Comm Failure

Arctic CommunicationsI’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about communications, information, and how one can weave ideas into the fabric of other people’s minds.

Writing has always come easy, and for a long time was something I took for granted because it simply helped me or hindered me. If someone didn’t understand what I said or wrote, I took it upon myself to get better at communicating. Lately, though, I find myself feeling less responsible for what people don’t understand or misunderstand – no one likes a pedant, not even other pedants, and there are some people who are simply unreasonable and unreachable. I turned to writing long ago because shouting at walls makes no sense.

Yesterday, two people took issue with this article about the digitized paper processes of Trinidad and Tobago, and it was a little revealing. To understand this, you have to understand that getting a credit or debit card in Trinidad and Tobago is a daunting process that many people don’t qualify for. It’s a bureaucratic process that, instead of getting approved in one day, can take months (I know) – and even then, teeters on the brink of whether or not you’re presented well to whoever is behind the Mastercard or Visa system associated with it. Because the majority don’t enjoy this luxury, I didn’t write about it.

Two people took issue with that. They began commenting on Facebook about how one didn’t have to print bills because you could pay with the credit or debit card… which is true, if you can get one, and in the weighted world of finance specific to Trinidad and Tobago, is not the majority of people. Further, the point about those who lacked that financial luxury taken for granted elsewhere – in the U.S., banks give out debit cards like candy, as an example (more really, most banks don’t have candy anymore). So those who don’t have the financial tools in Trinidad and Tobago, the majority, have to print out the same bill.

It’s not as if one can depend on the local postal service to get you your bill on time, assuming that the relevant service provider has sent it on time – so people interested in uninterrupted service end up going to the website and using their ink and paper to print the very same bill – which is 2-3 pages, usually, when really, done right, you could just print one and go to a more convenient outlet to pay. Parking at the offices is always problematic, so they have ancillary places where one can pay.

Why do people have to print out all those pages? Largely because the bills are inefficient and have been for as long as I remember. After all, one might just hand someone the account number and the amount to pay – and they should be able to handle that, but because of receipts and bureaucratic fail-safes, and because… well, because they just digitized a paper process.

And that was the point of the article. I’ve written more than enough about the failure of banks to provide better online payment services for more people, but these two people were stuck on their ability to pay their bills online.

They were stuck in their perspective – nothing existed beyond their perspective. Even saying that they were correct in that they could pay their bills online while the majority could not was a bridge too far for them.

This ground away at me for all of 5 minutes, before they removed themselves from my audience (thank you!). Their minds didn’t stretch that far, stuck in the ice-tray of their own little worlds they were completely cut off from the rest of the world and liked that so much that they wanted to impose their world on everyone else.

We all do it. Oddly enough, though, it has something to do with a software project I’m working on and a bit of the philosophy behind it. When I write about it on KnowProSE.com, the link will appear below.

 

2018 In Review.

I have all my marbles together, regardless of what others may say.
All marbles present and accounted for.

It’s been a pretty good year for me, in that the culmination of years – decades – of effort came to fruition. The downside was the loss of my mother, and having to miss her funeral because of foreign exchange issues.

Overall, it has been a year of personal growth and introspection. Unfettered from an old life, I entered a new one toward the middle of the year and haven’t looked back much – until I decided to write this, and in doing so have found that I’ve made great strides over the last months. That’s good.

Writing

Published in 2010, prior to the alleged mayan apocalypse, it still occupies about 60 cubic inches of bookstore space hereI’ve been writing more and publishing less – I’m saving the majority of the writing ‘for the ring’ – it has been a fight of sorts to get into that habit, and I hope to be done with a book before the end of next year if only to say that I did publish something else again, and that this time it isn’t a piece of tech writing that will be outdated by Moore’s Law and how fast the world accelerates it’s change.

Imagine seeing books written about the Mayan Apocalypse that we somehow all survived in 2012 on bookshelves in 2018. I wonder how it ends?

The technologu author nightmare... Discount books on antiquated tech.Or seeing a Windows Vista book in 2018 in the discount bin – a faint hope that someone who lacks anything resembling computer literacy will think it’s a good deal when, even at a discounted price, it’s an overpriced doorstop.

It’s particularly interesting to walk into bookstores in Trinidad and Tobago, places where dated material simply will not die, laying around as if someone might find spare parts from them useful for something more than a few paragraphs in a blog post.

Look. People still read books. Excerpt from #7thsense.The world is accelerating. People get information faster than the government bureaucracies can react. In a way it can be depressing, in another way it can be exhilarating – and what usually happens is that both ways are happening at the same time. It’s exhausting, really, new technologies come out as fast as the last one is profited from by the companies using them even before the elder technologies have had a time to mature. Ubiquitous cameras attached to what used to be ‘phones’ spam our world with so much information that we need systems in place that we can trust to assure we’re getting trustworthy news.

That hasn’t happened quite yet. In their quest for survival, elder media has dropped everything to become more fast than the bloggers, and have become just as bad at being trustworthy as some of those bloggers. People don’t want news as much as they want something that they can agree with in a world that so many seem to find disagreeable.

Fake News - Person Reading Fake News ArticleI don’t know what to think about that. I don’t know what to think about a lot of things – which, of course, doesn’t stop me from considering them. I’m just wise enough not to have as many opinions anymore, and wear the phrases, “I don’t know”, and, “I’m not sure” like raincoats on days of uncertain weather.

And these days of uncertainty mark our future – no one is exactly sure what’s going on because of the amount of noise in mankind’s communication. Where once there had to be a basis in fact to be accepted, now it’s the tyrannies of different mobs fighting it out in our social media feeds, combined with people who unfortunately write as clearly as they think and infect other low literates with bad ideas. Heaven forbid they have good ones and learn how to communicate them properly – but in the race to impress fastest, we’re attempting to get better at communicating through ochlocracy parading as democracy, a holdover from the unanswered questions related to ‘smart mobs’ where in fact the average IQ of a smart mob is not as high as Rheingold would have had people think. But hey, he took a lot of pictures with his hat and sold a lot of books without having to worry too much about things – a true factor of ochlocracy.

Hate & AngerI digress. That’s all been part of 2018, where figureheads are blamed for the sins of the masses when in fact they are only symptoms. The reality is that we have these specialized systems that are smarter than the implementations of democracy. Some of the most intolerable ideas to leap from the tongues of the most intolerant – who, of course, are intolerant of intolerance and find nothing wrong with that logic.

And while I’m writing about intolerance, for regular blogging the new editor and layout with blocks for WordPress.com is intolerable. I imagine for a photo blog it might be worthwhile.

Coding

Now that I don’t have to code for someone to pay the bills, I’m enjoying coding again except for, as I note, all the unsupported and or poorly documented libraries and tools out there. The answer, of course, is to either find different ones or rewrite my own – which robs me of the inertia.

My word, people-who-call-themselves-developers-or-engineers – you ain’t a developer or engineer if you don’t document things and keep that documentation up to date.

So, I’m fiddling around with some natural language processing, machine learning and the Anki Vector SDK Alpha. These are not particularly lucrative things to do in that large corporations with R&D budgets larger than the GDP of entire nations are doing just about everything but shaving with Ockham’s Razor.

I just really like playing with information and understanding how it interacts in this day and age, as well as how we interact with it – and how it affects us as individuals and society.

Information

I recently was called disrespectful because someone in Trinidad and Tobago was posting the raw number of murders in Trinidad and Tobago, which by itself shows an increase, but doesn’t actually related to anything such as – as I pointed out – population size. With an estimated population of 1.2-1.5 million, 500 murders in a year is 0.0416% to 0.0333%.

So, actually knowing the population size has an effect on how that percentage looks – and while people are claiming that census data is available, I have yet to meet someone in Trinidad and Tobago who has been counted in a true census. This means that all the planning data for Trinidad and Tobago is based off of extrapolated data – and when people are talking about the number of murders versus the per capita percentage of murders, it demonstrates that there’s just no real data.

There’s ways to test for fake data, too – Benford’s Law immediately comes to mind, and the fraud detection aspect of predictive analytics is well worth exploring.

None of this really affects the media and society as much as simply repeating a falsehood until it is accepted as a truth, but it’s worth exploring because falsehoods that are better tolerated have some truth in them – for example, a raw number of murders – but lack a context (such as population size).

For those of us that think, the world has become a busy place if we pay attention. What I’d like my coding to actually do is help me avoid having to do all that thinking and processing of information when I look at the world – which, of course, is subject to the interpretation of the coding, which is subject to my biases, which is subject to how I am influenced by information, which… goes around in a circle.

But it, like other things, keeps me out of trouble, as I managed to do in 2018. We’ll see how 2019 goes.

Peering Into The Past: Speyside, Tobago

Speyside Estate, TobagoI stood there, reading a sign about who once owned Speyside Estate in Tobago, the smaller island of Trinidad and Tobago. It told me who owned it since 1773, how many slaves they had, and even how much compensation was received for the slaves upon Emancipation.

Context is an important thing – I was standing there, reading this, as people of African descent were keeping the area clean – Tobagonians employed, not slaves, but there was an unsettling feeling that I had just gone back in time. The cars didn’t belong.

It isn’t hard to imagine that the descendants of the slaves were now making a living keeping the area clean – pristine, in fact.  It’s hard to imagine that less than 100 years ago, slaves maintained this Estate. It’s an uncomfortable reminder, one I’d argue is necessary.

It’s necessary to feel that discomfort, I think, as an outsider looking in – a witness across the timeline of Tobago. It’s that discomfort, I expect, that causes people to react in different ways, even going so far as to attempt to misappropriate a history not their own by attempting to speak for those who have their own voice.

I cannot presume to know anything but that discomfort I initially felt as I read that sign and was surrounded by quiet people who gave me a wide berth, letting the outsider look upon their ancestors’ history. I can write as neither someone who owned nor was a slave, I am of different heritages, seafaring and indentured mixed in my blood.

My decision was to not to take pictures with them there, because there was no way I could find to capture that deep feeling I felt when I looked around. It’s all too easy to misinterpret. Some might have called it ‘art’.

At the time, in the moment, I saw it as a disservice to those around me.

I was the one that didn’t belong.

This was their history, this was a history that they maintained, this was something that through the centuries was maintained for reasons beyond me, but left for me to stand there and contemplate.

And it was beautiful. In fact, not having visited Tobago in 32 years, the pristine cleanliness of Tobago struck me, but here at this Estate there was a different sparkle, a tie to a time when things changed in 1833, where the numbers of owned people was noteworthy enough to keep in a ledger to later be reported on a green sign in front of me.

It was a shorthand for an embarassing aspect of humans and our capacity to treat others so… inhumanely.

History and NatureThe black and white history of the bricks was being replaced with the living color maintained by these Tobagonians. They had left here a lens through which to see their history, their culture, in the crumbling bricks of a retired watermill and it’s surrounds.

These scars of our histories are something some wish to remove. I do not hold an opinion on such things when it relates to history not my own, but what I will say is that I have a fondness for scars, I see a beauty in them not for the harshness of the wound but for the healing afterward.

It takes more strength to heal than to wound, and we need to remember what caused the scars to recognize the paths some have had to travel to be who they are, to be who they will be.

That discomfort was a gift.

Thinking about India in T&T.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on Harris Promenade, with mala.
A statue of  Gandhi in San Fernando, Trinidad.

I was thinking about how little I know about India.

The young lady of mixed East Indian and African descent who served me the gyro had called me ‘hun’, an American affectation,  while handing me a Greek-ish food. And there I was, reading an Indian blog entry on resilience.

It seemed appropriate that I be reading her words on resilience when everyone I ran into in Trinidad was busy talking about what might happen at Petrotrin, as if their very lives depended on it. Last week, it was the earthquake, this week, Petrotrin.

The gyro was wrapped tight in a combination of paper and thin aluminium wrap – impossible to get off one or the other completely, so either you bit paper or aluminium. It wasn’t her fault, she just handed it to me – it was a problem of the paper combining with the juices of the gyro-ish food I had. So, being hungry, I opted for getting all the aluminium off- paper doesn’t hurt your teeth.

My own form of resilience in the moment, I suppose.

It’s not often I get moments like that one, out in public yet in a certain silence that allowed clear observation of the world around me. Now that I’d sorted out my gyro, which was really quite good – surprisingly so – I cast my eyes around.

This is South Trinidad. I’ve been spending more time in North Trinidad and the cultures, while similar, are not quite the same. First of all, North Trinidad almost always has better options for things. In that, it lacks the charm of South Trinidad where you accidentally find something nice.

It’s getting better, but there’s still a marked difference.

Petrotrin, which was later confirmed to be closing the refinery, was probably going to be laying off people I expect are largely from South Trinidad. This means that a year from now, I might not be seeing the same people were I to sit in the same seat. Since, by this hypothesis, there would be less disposable income in South Trinidad, any gap between quality and choices between North and South Trinidad would likely increase in size.

Again.

I chewed, picking at the odd piece of meat here and there that fell into my strategically placed foil. It’s Tuesday afternoon, maybe around 1:30 p.m. There’s people outside with loudspeakers talking about the need to learn sign language. Well, if you keep using loudspeakers, I expect so. There were people milling about in lunch lines at this hour, which seemed strange. Where did they come from?

Lunch is typically from 12 to 1, yet there were lines at all the health food places – you know, Royal Castle, Burger King, etc, in a country where people still share information on what to drink, eat, or stick in an orifice to ‘purge’. Not that my gyro was absolutely healthy, but I do have some moral high ground here that I won’t waste – it rarely happens. A spoiler for people: If you have healthy kidneys and a liver, your body doesn’t need much more help except with regular infusions of dihydrogen monoxide.

Water.

Reading an Indian writer, watching a South Trinidad floorshow while eating a fusion in cuisine. For some reason, a lot of my traffic here on RealityFragments, as well as on the Reality Fragments Facebook page, comes from India.

That’s why I was thinking about it. From the outside looking in, being a roundabout descendant of descendants of Indian origin (as well as others), what I know is a collection of reading what Indian friends have written or shared with me. They shared with a depth that was inspiring.

And yet I am apart, but then, as I considered India, India is largely apart from India. It’s this mass of people who turned an imposed language against the owner of it and continues to be a growing economy – even as poverty is visible. Conflicted, yet with a depth to those conflicts that cannot allow things to change quickly in a world that hastens in accelerated ways. I cannot know India.

I know it only from parts, pieces, little anecdotes, some articles, a Simputer, and little else.

There’s more to know, I’m sure. But with so many readers from a part of the world I might insult by only seeing pieces of it on a trip, I spent time thinking about it. And I likely will in the future.

So, for the people reading in that place marked by lines on someone else’s map – thank you for stopping by. You’re appreciated, and I’m returning the favor as best I can.

Earthquake From A Distance.

My fallout from the #earthquake on 21 August 2018 at 5:31pm. I'm in #trinidadandtobago and further from the #venezuela epicenter than most in Trinidad. Jokes aside, significant damage was done closer to the epicenter.
My aftermath, which is not representative of what others experienced. In South Trinidad, I was further from the epicenter.

In South Oropouche, in an apartment I’m about to say goodbye to, the earth started moving around 5:31 p.m.  It was wobbly, and increasingly strong – enough for my bookshelf to move. It walked maybe a inch during the entire incident. Once I felt it increasing in strength, I grabbed my phone and walked out into a clear area.

Earthquakes have a tendency to make some things fall down. Stronger earthquakes have a tendency to throw things. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but I was certain that I wanted no part of being underneath concrete. I updated Facebook, hit Twitter, and waited. It was strong enough for me to walk outside, but not strong enough to do any damage. I knew that this wasn’t the epicenter, and I also knew that it might get worse, have aftershocks, or damage things sufficiently where they might break later.

The Earth stopped moving and updates came in. The first in was from the USGS at 6.8 in Venezuela, the next said it was 7.0, the last said 7.3. People in Trinidad and Tobago who had never experienced an earthquake were freaking out.

Yet in all the time standing outside, I saw not one single soul out on the trace. Everyone was inside. Everyone stayed inside. As if it were rain. A bad instinct. But it was over fast enough in my area.

Everyone on social media in Trinidad and Tobago was acting as if we were the epicenter. We weren’t. What I felt might have been, at most, a 4 – those up North in Trinidad got it worse; they were closer to the epicenter. Someone mentioned tsunamis.

Well, we are close enough to Venezuela that if there were going to be a tsunami, it would have hit by the time mention were made of it.

And all the while, I was wondering at that old system I had thought of and had begun work on all those years ago. Untrusted information was flying. That was the point of that system, to have that trust in the system. Social networks are flailing; Facebook didn’t ask me if I was safe until a while after – I had posted to them that the earthquake in Venezuela also affected Trinidad and Tobago. Whether that was the reason or not (I am no narcissist), I suddenly was asked if I was safe.

If only there were a system designed for that. Meh. They didn’t want it, they didn’t want it.

Well, yes, I am safe. I’ve been through worse, I’ve seen much worse results.

Trinidad and Tobago was lucky. Fortunate. No deaths reported so far. Property damage seems to be limited to North Trinidad. Videos and photos are making the rounds, the most of which seem legitimate – there’s always the trouble with disaster porn.

The sky, despite all reports you might hear otherwise, has not fallen near me. It has affected others much more than me, but it is not for me to write what they experienced.

Plodding Toward Progress

Slow ProgressWe have a tendency to set goals and get tunnel vision – we see everything directly between ourselves and the goal.

Yet everything directly between us and the goal is connected to other things, and those things to other. We forget the circumstances, the environment, through which we try to progress. There is more in our way than we find directly in front of us, and there is more that can help that is not directly in front of us or behind us.

This is the real world – not some facsimile that they teach about when they hand out diplomas and certificates, but a world interconnected. These days, the interconnections themselves are accelerating. Writers have tackled this over the decades, trying to communicate that the world is getting Faster.

Most recently, I’ve finished reading Friedman’s, “Thank You For Being Late” – an appropriate title as I’ve been making my way through various things in Trinidad and Tobago, a nation where bureaucracy can be harvested and exported. On a global level, ‘thought-leaders’, predominantly of the developed world, have the luxury of seeing things above the clouds of the developing world.

And they write about it.

And it’s disconnected from the rest of the world – even people in their own countries.

There’s this growing tension because of that which I would like to think could be healthy – where people aspire toward such lofty goals. And yet, the same ‘thought-leaders’ don’t understand the world that they live in as much as the world they are familiar with – just like everybody else. Reality defies us. And that content spreads like a wildfire around the globe, right or wrong, good or bad, and people see it through their tunnel vision.

We all want things to be better. The problems arise when we don’t agree on what’s better.

The tunnel, though, comes to define people when the world is larger than the tunnel. Where stopping now and then and looking around makes us aware of more possibilities. Where we are not limited to or defined by what we’ve done before. Where we can find a small effort indirectly can bring us so much closer to our goals.

Where even the systems we use to define how we get to our goals should be constantly suspect.

We plod forward when we should dance toward.

A Literary Character

VS_Naipaul_2016_Dhaka
VS Naipaul in Dhaka, 2016. Photo courtesy Faizul Latif Chowdhury, through a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The news yesterday was that Sir VS Naipaul had passed away. Only the day before I had been in West Mall, in North Trinidad, and had glanced at some of his books. ‘Soon’, I thought, since my reading stack is larger than my time to read these days.

When I first got published, I went around to my father’s siblings and got almost the same response every single time.

“VS Naipaul is your uncle, you know. It’s in your genes.”

It was very matter of fact, dismissive and as supportive as I would find could be expected from my family. I retorted every time, “My mother is a writer too.” All of them nodded quietly, dismissively, and went on with their lives.

Clearly, I kept writing. After all,  if he’s my Uncle and that’s their logic to dismiss that accomplishment, all the cousins I know and all the cousins I don’t know also have him as an Uncle. In fact, a lot of people in Trinidad and Tobago are related to him. None that I know of, including myself, actually knew him. He didn’t help me with my homework, or give me a talking-to when I needed it.

To me, Sir VS Naipaul was simply a literary character that existed in the minds of others. Over the course of the years, I read a few of his books. I was told some of his history and life by someone who knew of him and might have met him a few times as a child.

This is the core of the issue I consider when people in Trinidad and Tobago try to claim Sir VS Naipaul. Here’s this author who had the opportunity to leave Trinidad and Tobago with British citizenship. He did. He did well with it. Would he have done as well were he in Trinidad and Tobago? Probably not. He traveled, he lived his life, and that was that.

What did Trinidad and Tobago do for him to get him where he was? And Trinidad and Tobago tried to give him a prize that he declined, which further stirred some negative sentiment. And yet, the Trinidad he left was very different, a Trinidad under British rule. Why wouldn’t he leave given the opportunity? To this day, people still aspire to leave.

My paternal grandmother’s brother, Ram Singh, was this source. So he told me of his memories of the Lion House, of his few meetings with this literary character. That was kind of boring, really, because he didn’t have much to say on the topic other than, “He was always upstairs writing.”

And that’s all I really know. I do know that of the books of his I’ve read, they were good. He didn’t write the sort of things I enjoyed reading, and the Internet will be full enough of his praises.

What I do like about him is that he did what he did on his own, despite what others said or did. And, through references to him, I got to hear more about a very different Trinidad and Tobago. People like Uncle Ram would tell me about how they would ride to Carlsen Field on bicycles to get chewing gum from the U.S. Army base, from well-intentioned soldiers through the fence. He laughed about that when he told me, even as I thought of a poor East Indian boy on a bicycle begging at a fence at a U.S. military installation. I’ve been on the other side of those fences.

It was a very different Trinidad and Tobago. A pre-Independence era, a post WWII era. Rations. Bicycle licenses. Things that they never teach of in school.

In turn, I spoke with Great Uncle John – my paternal grandfather’s friend. In his 90s at the time, he had served as the Master-at-Arms at the Chaguramas base, had been involved in politics in a small way right after Independence… he had met his wife when he was out patrolling on an Estate… and she was washing clothes in the river. I learned a lot by simply listening to him – about how there was so much water at Chaguramas, so many wells, and that the country had water. A man of few words, I would simply sit there and listen to someone who was happy to have someone there to talk to. There was a  time he was working in Port of Spain and missed the last taxi, so he walked to Chaguanas through the canefields, got home at sunrise, showered and went back to work by taxi again.

There are many colorful stories, many literary characters, but right now everyone’s concerned about Sir VS Naipaul – about what he wrote, about how he wrote it, about why he wrote it… just like any other author. In the end, yes, geographically he was from an island in the Caribbean that was then under British rule, and he went on to do great things.

But it wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago better. It wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago more recognized for literature – in this regard, he stands largely alone and as a borrowed literary figure that left Trinidad and Tobago long ago, from a different era, who made his own way as so many others who leave Trinidad and Tobago do. Everyone wants to claim the successes, no one wants to claim the failures.

Einstein noted this sort of thing himself:

If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.

– Albert Einstein.

(Address to the French Philosophical Society at the Sorbonne (6 April 1922); French press clipping (7 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 36-378] and Berliner Tageblatt (8 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 79-535])

There are many literary characters running around Trinidad and Tobago. Sir VS Naipaul was one of them during the British era, but not after.

His successes remain his own. As it should be.