December 2006

In addition to the tropical vegetation, high humidity and intense sunlight, one difficult to miss sign that one is no longer in one of the so called richer countries is the size of the satellite dishes that some people have in their backyard.

Big Satellite Dish in residential area in Trinidad

The residential satellite dishes have to be of sufficient size in order to collect feeds from the periphery of the area where American television satellites are aiming their signal. It is fortuitous that Caribbean countries such as Trinidad are geographically close enough to mainland USA to make this possible. Anyone who can afford the hardware can see almost everything that Americans watch on television, including most of that shown on cable. Less than a decade ago, satellite piracy became a thriving domestic industry, spawning a handful of cable companies who would maintain a cluster of dishes of varying size, aimed at a number of satellites, and piping the signals to residences who would gladly pay for the ability to watch American entertainment without having to tear up their backyard. Few cared about the legality of the process. For years I was able to watch the commercial free movie channels for a small monthly fee that was far below what most Americans were paying.

The local cable package included most of the major terrestrial networks and 24 hour cable news. Yes, that includes FoxNews. Sometimes I wonder if the leniency with which these news companies have demonstrated, when enforcing the copyright on their video feeds in the Caribbean, can be partly explained by some wider initiative to keep feeding propaganda to any nation that would accept pro-US messages willingly. One of the local television channels fills a significant proportion of their schedule with Voice of America programming. Of course this can cut both ways. We also get the Comedy Channel, and last week I was able to see the last Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) of 2006, featuring a self contradicting Bush. Viewing the complete show on cable is at least as humorous as watching the video clips. However I’m unsure whether many Trinidadian viewers will perceive this show to be a serious counter to the mainstream news channels. To their credit, the telecommunication infrastructure is in a state of rapid development. The biggest cable company, Flow, is converting their cable networks to digital and are showing signs of going legit. They have been negotiating broadcasting rights to many of the video feeds and will be charging more for certain channels. And since the two years ago when I last visited there has been a dramatic change to the skyline. The twin island republic has become littered with mobile phone towers.

Residential Cellphone Antennas

This one is less than 200m from where I am now typing this.

Unfortunately, the broadband still sucks bigtime. The bandwidth is low and unreliable and over priced. No doubt this will improve over the next few years and perhaps in the not so distant future the people of Trinidad and Tobago will discover the world that is beyond what is fed to them via American television.

Port-of-Spain lighthouse and twin towers

I have returned to Trinidad and Tobago for the holidays and for the past two weeks have not been able to blog much due to the really bad Internet connection at my parents’ house. This twin island republic is perhaps the wealthiest island nation in the Caribbean due to the geological proximity to Venezuela. The local economy is almost completely driven by fossil fuels, however according to Colin Campbell, production of crude oil peaked two decades ago and prosperity is becoming increasingly dependent on natural gas related exports. Stories in local newspapers reflect this. The parliament has been debating gas deals for proposed aluminium smelting plants. Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, toured a natural gas facility last week declaring that there are a lot of reserves to be found in decades to come. However, the big multinational corporations seem reluctant to explore the deep waters east of the island. When exploration rights of 8 deep water blocks, each of 80,000 hectares in size, were put up for auction, only Statoil placed a bid for one of the blocks. Apparently 12 corporations invested in a 2D seismic survey of the deep water areas of interest but later complained the quality of the scan was poor. Statoil bid for a block adjacent to one in Venezuelan waters where gas had been found recently. Such is the risk averse nature of deep water exploration.

… according to Barry Schwartz, sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, who expressed this sentiment in his TED talk:

I remember expressing something similar when growing up and my friends asked why I always downplayed my abilities and accomplishments. I guess I felt the need to surprise myself as well as others who I found were always expecting more from me.

This may partly explain the tendency towards hyperbole expressed by certain fanatical supporters of especially gloomy predictions. The Y2K had their fair share of exagerators and one wonders if January 2000 was a particularly happy month for them. The doomsday scenarios of today are no exception: James Lovelock, who conceived the Gaia hypothesis, says that we’ve already passed the point of no return with regard to global warming. Matt Savinar maintains a particularly scary website explaining why technology is not a panacea for peak oil, while James Howard Kunstler speculates on the disastrous consequences on an oil addicted civilization. This doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong, but the believers of their extreme outlook will be happy even if the lesser of two disasters comes to pass.

Professor Schwartz’s quote shouldn’t be taken out of context. Planning one’s life based on the lowest expectation of every possibility will inevitably lead to lost opportunity and regret. His larger point is that having too much choice has the downside of higher expectations and increased chance of disappointment. It is a case of the Goldilocks Principle that I can spin to my advantage next time anyone criticises my past career choices: The Caribbean had too few options for career growth, the US had way too many, and the UK was just right.

NB. Google TechTalks has for a much longer version of the Professor Schwartz lecture.