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.

Beyond Network Neutrality, and TATT

Net neutrality is repealed, and while the long battle over it seems over, there’s still some hope for it.

There’s been folly in conversations related to Network Neutrality and Over The Top Services (OTT). It limits the conversation to be about who owns the infrastructure and who uses the infrastructure – which is a good place to start, but is at least a decade outdated. Even the global conversation has fallen behind reality; the wheels of bureaucracy turn much slower than technology and technology use evolves.

We live in a world where the infrastructure, while important, isn’t the only thing that can be used to be unfair. Amazon and Google are presently in a content war with each other; the latest blow being Alexa being unable to pay YouTube videos. In an age of ‘IoT’, or ‘Internet of Things’, devices unable to use services isn’t being determined by who owns the infrastructure – it’s about who owns the services as well.

Right now, getting information from the browser you’re reading this in will tell what sort of browser you’re using, what operating system and what version – amongst other things. It doesn’t say anything about you, personally – Luddites, come back! But anyone with a website or a service can see what sort of software you’re using to connect to them – just so that they know how to change the content, if necessary. They can also tell where you are with a level of knowledge that can be a bit disconcerting – where your computer, phone or tablet – or internet enabled refrigerator, for that matter – is communicating from.

And they can decide what you can see and what you can’t. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found YouTube videos that I couldn’t watch because, ‘content is unavailable in your country’. Here I am, an Amazon Prime user, and I can’t watch certain content because… ‘content is unavailable in your country’. There are reasons for the latter – I think they are bad reasons, but there are reasons related to broadcast rights. And yet, it shows that infrastructure isn’t the only thing that can be used to make services incompatible.

This is nothing new. The Browser Wars were the first real issue – and if you ask a web developer of worth, they will tell you that they persist, even when only a Cold War. When an app only works on Android or Apple device, it’s the same thing. Which brings up what can go into the Apple Store or the Google Store – and how it’s approved and whether they can pull it or simply decide that they don’t want to carry it because it competes with their own service.  

This is the larger conversation that is being missed by just about everyone. When Network Neutrality conversations first started, this issue hadn’t evolved – and despite it’s name, the overall concept has been specialized when, in fact, it should be generalized.

When it comes to the hardware and infrastructure alone, the Carterfone laid the groundwork in the United States that ISPs like Digicel are against: that devices could be connected to infrastructure owned by a corporation as long as they did not damage the infrastructure. Moving that forward, the same should apply to services. It’s that simple, but the waters are muddied based on the misconception that it’s their network. From a legal standing, this may be true – but from a business perspective, it’s not as true: Without customers, the network has no value, and therefore the customers also have control of the network – assuming that there is competition, and assuming that the ISPs will not coordinate to assure that Law makes it possible for all ISPs to throttle communications as they see fit. Bad assumptions, really, if we take a look around just about anywhere in the world.

And on top of all of that, we have the lack of network neutrality in services being provided across these same networks.

TATT needs to step back and understand the underlying philosophy and not get drawn into the weeds. Does TATT stand for corporations, or does TATT stand for the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago?

That answer will dictate their policy. I expect that they’ll tell us soon enough.

Introspection (Writing)

ThoughtReviewing the statistics between KnowProSE.com and RealityFragments.com has been a bit revealing – empirically.

Between the two sites, I’ve done about 300 posts in the last year.

KnowProSE.com has 27 followers and 50 likes (WordPress) with roughly 5,000 views, averaging 2.5 visitors a day with 100 posts over a year.

RealityFragments.com, on the other hand, has 89 followers and 750 likes (WordPress) with roughly 2,000 views, averaging 1.4 visitors a day with 200 posts over a year.

I did not make goals on these sites – I simply allowed myself to post as I wished to, when I wished to, as often as I wished to so that I could see what happened – because, despite what your goal oriented classes have told you, the best thing to do sometimes is to see what happens. That some more technology related writing has gone to TechNewsTT.com isn’t really worth factoring in – my contributions there, while appreciated, aren’t numerous enough to affect things.

My non-technology writing gets more interest than my technology writing – we could argue that I posted less tech, but there are some other factors: KnowProSE.com has been my domain for over 10 years, whereas RealityFragments is only a year old (and doesn’t suffer the history OpenDepth once did, which was messing with statistics).

So what does it mean? Nothing, really. But it’s interesting to look at. It’s a datapoint.

Techno-Rant 2017; Trinidad and Tobago

FreedomHow Trinidad and Tobago adapts technology successfully to its betterment is interconnected throughout the private sector and public sector in ways that most people don’t seem to realize.

Standing in a bookstore, searching for original minds on the latest ideas and thoughts, I noted the books on ‘Right Brain/Left Brain’ that have been made antiques by the neuroplasticity. The brain isn’t as left or right as people thought decades ago, and even now, and common knowledge still hasn’t picked up on it. The books I see that catch my eye are old; published in 2008 and earlier.

Readers are subjected to old ideas this way, and in a globally interconnected age, these are antiquated ideas.

The Internet propelled a global revolution in communications and business which is accelerating. Truth be told, our technology has trumped our ability to communicate. In Trinidad and Tobago, rather than embracing it’s changes, we adapt as slowly as allowing for bank card payments in Licensing Offices – 30 years late, maybe more.

Social media echoed journalists and opinions about Miss Universe and Trinidad and Tobago’s place on it- and then not long after, to mock Miss Trinidad and Tobago’s dress. Meanwhile, flooding from poor land management and poor planning has been forgotten after raking the ODPM over the coals – and now leptospirosis information makes it’s way around with 13 cases in less than a month. Articles sometimes tell only one side of a story, a testament to what readers want as opposed to what readers need to make informed decisions – the role of the fourth estate.

A video that was shared with myself and countless others on WhatsApp mentioned that we don’t have sufficient data related to agriculture. I’m not sure that we have sufficient data about anything, really, and it’s something that I’ve griped about for decades – about how we should have good data to make more informed decisions. And this takes us back to the bookstore, and back to the Internet.

We have not adapted to the world of technology as much as we have bent it to our whims in Trinidad and Tobago. This is not a complaint. It’s a statement. Change is coming, for good and bad. In the U.S., the brick and mortar retail businesses are in a last ditch effort to stay relevant to their market: Why wander a bookstore looking for the latest actual releases (as opposed to the last shipment) in the hope you will find one when you can pre-order on a website like Amazon.com? The same applies to almost anything someone wants or needs to buy.

Government Ministries have incompatible systems, and while the National ICT plan mentions open data, Data.tt doesn’t house much in the way of open data, and as far as useful data, we might be better off inspecting the bottom of tall boots after a flood. Retail prices for certain products are being watched – something I do welcome- but released in PDF, they’re hardly useful (CSV would be nice).

Did I mention that while payments at Licensing Offices will be more convenient – we can forget the last 30 years or so when we could have been doing it – but a visit still requires people to take hours, if not a day, away from their work? Computers purchased a decade and more ago might sit in back offices still, collecting dust as the customers do as well. Where they are is actually immaterial; it’s where those computers are not is the most telling. People stand in line waiting, victims of a bureaucracy that grinds the humanity out of us – nothing new in government offices.

We wonder what’s wrong. Where are the opportunities for the youth of today? Dr. Eric Williams once said that the future of Trinidad and Tobago was in the book bags of students; I wonder what he would say about mobile phones (or laptops, for that matter).

We have opportunities to leapfrog ahead, learning from the mistakes of others who have adapted or failed to adapt technology to better their societies – removing corruption by using technology to erode bureaucracy, enabling better journalism if only we would buy it rather than the social media echo chambers we live in. The odds are good that if we bought good journalism, we’d encourage it.

We look for solutions to purchase abroad when our most damaging export is our brain drain – where the youth of today, passionate and wanting to change things meet every reason why they cannot.