Wanting Things To Work.

A Technology Society Ponders Bureaucracy
A wonderful metaphor of a frustrated technology society that keeps hitting it’s shin on bureaucracy. 

The fun part of this article is that you can replace “Trinidad and Tobago” with just about every country I have lived in or visited and have it be understood. It’s a global issue. 

It’s been a long week for me here in Trinidad and Tobago, yet along the way I met kindred spirits of all varieties.

When I went to one government office, I found that there were no numbers and that people were called as the security guard dictated. Fortunately, she dictated in a way that benefited me, but I do not know that it was fair.  I was done in record time, largely because of things I had done with the office in 2011 to turn the bureaucracy against itself in a loop, in a hope it would be fixed. It hasn’t been fixed, of course, but my prior work and explanation – and I daresay my sincerity – got me out of there in less than an hour.

The next day, I would take the form from that office to Yet Another Government Office after researching the appropriate website as to the requirements. I almost got it done that day – the office required 2 forms of ID, the website said ‘some form of ID’, and I was stalled for a day. The next day, I dutifully returned bearing two forms of ID and some other unrequired documentation to smooth things over. In less than an hour, a complicated process that stymies people for weeks was begun.

I know how those systems work and how they don’t. I have insight. And in both of those cases, I spoke with customer service representatives who were as frustrated with the process as I was and who made a crappy process work right. Whether it works out, I should know within a week.

That’s Not So Bad.

If this sounds like it was easy, it may seem that way on the surface – but it wasn’t as easy as it should be. It wasn’t as easy as it could be. Dealing with government offices, paying bills, visiting the bank – these things are unpredictable. People end up losing hours of work in government offices all over the country. The offices will argue that the people weren’t prepared, or didn’t listen, and some even treat them so. Some people are simply idiots – I found a few sitting around me here and there on their umpteenth time speaking with the same people over and over again but not actually listening.

There’s the way things probably should work, and then there’s the way things really work. It’s that thing that maybe should be called cognitive dissonance I am writing about.

The least stressful way of dealing with things is largely by understanding reality and dealing with it. And yet, decades of doing that here in Trinidad and Tobago have not given any improvement – I will argue that it enables it. I was heartened, though, that a new generation is entering these government offices and that they understand it – empathize – from their side of the desk as well. I thanked them for that.

We Want Things To Work.

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, we can see things wrong faster than they can be fixed by the snaggle-toothed gears of bureaucracy. Many systems around the world are outdated by so much that it boggles the mind. For me at times, it’s a special kind of Hell where, as someone who has designed systems, I cringe inwardly even as I keep a smile on my face. Getting angry doesn’t make things better, allowing it to stay the same doesn’t make things better… but here and there some strategic poking might work.

Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can stand up to a system and stare it down with a smile. Most of us get frustrated, angry, depressed… either we are beaten, or we rage against the machine.

Neither works.

To fix the mechanisms of society, we need to not only understand how things work well beyond social-media (read: armchair) discussion, but be able to push things the way that we think they should go. A smile here, a joke there, standing up for yourself yet being flexible enough to get what you need out of the system.

That’s what made it a long week.

Those two offices alone, while I spent less than 2 hours altogether at them, required driving for 2 hours. It required researching things as best I could, it required roughly a decade’s worth of sorted documentation. It required patience that the world as it is pushed onto the shoulders of a once young and passionate man who raged against the machine… until he realized what he was doing wasn’t working.

Until he realized that he needed it to work now instead of when things were done ‘right’ at some point in an unforeseeable future.

Things get better, but it takes a moderate voice to make it happen. Yelling makes you hoarse and assures no one will listen to you. Allowing it to go on unchecked makes you an enabler. To affect change, a clear and human voice needs to be heard.

If only you could explain that to those that rage against the machine… or enable it by their silence.

And still, there’s that young man in me that wants to rage ineffectively against the machine.. which is why I wrote about it for me. Maybe you’ll benefit. 

Google, War and Ethics.

When 3,000 employees send an email to Google’s CEO about not wanting to be involved with warfare projects, it shows that there are at least 3,000 people who are willing to stand up for their own personal ethics.

It also means that in this day and age, Google employees are paid enough to have the privilege to do so.

Many people are forced to compromise their own ethics to pay the bills. At least some working for one company aren’t in such a boat, who are willing to speak up to their CEO.

Let’s see what happens.

Why I Never Cared About Certifications

fire (1)I have a special disdain for professional certifications in technology. Largely, they are indoctrinations designed to protect market-share.

An example that leaps to mind is a lukewarm intellect I encountered who – to his credit – worked really hard, and probably still is a certified Microsoft SQL Server guy. When a solution at the company we worked was best served by MySQL, he refused to touch it. It threatened him. He thought doing anything with MySQL would taint him. When it comes to professional certifications, he embodied what I’d seen over the span of two decades, where professional certifications were hammers and everything was a nail. Even zippers, which typically gives the result you would think.

I bring this up because, once again, I got a LinkedIn connection request from someone, I accepted, and they immediately started messaging me about ‘professional certifications’. I’m sort-of-kind-of-not-really-but-am retired. I didn’t want a professional certification when I was working – some employers did, but they learned to get along with me and not needing training papers laid out on the ground, as if I were a puppy.

There’s a little disdain in there.

When I started with technology, there weren’t certifications. You either knew things or you didn’t, you either learned things or you didn’t. I showed up for an interview at the first company I worked at in Texas dressed like a bad waiter.  With a briefcase, empty, but there for effect. My interviewer had ripped jeans. He asked me if I knew ‘C’ and ‘C++’. I said ‘yes’. I was hired. And I spent the weekend in the DeVry computer lab learning C and C++. Monday, I was coding for cash. It was 1989, I think.

And that’s how I worked over the years. I rode the waves of technology – leaving one engineering position in a multinational corporation to get into the Internet related technologies, working the ‘back end’ before we called it a back-end. From there, I rode waves – Content Management Systems, handwriting recognition, analyzing terabytes of data, and so on and so forth – moving on to the next interesting thing that was coming by long before they installed the bureaucracies of certifications. And when they started with the certifications, I moved on to something else. I even found myself writing guides – well received guides – for the certification site, “CramSession.com”, back in the day.

Don’t use the toilet at an interview unless you can demonstrate you’re certified on that. A note from your parents is not a certification, that’s just a reference.

So, I watch people who go out and get these certifications – a magical checklist of a roadmap that someone spread out ahead of them so that they could suckle their way up the food chain – or so they said. But when a company needed someone to get something working fast, as one former Director told me, I was the ‘team’ that came through, got results, and did things no one else could.

It’s what I do. I solve problems, not chase papers.

I still am. It’s who I had to be. It’s the unrestrained magic that Generation X had when we started that I managed to hold onto throughout. We grew up watching college dropouts begin to run the world. Bill Gates, The Woz (you might have heard of his partner, Steve Jobs). They thumbed their noses at the world and changed it… and promptly, with help from their peers and underlings, laid the foundation for something that they would have thumbed their noses at when they were kids. Full circle, like so many other things in life.

So do me a favor. Spare me the certification spam. I’ve written better documentation myself, and I have references.

Kthxbai.

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

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

Personal Context and a Sincere Disclaimer

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

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

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

Criminals of desperation, be warned. Right?

Writ Large

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

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

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

And yet, none of that really tells us anything.

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

    • Business
    • Personal

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Trinidad and Tobago, Policing and Crime

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

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

The Broad Strokes: The Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socioeconomics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porous borders

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

Politics

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

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

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

Silver Bullet?

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

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

Net Neutrality, Competition and Target Blindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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.