Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Maldivian Copyright Law: A Brief Look

A lot of Maldivians working in the arts and creative industries have been calling for an intellectual property law. At last, for the first time in this country, a comprehensive copyright law has been passed.

An intellectual property regime can be both a blessing and a curse. Before everyone jumps up and down celebrating, we have to look at what exactly is written in the said law.

I have had a very brief look at the draft available [direct pdf link], and it is has some glaring problems in my opinion. Some points that come to my mind.

1. The copyright period is way too long. The current law states a period of 50 years since the death of the author, in the case of multi-author, 50 years from the death of the last-dying author.

This is an overly long duration; something like 15 to 20 years is more reasonable in my opinion. Overly long, and restrictive copyright laws actually stifle creativity and innovation, rather than improve it. And it is very likely that this period will be increased to 75 and to 100 years by lobbyists anyway in the new future.

2. It makes it a punishable offense to use anti-DRM devices/software. For those unfamiliar with what DRM is, they can refer to a good writeup at Anti-DRM site.

In section 33 it states
"Haggu thah himaayai kurumah beynunkuraa fannee vaseelaithakaai rights management informations ge hagguthah”
It states in clause 33.(haa).1:
"Fannee masakkatheh nuvatha aduge recording eh nuvatha broadcast kuraa echheh alun nu ufeddheygothah hedhumahtakai nuvatha efadha kameh control kurumahtakai vaseelathehge gothun beynun kurumah ufaddhaafaivaa evves echheh ge beynun nuhifey gothah hedhun nuvatha ekamah huras alhan beynunkuraa nuvatha kuraane faraathakah vikkumah nuvatha kuyyah dhinumah evves kahala echeh ufeddhun nuvatha efadha ehcheh raajje etherekurun"
and in part 3 it states:
"Huddha akaa nulaa electronic rights management information negun nuvatha badhalu kurun"

I am not a lawyer, but i think the above two clauses actually makes it a punishable offense to use anti-DRM (digital rights management) software. In the law it states Electronic Rights Managemet, which is the same thing as Digital Rights Managment.

The equivalent law in US is DMCA, which has come under immense criticism, but we are duplicating that here. Such measures actually make it illegal to use open source software to watch DVDs (since they bypass region protection, a primitive form of DRM), and other software that cracks modern DRMs.

It gets more interesting; it actually makes it punishable the mere act of building such a thing, or raajje ah ethere kurun. Does that mean downloading such software will also be illegal? Downloading is also rajje ethere kuraning I guess.

And that part
"huras alhan beynunkuraa nuvatha kuraane faraathakah vikkumah"
puts a big liability on the developer or seller. How is the seller/developer to know how it will be used by the end user? Does this mean selling or giving or creating torrent software is illegal? After all torrent is predominantly used for copyright infringement. But should we penalize the developer for that? Isn’t that even a more draconian thing? Those two are just tip of the ice berg. Good thing it doesn’t cover patents! There are good reasons to oppose such draconian laws, rather than welcoming it with open arms.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Housing crisis?

As everybody knows, Male' is a highly congested city. Probably the city with the highest population density. Hence, Male' has been described as a city burdened with a housing crisis (in addition to the strains placed on roads, ports, land, waste etc).

But in reality, there is no housing crisis at the fundamental level.The crisis that you see in Male’ region is a manifestation of a crisis in services to outer islands. The reasons people from the islands come to Male' are
  1. Education for children
  2. Health services
  3. Jobs and economic opportunity
Given that government (current, previous and other past governments) has taken the responsibility for providing education and health services, it is apparent that the real crisis is the inability to provide these services to outer islands.

Not only that, Male’ supremacists do not really want the islands to be developed/self sufficient or have any notion of self-determination. This is reflected in the policies that Male' based central government has followed for decades (I am not pointing finger at Gayyoom only, this includes Nasir as well).

The people of the islands have been denied the opportunity to use the resources available to them (which is not much really) to their benefit. This is reflected in agricultural/fisheries/tourism/customs policies.

Just to give some specific examples:

1. The people of GDh. Thinadhoo were quite well off in the early Nasir era. They had couple of their own shipping lines to import stuff. They did not have to go through Male’. But some Male’ supremacist thought otherwise, and forced them to sail their ships through Male’, making things expensive, and inconvenient, and at the mercy of Male’ bosses. Their self determination was ruined. No wonder they revolted against Nasir.

2. The uninhabited islands have been semi-titled to Male’ people (though not always) under the name of ‘varuvaa’ system. This deprived the real farmers in islands of opportunity. Instead what should have happened is the lands from agricultural islands should be titled to the actual farmers in islands under tax free and long term basis.

Even the ones who got islands under varuvaa did not have secure property rights. There was no legal contract and the island was always subject to be taken by government if and when required. This reduced investments from these people because they were not sure of the lease. Only people who actually invested in agriculture were people who had good connections within the governments (who then knew that their varuvaa island will not be taken away).

3. The tourism ‘Master Plan’ is a real plan to cartel-ize the whole tourism sector. It enables only high end tourism to be viable, making only those with lots of money able to compete. Instead, atoll people should have opportunity to do low to medium end tourism. That decision does not have to come from central government in Male’ only now. If more people were given the opportunity, that would have already begun in Maldives.

4. The lucrative business of tuna export has been made an oligopoly. This has caused numerous difficulties for fishermen. I have written about this couple of times here and here.

With all these restrictions and monopoly privileges to selected few, it is no wonder that island people suffered terribly, and they have to depend on Male’ for every single thing. This has created such a high demand for apartments in Male’, and hence the rising rents. The wages have not kept up with rising living costs.

Thus, the housing crisis is not the real crisis. The real crises are the failed policies that have been pursued for so long.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Economic ignorance

The recent move by BML to block foreign account holders from using debit card overseas has sparked some criticism towards BML as well as towards the foreign workers here in Maldives.

There were some in the comment section in favour of prohibiting foreigners from taking USD out of the country as a supposed solution to the problem (emphasis mine):
Adam on Wed, 20th Oct 2010 8:19 AM

This is a good move by the bank, Maldives being a very small country (actually the smallest country in the region) needs to protect itself from going bankrupt… By allowing forigners who are paid in MRF to withdraw in USD or any other currency is just insane…and frankly the bank was stupid to tie the forign issue to this very practical issue… ie they should have made it impossible for people who have MRF accounts to deal in other currencies…. lets take the example …in Maldives almost all major currencies including (the ruppes from neighbours) are accepted…but the same recognition is not given to MRF… so unless we can actually go to Lanka or India and change our MRF to thier Rupees why should Maldives become bankrupt because rich forigners drain the dollars out of maldives !!!

@ibrahim Mohamed on Wed, 20th Oct 2010 9:30 AM

I guess its time that we control the sending of money out of the country. We should find out the actual pay for teachers and doctors and should only allow what they earn to be send out of the country. However it is found that most teachers earn more than their pay through private tuition services to students which should be made illegal. Similarly foreign doctors work in private clinics in spite of the pay they get from government hospitals and health centers. Such malpractices hog up lot of foreign currency which should stay in the country. Teachers and doctors who want to do private tuition service and private practice should leave their job if they want to be in private practice. We can only control foreign currency leakage by monitoring money laundering in the country and allowing only the amount of pay entitled to foreigners to be taken out of country. Now we have a fury of leakage of dollars as we don’t control money laundering. I know some foreign countries which have strict rules on money laundering. For a small country with a crippled economy, which heavily depends on foreign labor such control is vital.
Well, thats just pure nonsense. I sent a comment a follows:
@Adam on Wed, 20th Oct 2010 8:19 AM
@ibrahim Mohamed on Wed, 20th Oct 2010 9:30 AM

What an utter ignorant economic nonsense!

“By allowing forigners who are paid in MRF to withdraw in USD or any other currency is just insane”
What you are suggesting is that we pay the foreigners in our own printed MRF (which is useless to anyone outside of this country btw), and STOP them from converting it to goods and services via an intermediate currency. The only reason a paper currency is valuable is people accept it for exchange. So if you deny them the convertibility, you are denying them their hard earned wages (because they are foreigners)!! The only one insane here is you.

ibrahim mohamed:
If you don’t want them to earn by private practice, government could always sign a contract with them that states as such. No need to make it illegal (meaning applying the same broad stroke to everyone).

You say: “…allowing only the amount of pay entitled to foreigners to be taken out …”
Who determines this ‘entitled’ amount? If they are earning that money by providing a services of which they public is willingly paying, then the public is saying they are entitled to that money. It is not you, me or the government who determines what someone is entitled to earn, as long as they earn it with honest work.

“…strict rules on money laundering…”
Do you even know what money laundering is? Are you suggesting that the foreigners who earn and work here, who are only seeking to exchanged mrf to goods and services are money laundering?
“…which heavily depends on foreign labor such control is vital…”
We depend on foreign labour, but we should have policies that discourages them from coming. Nice logic!

Why only foreigners? By what logic is BML targeting them? There will always be a scapegoat, usually the foreign workers here. Social problems? blame foreigners. Currency problem? blame foreigners. Economic problem? blame foreigners!!

The problem is very simple. Just like any other good, high demands raises the market price. Whether you look at clothing, food, housing, oil, services etc. The same is true for currency. High demand for USD has raised the real market value of dollar relative to the MRF, or MRF value has dropped due to inflation. So by putting a price control on currency, you create a shortage. No amount of rationing, or harsh penalties on foreigners/locals will solve the problem (unless you want to confiscate their earnings). Let go of the currency peg, or at least devalue MRF to a value more near to market price. Black markets are created precisely because of aggressive price controls, whether on currency or any other good. Economic history witnesses this fact.
Well, unless ofcourse the resort owners are hoarding the dollars for some reason. This could very well be a reason too, but it does not explain why dollars are available in plenty from black market at about MRF 14. Why do they not hoard it until price reaches 18, 20 or 25 even?

The truth is BML lacks credibility now. Even ordinary people who used to have dollar accounts do not keep their dollars in their account. Why should they? It is impossible to get that dollars back if you deposit it! People would rather keep their money under their mattress (well, not literally).

But blaming that on foreigners who are rightfully sending their hard earned money to their families is ignorant and absurd. As one famous economist Murray N. Rothbard said:
"It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Co-education & privatization

The recent uproar over the supposed co-education policy (mixed boy/girl) has got me thinking.

The issue is whether the public schools should have mixed boy/girl classes. The way I see it is that the problem comes only regarding 'public' school, ie the ones managed and run by (hopefully representative) government.

It is apparent that some people want co-education, while others object to it. The 'correct policy' has to be decided, preferably by debating it in the public. But even then, its impossible to get all to one side. By putting it to public vote, we are in effect asking to find a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. Rarely one does come across a such a solution in trivial problems either, let alone a complex issue like this.

One way around this problem is to actually semi-privatize most (if not all) schools and to introduce a school voucher system. A voucher is equivalent to the amount the government currently spends per pupil in public school system. Each student (well, the parents actually) will get a voucher, and the parent can decide to which school they want to send their children. This way it increases diversity and choice available to parents, while still retaining the public funding.

Thus, some schools will offer co-education, while others will offer single sex schools. Some will try different methods/mediums of teaching, while others will offer non-mainstream subjects. The schools (rather their management) will have to compete to attract more students by offering better facilities that parents like. The voucher is entitled to the parent, not the school. This is akin to the existing schools getting budget funds allocated by attracting more students.

The schools should be as much independent from government as possibly can. If Ministry of Education is to dictate hours/gender/subjects, then there won't be much of a choice. Government can still retain some basic control if thats what the people want.

By privatization, I don't mean just changing the management to a private party. The school should decide which hours/uniforms/methods of teaching and curriculum too. Curriculum is especially relevant, because it is too important to be left to be decided as a one-size-fits-all thing.

I think in the not so distant future, the question will come whether to teach the theory of evolution to students. Understandably, that will be even a bigger uproar. There is no reason to think that all schools should or would follow one policy. Each school can decide for themselves, and parents can send their child to one that teaches evolution or not. After all, evolution is just a theory. So is relativity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Faith - Forced and Free

Some people just never step down from this moral high ground of insisting that everyone else believe the same as he/she does. And they are willing to use force to make sure that their dreams come true.

This is especially true of people that everyone should follow one religion, in the case of Maldives Islam.

It is true that the Maldivian constitution says that all citizens should be Muslims, which brings us to the notion of so called 100% Islamic country. Just because it is written in a legal document does not make it true. If it was the case, the world over would have solved all problems of poverty, crime, etc. It will only be a matter of writing 'everyone in Maldives is above poverty level' in the constitution, problem solved!

Some say, we should revoke the citizenship of people who become apostates or worse killed (let alone the fact that death penalty for apostasy is a debatable issue). So by that logic, to make Maldives a 0% poverty nation, we can revoke the citizenship of people who fare below the poverty line. To make 0% crime/fraud/corruption nation, we can revoke the citizenship of criminals, fraudsters and corrupt people (hmm, come to think of it, that would get rid of most of the politicians).

The fact of the matter is, by definition, faith is something that comes when someone wholeheartedly accept and believe. It can come only through conviction. This can only happen when a person is free to believe. When he is forced, then he can only act like he believes. This only creates a hypocrite out of him, and we have plenty of that in this country.

When you really look, it is precisely the freedom of conscience that enables you, me and everyone else to be Mulsims too. It just happens that this freedom of conscience is not protected for people who hold a belief that is different from majority backed state mandated belief.

If one day Maldivian constitution states "...Maldives must be 100% christian.." or atheist or buddists and enforced by force of law, it will be the day Muslim scholars (& majority of maldivians) of this country advocate for religious freedom. Its a pity that they don't realize its just the other side of the same coin that some are living in already.

Those who advocate faith by force, should consider the day when the force is not with you. When people of different belief have that force (via majority or whatever), is it ok for them to impose their own belief by force?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Using perl and awk for data extraction - Part 3

In part 2, you saw the small perl program written to extract data. The code uses fair amount of one-liners and perl syntactic sugar. In addition, it uses functional style of programming where appropriate.

Lines 1-13:
Just startup lines and variable declarations. You could use variables without declaring first.

Line 18:
@userinput = <> 

This grabs contents from standard input and store in array @userinput. The <> actually grabs the whole content to memory, be it file or from standard input. This is not advisable to be used in production code.

Line 21:
$colheader = shift(@userinput)

This grabs the first item from array @userinput using the shift function. It also reduces the number of elements in @userinput.

Line 22:

The first line stored in $colheader contains the newline character as well. This newline character is removed with the chomp function. Strictly speaking, it removes the input record separator as specified in perl special vairable $/, which by default is newline character.

Line 23:
my @cols = split(",", $colheader)

Splits the contents of $colheader based on delimeter ,(comma). The split function returns an array of strings. This gets stored in @cols, resulting in @cols containing the column names.

Line 27:
$colist = join('', map {$i++ ; "-v $_=$i "} @cols)

This line consists of two parts, firstly the use of map function, and secondly the use of join function.
The map function, "maps" or applies a given function to each member of a list. Suppose you have a line that says (where @numbers = (1, 2, 3, 4)):
@results = map(square, @numbers)

This will apply the function 'square' to each member of the array @numbers. The result will be an array of elements that contain (square(1), square(2), square(3), square(4)). If square is a function that returns the mathematical square of its arguments, then @results will contain (1, 4, 9, 16).
Similarly, instead of a function, you can give a code block within curly braces {}, to be applied to each member of the array given. In this case the code block is
{$i++; "-v $_=$i "}

Note the trailing space just after i. This means, for each element in @cols, run the piece of code in the curly braces. The code in curly braces does two things:
1. increment variable i
2. returns a string of the form "v = $_=$i "
In perl, $i occurring within double quoted text strings will be parsed and hence its value will be substituted. $_ is the perl special variable that contains the current argument, ie the element from @cols that is under consideration
Suppose @cols is (length, width, height), then the result of map function will be
("-v length=1", "-v width=2", "-v height=3")

This resulting array from the map function is directly used by the join function. The join functions just 'joins' the elements of a string array separated by a given string. Here we are using the null string '' as separator, ie just directly join. As a final result, $colist will contain something like
"-v length=1 -v width=2 -v height=3"

For those interested, perl's map function is very similar to lisp's mapcar or haskell's map function.

Line 30:
my $cmd = "|awk -F, -v OFS=',' $colist '$cond { print $ext }'" 

This builds a command line syntax for calling awk from perl. Note the use of unix pipe | at the beginning. This will cause whatever we send to be piped to awk program. -F, specifies that field separator is ,(comma) and -v OFS=',' specifies that output field separator to be used is also comma. Since this is a double quoted string, $colist is parsed and its value is substituted, rather than the literal $colist. Same for $cond and $ext.

Line 33:
open (AWK, $cmd)

This is perl standard way of calling shell commands. You could use ABC, BLAH, FOOBAR or anything instead of AWK.

Line 34:
map {print AWK} @userinput

Here again I use perl's ability to do functional programming. It runs the code {print AWK} to each element in the array @userinput, ie it sends each line in @userinput to the command shell as specified in line 30.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Using perl and awk for data extraction - Part 2

In Part 1, we have seen how to extract specific columns and their combinations using awk variables $1, $2 etc. In this part, you will see how to use the column names instead of $1, $2. This will make things very much clearer.

In awk, you can use the -v option to pass variables to awk. So for example:
cat data.csv |awk -F, -v OFS=',' -v tag=2 -v width=6 \
'$tag ~ /f1/ {print $tag, $width}'
Here, in addition to the built-in variable OFS, two new variables are passed with the -v option. They are 'tag' and 'width' with values 2 and 6 respectively. Hence within the {}, we can use $tag which gets evaluated to $2 (since tag=2) and $width evaluated to $6 (since width=6). The result is that the line is much more readable since we are using the column names.

When you have many columns, it is very difficult to pass column names to awk via the -v option manually. You will have a long list of '-v element=1 -v tag=2 -v len=3' etc. Instead, few lines of perl code can grab the column names and build actual awk command with -v options. Perl is well and good enough to actually do what awk itself does, but then would be re-writing awk program in perl.

Thus, the perl program will do just the following:
1. Accept two arguments, namely, the condition part ($tag ~ /f1/ part), and what to extract (the part within {}).
2. Read standard input.
3. Grab the column names from the first line from the input.
4. Build the -v list of column names.
5. Run awk with the conditions, what to extract and -v list of column names.

The complete perl program pfilter0 is shown below:
1 #!/usr/bin/perl
2 #USAGE: pfilter0 'cond' 'ext'
3 # where  cond is test condition to be applied by awk
4 #  ext is what to extract (the part within {}
6 use strict;
7 use warnings;
9 my @userinput;
10 my $cond = '';  #conditions or regex to match
11 my $ext = '';  #cols or expressions to extract
12 my $colist;   #column names as -v format for awk
13 my $colheader;  #first row containing the column names
15 $cond   = defined ($ARGV[0]) ? $ARGV[0] : '';
16 $ext    = defined ($ARGV[1]) ? $ARGV[1] : '$0';
18 @userinput = <>;
20 #grab first line as containing column names
21 $colheader = shift(@userinput);
22 chomp($colheader);
23 my @cols = split(",", $colheader);
25 my $i=0;
26 #build awk's -v format list of column names
27 $colist = join('', map {$i++ ; "-v $_=$i "} @cols);
29 #build the awk command line pars with ',' as input \
    and output delim
30 my $cmd = "|awk -F, -v OFS=',' $colist '$cond 
                    { print $ext }'";
32 #pass the @userinput to awk
33 open (AWK, $cmd);
34 map {print AWK} @userinput;
35 close AWK;

Now you can use the column names automatically:
-- Extract tag, len and width from all where tag matches f1
cat data.csv | ./pfilter0 '$tag == "f1"' '$tag, \ 
                                     $len, $width'

-- Extract len * width from all footing elements
cat data.csv | ./pfilter0 '$element == "footing"' \
                                     '$len * $width'

-- Using regular expressions. Extract everything where tag 
   is f1 or f2 only,
-- not other fx
cat data.csv |./pfilter0 '$tag ~ /f[1|2]/'

-- Extract tag from all columns of rect type
cat data.csv |./pfilter0 '$element == "column" && \ 
                              $type ~ /rect/' '$tag'

Part 3 will explain how the code works.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Using perl and awk for data extraction - Part 1

It is quite often that you come across a delimited text file containing important data. Often asked is how to manipulate and extract important information from such data. There are commonly three possible ways to manipulate such a file:

1. Put into a spreadsheet program and use formulas or macros to extract data.
2. Import the data to a database and use query language to extract the data.
3. Use unix/linux tools such as awk and perl to get the data.

Method 1 is not very flexible as you are restricted to simple formulas unless you get down to programming with macros.

Method 2 is a bit too combersome for simple tasks.

Linux/unix offers very powerful tools for data manipulation. Here we will use awk as the primary data extraction program, with a small perl program as a front-end to enable the use of column names.

Introduction to awk
Awk is a powerful pattern matching program that reads delimited text files and outputs lines matching a given search pattern. Originally written for unix in the '70s and named after the initials of its authors, awk has various incarnations. Any modern awk will suffice for the task at hand. I am using GNU awk (or gawk) version 3.1.6

Listing 1.1 gives shows the file data.csv. It is a comma seperated text file with the first row as the names of columns. The data is actually a listing of elements in a building such as foundation footings, columns, beams, walls etc. Not all the elements have values for all columns.

Listing 1.1 - data.csv
 element, tag, count,  type,  len,  width,  height,  area,
 footing,  f1,     2,  rect,  1.1,    0.9,     0.3,      
 footing,  f2,     4,  rect,  1.0,    1.0,     0.3,      
 footing,  f3,     1,  quad,     ,       ,     0.3,  1.85
 column,   c1,     4,  rect,  0.2,    0.2,     3.3,      
 column,   c2,     2,  rect,  0.2,    0.3,     3.3,      
 column,   c3,     1,  circ,     ,   0.35,     3.3,      
 beam,     b1,     4,  rect,  4.1,    0.2,     0.4,      
 beam,     b2,     3,  rect,  3.0,    0.2,     0.4,      
 wall,       ,     4,   ext,   16,   0.15,     3.3,      
 wall,       ,     2,   int,   24,   0.15,     3.3,      
 wall,       ,     2,   int,   24,   0.15,     3.3,      
 door,     d1,     1,      ,     ,    0.9,     2.6,      
 door,     d2,     4,      ,     ,    0.8,     2.6,      
 rfmt,     f1,     5,   t10,  1.4,       ,        ,      
 rfmt,     f1,     6,   t10,  0.9,       ,        ,      
 rfmt,     f2,     7,   t12,  0.8,       ,        ,      
 rfmt,     f2,     4,   t10,  0.9,       ,        ,      

Now lets try some awk commands. Commands to be entered in shell start with a $ (indicating prompt). They are split to two lines with a \ to fit to screen. You can use with \ or without slash in one continuous line. First cat the file and pipe to awk:

Display the first column. $1 refers to first column, $2 to second and so on. The -F, specifies that comma is to be used as field separator in the input file. The commands to execute as given inside {} enclosed in '':
$ cat data.csv |awk -F, '{print $1}'

Display columns 1 and 2 seperated by comma:
$ cat data.csv |awk -F, -v OFS=',' \
'{print $1, $2}'

Display the sum of columns 4 and 6:
$ cat data.csv |awk -F, -v OFS=',' \
'{print $4 + $6}'

Display the column 2 and product of column 4 and 6. Awk's internal variable OFS specifies the delimiter to be used in the output:
$ cat data.csv |awk -F, -v OFS=',' \
'{print $2, $4 * $6}'

You can specifiy the condition to be met before the curly braces: Display column 1, column 2, and sum of column 4 and 6, where column 1 is 'footing':
$ cat data.csv |awk -F, -v OFS=',' \
'$1 == "footing" {print $1, $2, $4 + $6}'

Or you could use more sophisticated regex matching as well: Display column 1, column 2, and sum of column 4 and 6, where column 2 is 'f'-something:
$ cat data.csv |awk -F, -v OFS=',' \
'$1 ~ /f./ {print $1, $2, $4 + $6}'

Instead of using $1, $2, we could use column names derived from the first row. Will look into this in the next part.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Protectionist Professionals

It is a natural human tendency to dislike your competitors and work hard to outdo them. After all, that is the very essence of a market economy. In an industry where there is healthy competition, there will always be new comers who give the established ones a run for their money. There will be cases where the big players become not-so-big or completely bankrupt.

20 years ago, IBM, DEC, Gateway were the big names. Today no one talks of DEC and Gateway, and IBM is not the giant it used to be.

10 years ago, Google, Mozilla, Facebook were barely heard. But today, they are household names.

With all that fierce competition, the consumers are the winners. They get better and better products (or services) and at cheaper prices.

Similarly, the building design industry in this country is a very competitive industry. There are companies big and small, and there are freelance practitioners. The prices have consistently come down, and quality have improved (depending on who you ask). But this won't be the case for long if some people get their way. The issue at hand is the case of licensing of practitioners.

There is no problem with licensing per se. Afterall, proponents argue that licensing always has been that it protects the public from incompetents, charlatans, and quacks. The problem is that the licensing tends to become categorized and stratified so that new people get to participate in the lower class first. More importantly, it restricts entry and reduces competition within the field.

Now if someone can tell me how reducing competition will reduce prices, give consumers more choice, make service providers more innovative, then I would like to hear that argument.

It appears that here in Maldives (just like every where else), the existing established players are feeling the heat from the new coming competitors. No one is disagreeing that the new comers will have less experience etc. But the question is, should the existing players be given control over the future of the industry in the name of protecting the public? Should they be allowed to put up barriers to entry and reduce competition? Should they be allowed to insulate themselves from competitors? After all, if what they say is true (that they are more experienced etc), why are they so hesitant on competing on a level playing field? Why can't they deliver better services to their customers than the new ones?

Is it not a conflict-of-interest that people who get to sit on the licensing boards are the ones who will feel the competitive pressure from the new entrants? I wonder what such a body's code of conduct says about conflict of interest!

We don't really need a regimented licensing regime. What we need is a certification system, much like the independent certifications such as A+, MCSE, CCNA etc. That way, we remove the conflict of interest, and also while giving the public proper information about someone's qualifications. That way we remove the politics from the professions.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spoken like a true liberal

I am often criticized by liberal Maldivians because I refuse to censor religious groups.

I am criticized because I won’t crack down on the fundamentalists.

But my point is this: the ends do not justify the means.

You cannot arrest and imprison people just because you disagree with their views.

Moreover, the battle between liberalism and fundamentalism is a battle of ideas.

Liberally-minded Maldivians must organize, and reclaim civil society if they want to win this battle of ideas.

People with broader viewpoints must become more active, to create a tolerant society.

A few nights back, 32 young people came to see me.

They were furious about the rise in extremism.

To my mind, these are just the sort of people who need to reclaim civil society, if they want to foster a more open-minded society.

We must defeat the rejectionists, who hanker for a return to authoritarian rule.

We must overcome the vested interests that want to stymie economic progress.

And we must win the battle of ideas against extremists who want to replace democracy with theocracy.

I believe we will not win by going for a crack-down, or a witch-hunt or mass arrests.

To my mind, violence only begets violence.

President Nasheed at Maldives Donor's Conference, March 2010.
Full speech available here. Unlike the self-styled liberals in Maldives, especially in the blogosphere, who calls for the crack-down on extremist (their words, not mine) religious groups, President Nasheed knows what liberty is. Same message goes for those who call for violence and hatred, and those who use religion as a political tool. Oppression and crack-downs are not the way forward. We should move away from authoritarianism & totalitarianism to freedom, peace and tolerance. George Orwell put it best when he said,
"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

Photo - courtesy of dhitoons

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The representative plumber

In any society that is growing and developing, there will be a need for construction of houses and other buildings. For this they would need, out of the many trades, plumbers. Suppose, to address the needs of the society, they envision the following scenario:

The society is divided logically to territories of 5000 inhabitants each. Each unit will be allocated a plumber chosen by a popular vote. This plumber is called a Master Plumber or MP for short. This MP is supposed to cater for all the plumbing needs of his territory. Same goes for the other territories and MPs.

The MPs go to work to a nice big palace called the Citizen's Plumbhouse or CP. The CP was quite expensive so that it had to be donated by some friendly country. They are to be paid comfortably from the public purse, after all how can they work if they are not paid? If a citizen in a certain territory is not happy with his representative MP, he can try to vote him out couple of years later. Until then he has to get his house fixed by his MP whether he likes it or not.

Looking at the scenario above, it is quite obvious that such a system will fail miserably to cater for the plumbing needs of the public. MPs don't draw their earnings from productive service to the public. There is no room for dismissing an MP when he is performing poorly. There is no incentive for MPs to do good service unless its the election year.

But when it comes to the matters of the state, such a system is supposed to work? Yes it would work wonderfully for those who know how to game the system.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Creating value in the design profession

If there is one thing common between architects and engineers, it is their frequent complaint that clients do not value their work. That they always go for the one who quotes lowest for the design work. That those new graduates are flooding and undercutting the established ones. That they are somehow 'industry ge agu vattaalanee'. Or something along that.

This is especially prominent these days where there is less work to go around, and the prices has come down. The question asked is thus, how do we make clients value our work? If you take away the nice choice of words, the question basically comes down to, how do we make clients pay high price for our work?

The reason the prices are bid low is because there is healthy competition in the market. Usually, new upcoming players are the ones who bid low, and they sometimes get frowned upon by the experienced ones. Sure, new ones have less experience and will probably be of low standard than that done by an experience one. But this is not necessarily always the case. Thus, there is lots of talk about regulations in this field. Regulations are usually needed in any industry, but they have to be fair and should not restrict competition. Thus the talks about regulations usually boil down to these:

1. Creating a fee scale for the provision of services, ie price controls.
2. Creating licenses for practitioners.

Of course, these will be put forward as a way to 'create value', improve quality, to provide recognition etc.

Of these, regulations of type 1 are the worst. Suppose for example that a fee scale for design is set to min Rf 3 to max Rf 6 per sqft per floor, then those who's work is valued below Rf 3 rate will not be able to find work. Say a client wants to develop a 1000 sqft plot to 5 floors. At Rf 3 rate, the price is 3 x 5 x 1000 = Rf15,000. That means the minimum price one is legally allowed to offer for that project is Rf15k. If an experienced designer A and a not-so-experienced designer B offer the minimum allowed price, there is no reason why a client will choose B. Since he has to pay Rf15k anyway, why bother go to B? Maybe if B offered something like 12k, he might go. But B is not legally allowed to do that! Thus such a price control will be disastrous for the new comers.

Regulations of type 2 are also designed to prevent new-comers easy access to the market. It will be full of categorisation and rules so that the established players will get the lucrative projects. New ones can keep doing small projects.

But how do we improve quality if we are not paid high? is a regular question. If high price is the requirement for quality work, maybe one should see the quality of environmental impact assessments done in Maldives. Each report is USD4000+. As for the quality, let their clients and EIA evaluators be the judge.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Free speech? What free speech?

The recent disciplinary action against DhiFM for covering the protest outside the President's residence on 28 Jan 2010 is a way to control the infant independent media in the country. Such acts will stifle the development of free media in the country.

Lots of people support the disciplinary action based on one or more of the following reasons:
1. Freedom of expression does not mean you can say what the hell ever you want.
2. The coverage was PROMOTING the protest rather than REPORTING it, which is not ok.
3. Journalists should be subject to journalistic ethics and responsibility.
4. Free speech does not mean you can yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre.

Lets examine the above one by one:
- If (1) is true, then it begs the question, does freedom of expression mean you have to say what someone else wants? If it is not you who decides what you should say, then who does? Who holds this authority? If there is such an authority, is there a meaning to the term 'freedom of expression'? It is free from what now?

- Does the mere act of covering it constitute promoting it as in (2)? What about the people who went around on pickups announcing to participate in the crowd. Do they not have that freedom? If one of them gives an interview and asks the viewers to participate, is it the media's fault, if it is a fault at all?

- Who defines these journalistic ethics as in (3)? What responsibility and to whom?

- (4) is a very famous one often repeated by those who want to stifle freedom. Actually one has the right to yell 'fire' in crowded theatre. What is s/he supposed to do if there is a fire? Does it not become an obligation in that situation? That makes it an obligation that we don't have the right to exercise! Actually the case of (4) is quite broad, which I will address in another post.

It is my opinion that such actions by the government will reduce the media freedom. Actually the fact that it is a licensed regime indicates that there is no room for free media and free speech.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What about the others?

It has been one year since the announcement of the government created Engineer's Cartel, officially known as National Building Professional Accreditation Regulation (NBPAR). As of now, it effectively creates a cartel of engineers (called Professional Engineers or PE) who are insulated from competition, the details of which I have discussed in an earlier post. As predicted, those engineers who do not have the magic stamp found it harder to get work. This is more prominent during a recession like now where projects are few and far between. I myself have met many clients who went elsewhere because I don't have the stamp (though I qualify for it). I have resisted joining it because it was against my professional code of conduct. But I can only hold out for so long.

As such I have proposed major amendments to the regulation to remove the monopoly power from the PEs. The details have been posted here. These amendments are being made to the regulation, and it has been put out for public comments from MHTE. Hopefully, it will be finalised and come into effect soon. Unless the existing PEs put a stop to it.

With clients taking projects elsewhere, and in light of the fact that the amendments are through, I have taken membership as a PE. But I just wonder, what about the other engineers who do not qualify. Where do they go?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bin Laden, Noam Chomsky and Climate Change

If there is anything common between Osama bin Laden and Noam Chomsky, it is their criticism of American imperialism across the world. Only that bin Laden is waging the battle in the deserts, while Chomsky is battling it out in the intellectual sphere.

Unlike his normal religious calls for Jihad, Bin Laden blamed America and the West's industrialisation for causing climate change. In addition, with reference to Chomsky, he portrayed US foreign policy as that of the policies of Mafia. Maybe this was a reference to what Chomsky said back in November 2009.

Also, Bin Laden attacks at the heart of American imperialism by calling to get rid of the US dollar as a reserve currency. Maybe he supports a Gold Standard, whereby politicians and their cronies cannot control the supply of money at their whims. Interestingly, such gold standards are advocated by Islamic organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and also by the Far Right.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Breaking a cartel

In a previous post I mentioned about the problems with the current NBPAR regulations as implemented by Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment

The regulation effectively creates a cartel of engineers, called 'Professional Engineers', who get special privileges in the building approval process. The problems associated with this system has been mentioned in my previous post linked above.

Luckily, the Ministry has listened to opponents of such a regressive scheme. As such, during a meeting (between practising engineers and MHTE) in late September 2009, I submitted a paper (with input from like-minded engineers) outlining an alternative proposal. The changes are proposed in such a way to remove the unfair advantages the PE gets and to prevent the marginalisation of the new and upcoming engineers. The paper is produced below:


1. Introduction

The current system of building approval, where MHTE undertakes the structural checking of the said buildings has been in place for many years. Recently, in early 2009, MHTE introduced NBPAR (National Building Professionals Accreditation Regulation). Under this regulation, an accreditation scheme was created, where practitioners with selected qualifications were given the accreditation. Currently, there is a single category called A1- Professional Engineer, or PE.

Buildings designed or checked and stamped by a PE do not undergo any further structural checks at MHTE. As such, the overall building approval process is greatly expedited. What is left is municipal and planning regulation checks, which are undertaken by the local authority (such as Male' Municipality and HDC).

2. Problems with NBPAR

There are serious issues with the existing NBPAR regulation, and the accompanying building approval system relating to PE. Major issuess are listed below:

1) The experience requirement for qualifying for a PE is very stringent, and favors the already established and experienced engineers. The criteria given is quoted below (NBPAR, p23):
  a) a minimum of 3 years of structural engineering design experience relevant to building work across an appropriate range of buildings out of which a minimum of 2 years of working experience as a structural checker in a relevant government authority OR
  b) a minimum of 4 years of structural engineering design experience relevant to building work across an appropriate range of buildings out of which a minimum of 3 years of working experience under a certified professional engineer registered in this Regulation, subject to the Registrar’s approval OR
  c) a minimum of 7 years of structural engineering design experience relevant to building work across an appropriate range of buildings subject to the Registrar’s approval.
Note: Under the Experience requirement for the registration of professional engineers, clause (c) is only applicable for the year 2009.

2) Criteria 1(c) is applicable to year 2009 only. This is the only practical mechanism in the regulation to enable new engineers to qualify for PE. By restricting the criteria to year 2009, practicing engineers who attain 7 year experience in 2010 or there-after is not eligible. As a result, they will have to pursue another three years working under a PE as stipulated in 1(b).

3) Criteria 1(b) makes it impractical for new practitioners to work under a PE. In addition, the scope of working under is not clearly defined. It is not apparent whether this means the new engineer has to be employed by a PE, or the PE has to supervise the work of the new engineer, or PE should be stamping the works of the new engineer.

4) Criteria 1(a) is obviously made to favor engineers working or who already has worked at MHTE.

5) A PE can stamp his own structural drawings. Given that there are approximately 15 engineers who qualify for PE, the result is that a handful of PEs get a disproportionate advantage as their submissions are expedited. As a result, new engineers are unable to find work and are legislated out of the market. This reduces competition and ultimately will result in higher costs and lower quality of output in the industry. It is understood that reducing the number of suppliers stifles competition, and ultimately results in lower quality and higher costs.

6) The NBPAR regulation has no parent Act or law. Hence it is unconstitutional.

7) The NBPAR regulation does not have any requirement for site supervision experience. Site experience assists in making practical design decisions. Technically, an engineer designing for years in office, without any site visits can become a PE under the current regulation.

3. Proposed alternative

This alternative mechanism for building approval rests on the following principles:
1. A better informed client base provides considerable market-based regulation, hence the regulatory body can utilise this mechanism.

2. The regulatory body should work in the interest of the general public. All regulators should consider the economic costs incurred by the public. It is a right of the public to choose who they hire for their projects, and should be given relatively free choice in this. Overly restrictive regulations are counter productive.

Based on the above principles, we propose the following amendments to the NBPAR regulations:
1. A PE should not be able to stamp his own drawings. It should be stamped by another PE. Non-PE engineers can get the drawings stamped by a PE. Existing procedure of non-stamped submissions should also be retained. This reduces the problems of item 5 as stated in section 2.

2. Loosen up the experience requirement for PE qualification. Our suggestion is 3 years of design and site supervision experience. No distinction should be made between engineers 'working under' a PE and those who are not. No special provision required for engineers who worked at MHTE.

3. Significantly reduce the fees charged by Male' Municipality, though technically this is not part of NBPAR. This is because, additional stamping will incur additional costs to the public and also this reduces the workload of the regulatory body. Hence it is advisable to reduce these fees charged by the regulatory body.

4. Design engineer shall be responsible for the design (whether signed by another PE or not).

Also of note:
1. The above mechanism can also be adopted for checking compliance to architectural or planning regulations.
2. In cases where a design is not compliant to the regulations (but was designed and stamped), the designer and/or stamping professional can be penalized via temporary revoke of license or other suitable penalties.
3. Parent law or Act for the regulation has to be enacted.
4. As the ultimate responsibility for regulating still rests on the government, the regulatory body should undertake random checks of the stamped drawings,
5. A well informed public plays an extremely important role in a productive industry. It is better to spend the resources on increasing public awareness, than creating overly restrictive and regimented sets of regulations. This protects the rights of the public and preserves the competitive spirit of the market, which ultimately will result in better services.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Government's Religious Policy

Last night on TVM program 'Q&A with Miqdad', the SMS question (paraphrased) was:
Are you satisfied with the government's religious policy? yes/no
On one side was MoIA minister Dr. Abdul Majeed, MP Ahmed Rasheed. On the other side was MP Dr. Afrasheem and MP Mutthalib. With lots of attacks and counter-attacks from both sides (and Miqdad unable to moderate), the show had to be abruptly stopped without any concluding remarks, because they ran out of time.

Before answering the above question, one must consider another crucial question. What could a government's policy towards religion be in the first place? There are three possiblities:
1. President himself becomes the supreme authority on religion. He decrees what is and what is not allowed as per his interpretation of religion.
2. A group of scholars is selected to be the authority on religion (MoIA/Fiqh Academy).
3. Government gets out of the business of being the authority on religion

Option 1 has been tried during the Maumoon regime, where he cuts and molds religion to his discretion. Religion was being used as a political tool for controlling the population. Obviously, only Maumoon and his cronies who got control were happy with the policy.

Option 2 is the current one that is being tried. A selected group of people (Adhaalath) party has the current monopoly over MoIA. A lot of people are satisfied with this policy. This was clearly seen in the SMS results for last night with ~70% voting yes. But the MoIA has been criticised from both ends of the spectrum (liberal/modernist to conservative/'extremist'). I wonder how many of the supporters of the current policy will feel when and if MoIA is monopolised by some people who they don't like (perhaps Afrasheem & co, the Dots or any other).

The third option has not been tried. Both option 1 and 2 make everyone else follow the whim of the one in authority, whether they like it or not. Everyone is clearly aware of the corruption and nastiness of the political game. Is it not time that we evaluate a policy where religion is not left to the whims of the politicians? Religion is too important to be given to politicians to be made a weapon of mass control.