. That change is coming regardless of how much people are in love with the present enterprise. Evolution awaits no one.

So, what’s the future?

We hear a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT). How disruptive it is. Most of that is marketing hype to get all of us to buy things that we really have no need for – and, to be fair, people usually buy it for reasons that I might write about on my other blog3. Behind all of that is an undeniable force of change that goes beyond the buzzwords.

A few data-points to draw the line for you.

Data-point 1: Telecommunications infrastructure is no longer the product it once was because of SIP (which most of you know as VoIP, but it’s bigger than that). It’s about the on demand use of the telecommunications infrastructure. You can think of it as time-sharing real estate without the need to worry about the last person leaving dishes in the sink.

Data-point 2: The laws governing telecommunication infrastructure vary across geopolitical lines and proceed at the rate of the internal geopolitical bureaucracy. That’s a nasty factor that everyone should know, but most people don’t.

Data-point 3: Oh, that little Internet of Things has spawned all manner of things, like the 10 Pine64s I have coming next month. I’ll be clustering those for my own purposes – but imagine those as part of a solution that, for less than $500. Do you think I’ll be paying Oracle or Microsoft for licensing for a database? If you think so, you’re nutty and should have your head examined. Even open source DBAs are cheaper.

Data-point 4: Bitcoin brought the block chain to light.  Think of a client as part of a Peer to Peer network where the client deals with licensing within their geopolitical sphere (see 2), thus avoiding licensing fees across geopolitical boundaries wherever possible, and otherwise diminishing them. Take a look at this post on blockchain, posted by Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President and Director, IBM Research. Or consider how Microsoft has been rolling Windows 10 out… peer-to-peer.

Data-point 5: Open source software has come so far that the cost of the software itself for applications has diminished significantly – you don’t pay for software, you pay for the changes to it if you want the changes… or you pay for people to configure it for you.

Data-point 6: ‘Big data’, another overblown marketing phrase, is a driving force that will not be stopped – it will hopefully be curtailed for reasons of privacy, but again and again the world has shown that it abhors censorship and will – at the cost of individuals, corporations, or entire governments, if necessary – be had.

What does it all mean?

It means that a company’s infrastructure, unless it’s spread out over a large area, is pretty much going to be an antique soon. People espousing details on the how of Software Engineering will develop are likely to completely miss the what of the development; the what of development should be defining the how (Software Process 101).

The ‘data-center’ will not die. It will become less important and probably used to roll out continuous integration to a peer-to-peer network of SaaS. Data will make its way to whatever monstrosity of a database that’s out there, and if I were a betting man I’d go with Oracle more than Microsoft on that since they’re acquisition of MySQL probably wasn’t an accident. Sure, it’s not an RDBMS, but what’s the most used database on the Internet? And who now has a thermometer?

It’s happening. Now.

1: Doing some volunteer work with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. IBM had quoted a million Guyanese dollars to do the local network for the hospital; we got a group of volunteers around the hospital to do it for the price of a pizza on a weekend. Sadly, because of internal bureaucracy, the network was not used when I left, but I do hope that changed in my absence.

2: Trying to plan for the future like any good engineer.

3: RealityFragments.com, where I focus on more creative and opinionated writing on things that aren’t technology.