Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Fete Over, Back to Work

The following was first published on February 11, 2016 in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper.

Few occasions call for reprising of the late George Chambers’ famous admonition to return to work after the fete than this post-Carnival season, sadly destined for assured relapse at the onset of Easter.

Whether we like it or not (and there is evidence that we collectively don’t), the business of achieving and maintaining an even keel calls for an urgent downing of Carnival arms – whatever its perceived and in my view, mythical, value in easing the pains and tensions of the real world.

It might be that someone would finally do the honest mathematics to disaggregate temporal emotional gain from the real value of the creative products generated by the event. But that is work yet to be done.

But where do we begin? Let me have a shot at that.

It is my view, that one of the defining features of countries focused on development is a commitment to understanding the true nature of the challenges that confront them. This calls for a preference for statistics over superstition and for facts over fairytales.

Among the people who understand this best are those who occupy space in the worlds of business and applied science. The wise businessman or woman delivers goods and services to markets in which there is measurable and affirmed demand at prices that are competitive, while the civil engineer calculates the thickness of the steel required to bear the weight of the largest trucks along the bridges he designs.

Miscalculations related to market size and demand or the true strength of the bridge can yield disastrous results.

In real-world journalism training, to cite one other area in which the employing of science is being encouraged – as opposed to guessing, obeah and mere intuition – there is now an insistence on adopting standards related to what is now known as data journalism, but what has always been described as the “journalism of verification”.

It does not mean that journalists suddenly become scientists or researchers in the classical sense, but that they become more aware of the distinction between provable fact and speculation and accord them due recognition and treatment in their stories.

In countries such as ours that rely heavily on intuition, guesswork and tribal favouritism in the framing of public policy and action there is always the tendency to eschew science in favour of popular wisdom. For example, international research on the contribution of all forms of corporal punishment to the use of violence as a means of addressing conflict is ignored in favour of the pronouncement that “I get beat and I didn’t come out that bad.”

On the base of such an assertion, I would assume that (among other things) a survey of prison inmates at Port of Spain, Golden Grove and Carrera would find, as a corollary to this argument, that the vast majority of violent criminal offenders had once been “spoilt children” who had been spared the rod. But, I am only guessing. Perhaps the work of a clever UWI post-graduate student is sealed away somewhere with the information we need to deliver a judgment.  
The fete is over
There is also research elsewhere which suggests that the death penalty does not produce a deterrent effect on the incidence of homicide. Yet, with each perceived “crime wave” comes the “hang dem high” posse, led by politicians in power intent on riding the wave of public opinion based on questionable assumptions. If the rationale is revenge, then there can probably be another discussion.

Enter now the National Statistical Institute (NSI), out of the ashes of the Central Statistical Office (CSO). If there is one institution that is an absolute pre-requisite to the shaping of public policy it would be the CSO under any new name given to it - an agency that has, over the years, housed some of the country’s finest public servants.

Hopefully, the NSI will be assigned responsibility for data-driven research on a much wider scale than currently applies. There is nothing more compelling than the disintegration of the CSO over the years to prove the point that public policy is very frequently developed in the absence of hard information.

Having moderated just two of the current series of public consultations on local government reform, it seems clear to me that the design of a new framework in this important area of governance must be deeply rooted in a much better understanding of the stock of human and other assets available in the several districts and regions. Such knowledge would help address fears linked to social and economic anomalies in the assigning of fiscal responsibilities. The question has arisen time and again at the consultations.

The Centre for Language Learning (CLL) also recently launched preliminary work on the mapping of foreign language usage in T&T and its director, Dr Beverly-Anne Carter, has urged that an audit of language competencies be included as part of the next national census exercise. The CLL’s finding that as many as 40 languages are used in households throughout the country is an astounding revelation with implications for the manner in which we engage the rest of the world in the spheres of business, commerce and foreign policy.

As I have said before, though, the politicians need to allow the professionals to do their work. The seminal achievement of the CSO in developing the Human Development Atlas of 2012, including vital data on citizen security provided by the Crime and Problem Analysis Unit (CAPA) of the Police Service, proved that the agency, once provided with the resources and with politicians out of the way, is capable of producing high-quality, reliable work.

During the course of one journalistic assignment that spanned close to two years, I had to rely heavily on social and economic data provided by the CSO and by the Central Bank. Regular dispatches from the Central Bank, via its Repo Rate announcements in particular, provided very decent, basic information while the CSO staff were always willing to offer clarification and verification to the extent bureaucratically possible.

I am yet to receive an explanation as to why my name eventually slipped off the Bank’s mailing list, but thankfully the assignment had by then ended and the requirement of very specific data was no longer as urgent as it was before. Sourly, I noted then the bottoming out of a descent occasioned by politically-inspired mayhem.

It should have taken much less than a Moody’s downgrade in 2015 to signal to policymakers the importance of national statistics as the bedrock of official decision-making. The shameful “recession” debate was rooted in routine negligence related to official use of facts and data and an absence of public, and in some regards journalistic, vigilance.

Now that the fete is over and we are back to work (for the time being), what happens to the CSO/NSI remains a much more urgent headline in my book than the points earned by the Band of the Year.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Time for Panorama Review?

Panorama is the annual steelpan competition hosted in the birth-place of the instrument, Trinidad and Tobago. It features the world's leading steelbands. This commentary was written for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian and published on February 11, 2016. It is re-published here to correct the omission of statistics for Phase II Pan Groove - one of the competition's more successful bands.

Desperadoes’ undisputed Panorama win on February 6 marked the 11th time the band has won the contest which essentially declares for it the title of leading steelband in the world. This maintains “Despers” record as the most successful band in the history of organised pan competition.

The closest any bands have come to that are nine wins each for Renegades and Trinidad All Stars. Phase II Pan Groove with seven while Exodus and Harmonites follow with four wins apiece and Starlift with three.

Desperadoes Steel Orchestra in full flight
This means that in a total of 40 non-consecutive encounters, just six bands have dominated the competition. Other winners have been Silver Stars, North Stars and Cavaliers winning twice and Hatters and NuTones with one win apiece. North Stars were the very first winners in 1963 and Renegades were the only hat-trick winners spanning the period 1995-1997.

The much-ignored small and medium band categories have offered up their own share of outstanding bands. Pan Elders, for example, won on a hat-trick in 2016 and second-placed Buccooneers are now two-time winners, having taken the prize in 2013. Third placed Katzenjammers won in the two preceding years.

Arima Golden Symphony won in the Small Bands category this year, reaching a record of seven wins including five consecutive wins between 2009 and 2013. In second place was 57 year old Laventille Serenaders with their highest placement since they entered this category in 2008. In third place was Tornadoes, which emerged out of dominant Point Fortin band See-burg in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
The record of the last 20 years would therefore suggest the virtual hegemonic domination of less than a dozen bands spanning all three categories.

Though the primary focus tends to be on the large bands, pan connoisseurs point to the improving musicality and creativity of the small and medium bands and Panorama regulars are often wont to mention the keenness of the competition particularly in the small and medium band categories.

The second-place achievement of Lopinot-based Supernovas in the large band category this year is remarkable if only because they made the jump from small to large after placing second in the small bands category in 2015. Some would suggest that such a phenomenal achievement owes much to the fact that the smaller categories are generating a standard of play separated only by the number of players.

The other factor to consider is the role of an emerging, relatively new generation of pan arrangers. Duvone Stewart of Pan Elders/Renegades, Seion Gomez of Buccooneers and Amrit Samaroo of Supernovas/Melodians come to mind, alongside a host of others in bands that did not place in the top three and are waiting in the wings in the Junior Panorama competition.

I would keep a keen eye on Aviel Scanterbury of Bishops/Trinity College East, which placed second in the secondary schools’ category and Andrew Charles of Renegades Juniors. There are others, but these two are preparing for the big time and will be names we should remember.

It is also becoming clear that pan music is entering different levels of sophistication and that some areas of experimentation, though by no means new, are gaining greater acceptance on the Panorama stage. Andy Narell’s dogged insistence on slowing the pace and scoring melodic riffs that make use of jazz chords did not take Birdsong to the finals yet again, but there is every chance of such an approach being influential in the minds of the newer entrants.

It is being argued that in the event of such a transformation in the approach to arranging for Panorama, as has been the case over the past 10 years and more, judges and the criteria employed may need to be adjusted or redefined.
The current adjudication criteria are Arrangement, which carries a maximum of 40 out of 100 points; General Performance 40; Tone 10 and Rhythm 10.

There is nothing to suggest that crowd response, nifty costuming, attractive flagmen and women, well-timed fog machines or noisy pyrotechnics are factored into any of the four criteria – nor should they be. There would, however, need to be further elaboration of the expectations regarding arrangement and the amorphous notion of a “good” performance.

Do Dane Galston’s dance steps count for anything? Did Boogsie’s masked entry onto the stage make a difference in any way? Did Carlton “Zanda” Alexander’s stately and authoritative conducting style count?

The difference between the winning band, Desperadoes, and Supernovas was one point (285-284). And Supernovas was separated by joint third-place bands Phase II and Renegades also by one point.
Perhaps breaches of the eight-minute time limit ought to be looked at again, along with – in the absence of a real pan theatre – the time spent per band in setting up their instruments.

Over the years, Pan Trinbago has been able to accelerate the process much more smoothly. But there is clearly room for improvement.

On another note, the decision this year to prevent accredited photographers from mounting the stage generated considerable expressions of discontent. Pan Trinbago would do well to negotiate better conditions for some of its most solid allies in promoting one of Carnival’s most valuable shows, whatever the past transgressions of a few camera-bearers. Photographers covering the event this year had clear ideas on how the interests of the organisers and those who practice their craft behind the camera can come better than they did in 2016.

Lovers of pan also appear to have some ideas of their own worth listening to.

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