Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas Sunday gets to a few heads

Christmas Sunday in the Caribbean is all about ladies in hats. Not much comment, just enjoy. The hats and their wearers are really beautiful. Have a wonderful end to 2007 and look forward to a superb 2008.

Family value

My wife's family is extraordinary, not only in a Caribbean context but even seen more broadly. It has been at the heart of many important changes in The Bahamas and stands with heads held proudly. It came from humble origins. It was instrumental in forming one of the major Anglican Churches in Nassau, where the family still worships. The family has had three generations who have studied at university, and all are still living; the next generation looks set to follow this tradition. My wife's uncle (Sir Arthur Foulkes, whose father was Jamaican) was a founding father of a major political party, which is now governing again; one of his sons and a son-in-law are both members of the current government Cabinet. Ironically, none of my wife's immediate family has successfully walked on the political stage. Her father is a lawyer and her mother was a nurse. Her brother is now the Director of Public Prosecutions, which is as close to the government and political process as they have come, if you exclude canvassing at elections. Her three sisters work variously in insurance, cancer treatment, and finance.

The family has been and still is a strong matriarchy, My wife's maternal grandmother held the family together, with the strong support of her husband, but she guided the family. My mother-in-law is now the doyenne and is a firm glue to hold the family (immediate and extended) together through all situations. My father-in-law is solid but he is not in charge. My mother-in-law's brother, Sir Arthur, is the doyen, but knows that he is the male "shoulder" supporting the family's female "head". This side of the family hails from Great Inagua (see link), which is the third largest island in The Bahamas at 596 square mile (1544 km²) and lies about 55 miles (90 km) from the eastern tip of Cuba. However, Inagua's population is only about 1000. The island's main claim to fame is its salt ponds, which have been exploited for many years by the Morton Salt Company to produce sea salt and table salt. A grand-uncle of my wife's (who died recently) was in charge of the National Park on that island and did much to develop and protect the habitat of about 80,000 West Indian, pink, flamingos, who get their colour from eating the shrimps that feed in briny lagoons on the island. Inagua's capital, Matthew Town, is understandably small and quiet.

At Christmas time, which is when I am with this family most, they spend a lot of time together. They talk a lot of social change, not so much about politics. They are very close and often spend time together, at church, eating, caring for children, eating, planning events including their role in the traditional family Christmas dinner. They believe that the strength and closeness of the family is a key link in keeping society stable and safe, and have focused recently on how the disintegration of close family ties seems to be behind a rising wave of crime and social problems in The Bahamas. Certainly, the kinds of social decay that is associated with these problems seem to have been avoided by this family: no teenage girls having children, no teenage boys being fathers, no corrupt politicians, no sex scandals. The family has had its separations but they seem to have had little destabilizing effect as the family has rarely taken antagonistic or adversarial positions for either side.

The social problems besetting The Bahamas are not unique either in the Caribbean or in the western hemisphere. So, it would not seem to make much sense to think that the solutions will be unique. Acknowledging the importance of supportive family structures is one way of avoiding the collapse of an important pillar of a stable society. Building that structure takes time and attitudes that often mean a degree of denial with which many would have little patience. Denial does not mean doing without essentials but thinking hard about luxuries. It also means resolving difficulties in a particular way through negotiation rather through force. Popular images often show force as the way to make progress, and children especially often see these images without having explained to them that this is not the best way. Other pressures on children come from their seeing so many things that have to get added to a "must have" list. Parents have to moderate these images and desires for their children. Parents too have to moderate their own desires; they too clamour for goods, especially if they are seen as signs of success--the flash car, the big house, the jewelry, careless spending.

Denial can mean resisting some (maybe many) of these temptations or moderating them, especially by waiting until such time as more important family goals have been achieved. So build the big house, but make sure that the family can live securely in the meantime; it may mean a five year wait but it's sustainable. Buy a new car, but do that for a real reason, such as the current car is having mechanical problems or has been damaged in a bad accident. Buy the children new toys but try to get them to understand that these things come at a price: they wont understand the value of money for many years but they can quickly appreciate that "money does not grow on trees" but come from hard work and not just from wishes. Women love clothes and Bahamian women love buying clothes more than any group I have ever encountered. Moderating the shopping urge could be the hardest nut to crack--especially when the society has become so rich so quickly--but has to be dealt with. I never grew up with this urge, partly because Jamaica's fortunes have risen much more slowly, but also from a certain English upbringing so can more easily be critical of it. This is not a call for a minimalist approach but that could be an extreme way to go, at least in terms of "one in, one out". If every new item bought was equalled with one item returned, exchanged, or given to a family in need that would be a salutary lesson that is worth learning.

This family has stayed strong by denying itself many things and by having a certain degree of modesty and moderation and by never being afraid to show its faith. From an early age children understand that they have to give thanks to God and never have any sense of shame associated with showing that belief. You are with the church and the church is with you. The main family home is comfortable but is now located in a very unfashionable part of Nassau, which has changed from being residential to mainly commercial. The large yard is an uncommon luxury that the home has, so is its slightly elevated location. It has no signs of great wealth oozing from it.

Every adult in this family has had a stable job for many years and all that has been gained has come from hard work, diligence and honesty. Children have had that held up to them as the way to live life. No one has used violence against someone else to get their way.These also good living examples of "denial" and "moderation"--nothing comes easily. If everyone could resolve to follow those three characteristic do you think social problems would persist? I find it hard to believe that things would not be much better.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas cheer in financial markets

Trading has opened my eyes to things that I understood in part about financial markets but rarely experienced fully. I now respect the power of market forces more than any amount of text book study of economics could explain.

Holidays such as Christmas pose interesting problems in modern financial markets. When they operate such markets are open 24 hours, and function as the time zones dictate. During holidays you remember quickly that not everyone follows the same traditions. Christmas is routinely a two day holiday in many parts of the former British Empire (with most activities closed on December 25 and 26), but in most of Europe, Asia and North America, it is only Christmas Day that is a holiday. New Year's Day is routinely a holiday, but in Asia many markets close until January 4. What that all means is that conditions in the markets during such periods are really abnormal; most trading desks are barely manned and it's hard to know if movements, which tend to be exaggerated and in one direction, are really sustainable. However, if you get on the right side of deals you can do well.

A few funny things happened during this shortened holiday week, but most notably it seemed that the US dollar rally that had begun a couple of weeks ago fizzled out and the "trend" to selling US dollars resumed towards the year-end. The Euro, which I had thought several weeks ago would move to become a "safe haven" currency instead of the US dollar, seemed to develop that role this week. For me that was a little frustrating because I had anticipated such a change a few weeks ago and bought Euro against the US dollar only to see the Euro wilt against the US dollar. So, when I saw the Euro edging up from the mid 1.435 against the dollar I said to myself that 1.44 would be the limit; but up it soared after Christmas Day and ended the week well over 1.4720 (see chart). A huge move in a few days. Again, you can't look back and say "What if...?" You make a decision and stick with it.

My decisions were that pound sterling and Japanese yen would fall against the US dollar, with both the UK and Japan having separate economic woes, and apart from one period where I got caught out by a sharp reversal of sterling (following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday which raised concerns about terrorism), I was more or less on the right side.

It is proving instructive to be in the market to see how trends develop and what affects the rates. Sometimes it's pure fundamental factors, other times it's news and rumours, and at yet other times it's just "whatever". I am developing great respect for the currency strategists, who overall get the calls right and by following some of their deep analysis I have done much better than if I were flying "blind". They are especially good and helping to figure out how far rates seem likely to move and their turning points. My one big mistake this week (with sterling: dollar) was not seeing the turning point and staying with a sell position too long before reversing to buy: in the end I was even as I recouped my losses fully over two days.

My other mistake, which is recurrent, was in not letting deals go to the target that I had set. I realise that the desire to take profits early is conditioned by the fear of loss. Yet, on balance when a target has been set and the deal does not get to "benefit" from my overlooking it, things work out well. Selling US dollar:Yen from 113.45 to 113.0 was one case; though the fall continued through 112.30. Sure, the limits could be extended to get more profit but there is also the principle of "enough already". A lot of nice deals give 20-40 point gains and they multiply into significant gains over time and are more sustainable than looking for the 60+ point gains, which often take a while to mature and may end up being 30-40 point gains.

I did learn a nice lesson in "waiting for the right opportunity" when one of my sterling:dollar deals peaked momentarily and flashed a huge profit in front of me for a milli-second and before I could close the deal receded quickly and started to register larger and larger losses. I said to myself, 'This is a test of the low point, which I will ride out and buy into near the bottom. But I will only see this go so far." I got it right, bought more near the bottom, and then was able to sell as the price rebounded to get even higher profit than I had missed initially. I reduced the position (whose size made it potentially very risky), and am still in with half of the original position running over the weekend, with additional profit already on the board.

I also traded nicely with US dollar:Japanese yen in terms of buying on dips or selling on rallies, and instead of profiting from a single position got profits from the rise and fall of the pair over several days.

Next week will again be one with tricky, illiquid markets, but I have seen enough this week to give me good ideas for a workable set of strategies. I will read my market reports over the weekend then set up my deals and look forward to heralding in a promising new year.

Happy trading!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Homosexuality: A topic of inexplicable fear

As the year winds down, and we have extended vacations, we get a lot of time to think about many interesting social and personal issues. Many prejudices exist in our lives and in the Caribbean we have many taboos and prejudices. Some of the region's harshest wrath is reserved for homosexuality. Without much discussion I will say that the prejudice and vehement opposition is about male homosexuality. The term of endearment most commonly used in the Caribbean for male homosexual is "sissy". Parents warn their sons "You don't want them to think you are a sissy." Nothing positive in those notions. I have hardly ever heard mention of issues to do with lesbians, and disparaging terms such as "dike" or "butch" don't feature much in Caribbean dialogue. A woman may occasionally be accused of being "too much of a man" but that is usually because she has followed male ways to get herself success at work. Ironically, it's often taken for granted that a woman will "boss" her man or men (sons cant escape for ever) around. We live in societies where women often rule the roost. I am not going from there to say that a certain reaction by men to this "bossiness" is in sexual preference, though some have argued this point.

Women especially--and in The Bahamas I would go as far as to say that some women are obsessed by the subject--have harsh negative views about men they believe are homosexuals. I have noticed over the past few years that a conversation amongst women about general social developments always comes to a point where one woman says, "He looks gay" or "He's a sissy. That's why his wife left him: she caught him with another man." Now these observations rarely have any facts to back them up. The story often drifts around the observation that the man concerned is also known as a womanizer, but that is taken to be a cover. Next to cancer it seems that the fear of her man being a homosexual ranges amongst the worst fears a woman can have. It is a "black mark" to scar any opponent.

If a man is indeed homosexual these harsh attitudes would drive almost anyone to remain "in the closet" as long as possible. I have not heard of stories as wild as the tales from Jamaica where homosexual men or suspected homosexual men (often transvestites) have been publicly pilloried and attacked--even set on fire-- with little respect for context, and have been attacked in churches and at a funeral service.

The Caribbean has a lot of contradictory attitudes concerning sexual activity and we are very good at seeing some very antisocial behaviour as alright while condemning other activities, even ignoring some that are common but we do not wish to deal with. Strangely, the women seem to stand by their men if they catch them "boning" another woman or if he is known to be a "sweethearter". They defend fathers who molest their own children. That I cant figure out. I used to think that Caribbean women were worried by male homosexuality because of the competition, and that another man being seen by their man as better than herself was of course the deepest insult. Can that explain having a less damning attitude when another woman is given preference by her man?

The region tends to turn a blind eye towards over forms of sexually deviant behaviour, such as child abuse, men abusing women, and even incest, often with comments that suggest that these are somehow part of a "natural order". Yet any sign that a man may not be as manly as people would deem to be correct, quickly turns into an accusation that he is homosexual. Yet this is a society where men love to preen themselves and wear jewelry: a Caribbean man will often wear more rings and chains than his female partner--he may not have the range to choose from but at any given time he will be equally weighed down.

Effeminate men exist all over the world, not least because their close family, friends, or other social contacts had no problem with this way of behaviour or speech, but this is not the same as being homosexual. The Hirjas of India (shown in the picture above) are known transvestites who are rarely homosexuals, though many have taken steps to make them physically more like women, including genital surgery.They identify themselves as "incomplete men", "incomplete women", or "in betweens", but the Indian national census counts them as women. Eunuchs are still very common in many developing regions in Asia and Africa.

To me, being homosexual is like being left handed in a world of right handed people. You are uncommon but you are not much different in most ways from those around you. Many men who are homosexual do not fit into the stereotype of being "limp wristed" or fey; they may not have any desire to dress up in women's clothes. Often when homosexual men "come out" they belie the stereotypes. They may be burly and anything but weak looking as is clearly the case with those who have been professional athletes.

I have never met a homosexual man who "looks gay", and known very few effeminate men who were actually homosexuals. The homosexual men whom I know or knew are or were as mixed as any heterosexual men that I knew. They are not all working as flight attendants for British Airways or Qantas; they are not ballet dancers, ice skaters, or theatrical. However, none of them is married. Only one homosexual man that I know (with whom my wife worked for several years) was married; he has a good relationship with his son who is not himself gay and knows and acknowledges that his father is gay. When homosexuals kiss or hug each other I see nothing overtly physical about them that would allow me to single out their sexual preferences at a glance. I played on a soccer team where one of my team mates was homosexual and he never did anything within that team to "betray" that he was gay: he never propositioned anyone or tried to do any funny business in the team bath or in the toilets. He had his preferred partners and his preferred hang outs. He was a great footballer too.

The one encounter I have ever had with a man who tried to "entice" me was when I was in my early teens in England, and was using a public toilet, and he asked me if I liked the size of his penis. I did not know much about homosexuals at the time except that we used a term "bender", "bent" or "queer" to describe such people. I don't know if this man was homosexual or a child molester. I did not bother to find out but kicked him in the crotch and with my heart pumping like fury ran like the wind!

I found a very interesting website about homosexuality, which if nothing else appears to put this subject into a wider international context. What is fascinating is how different societies tolerate male homosexuality. For example, on the Pacific Island of Papua New Guinea, all Etoro men engage in homosexual acts and most also marry and engage in heterosexual acts with their wives. However, heterosexual intercourse is prohibited for up to 260 days of the year and is forbidden in or near their houses and vegetable gardens. In contrast, homosexual relations are permitted at any time.

I know that my views are much more tolerant than those of many in the region. That may be because I have grown up in "more liberal" societies in Europe and North America. My parents never uttered a word against any social group and I think that shaped my views more than anything else. (My mother, like many people in her generation, had a negative view about Rastas and was most concerned when I first grew a beard. "You wan' turn Beard man?")

In the Caribbean we start sexual stereotyping very early with all the "blue is boys...pink is for girls" labelling from even before birth. We can often see a violent reaction to a boy showing that he may be sensitive to more than so-called "masculine" things: "Get out of the kitchen, boy. Leave that to your sister [mother]!" "What you doing smelling flower? You want people to think you is a sissy?" We are especially afraid of something that we feel homosexual men will bring to our societies. I am not clear what that fear is, and it may be nothing more than a very severe reaction to things that are not the norm. Women see their close bonding with other females as a strength, yet any sign of closeness amongst men--except if it involves drinking and sports--leads to cynical condemnation.

We are a judgmental region and our views on sexual preferences are much in that vein. We have anti sodomy laws without realizing that these laws affect heterosexual relations too. When I was teaching recently it shocked my group of mature students when we did an Internet search of sodomy laws in the region and found that most of them were regularly indulging in illegal acts, even though all of them was performing these acts with someone of the opposite sex.

In the Caribbean we are confused and hypocritical in our attitudes toward sex in general. We love women to flaunt themselves and not just in our festivals (carnivals), and we love sexual innuendo or explicitness in our music. We love to promote heterosexual vigour. We seem to abhor homosexuality, which has forced many to hide behind a heterosexual veneer just to be safe. More than a handful of the region's senior male politicians are reported to be homosexuals but I do not think that any one of them is willing to make that public for fear of a dramatic end to political power. Maybe in the coming year we will see one or a few politicians or other prominent individuals decide that enough hiding has been done and will stand up for what they are. At least this would start the necessary process of demystification. But then again I am waiting to see my first flying pig.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thank you, readers

I write because I have ideas I want to share. For a very long time those ideas rested inside my head or escaped in conversations. Now I put down my thoughts "on cyber paper". Various people have urged me to write a book and I started that venture a few months ago, initially chronicling my life. It was much easier to start having already had several months of writing this blog. The blog was not meant to be like training wheels but it has proved useful in that way.

When I began this blog I had no targets; I still have no targets. I write because that is what I want to do. Those who read the blog do so because they like what they are reading. That is a nice meeting of interests. However, I wont pretend that writing comes without a little vanity. I was interested in whether there was a sizable audience for my writing. In the first month when I started to track readers (May 2007) the blog registered 565 visits/1024 page views in the month (about 18 readers a day). The readership rose gently through July to 812 visits/1260 page views (about 26 readers a day). From August the readership really took off to around 2300 visits/3800 page views (about 75 readers a day), and remains steady. I know that bad events in August put my blog on the radar screen of many new readers, when the hurricane season began and people from outside the region sought information about "Dean". Disasters in Barbados such as the cave-in at Brittons Hill and the spate of awful road accidents meant that I got many more "news hound" visitors. But it seems that most of them stayed. That pleases me. It suggests that I have enough relevance other than being a place to find out about bad news.

I know that a good portion of my readers are family and friends, but there are many readers whom I do not know at all except through their comments. Some of the unknowns are fellow bloggers, but most appear to be simple readers. I hope that all of you spread the word and that I can reach out to a wider audience.

Those of you who read the blog regularly will have noticed a lot of changes in the past few weeks in terms of presentation. Time is important for all things. My "vacation" time, which began in early December gave me time to tinker and I added features that pleased me but also gave the blog a more interactive feel. Readers can subscribe and get alerts of new postings by e-mail. The guest book will eventually be a wonderful trace of from where readers are coming and it's a nice way for people to just say "hello".

Blogging tends to be friendly. Some blogs have decided that being confrontational is their style and they have their place. I think content is important but so too is tone. If the only way to get myself noticed is to litter what I say or write with invective then I feel that I have nothing much to offer. If know someone well and know them to be bad then they deserve blasting. But if most of what I know of someone is what I read about them or impressions based on what I see then I think I had better watch my cyber tongue. I know too well how often I am misunderstood!

It is hard to write every day, even though ideas never stop flowing. The process of creating something readable needs a lot of positive elements. Lack of interruption is the main element; and preferably for more than an hour. For that reason I tend to write in the early morning before there is much life around, or late at night when most are sleeping. Writing during the day tends to take more hours and is rarely a smooth process.

I have tried to keep blogging in a pure sense: very little self-editing, and few corrections other than spell-checking. The blogs are a record of the moments, warts and all.

Finally, this blog may take a slight change of course in coming weeks. I have tried to tempt some friends and family to try their hand at writing for a wider audience and asked them to offer "guest blogs". I have had a few yeses but so far no text. I wont push them because I know that when the muse is ready she will move. I look forward to this wider sharing of ideas.

As we wind down the year I know that many people think of the fresh start that the new year can bring. I am no different. We live for progress. I remember two phrases attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world." and "Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes." My blogs have tried to be faithful to the first quotation and I am surely indulging myself in having the liberty of the second.

Life is starting around me. It's 7.25am. My father-in-law is trying to make fresh coffee for himself (I deliberately am not helping him but told him what to do--teach a man to fish...). He now needs help because he put the whole beans in the machine and wonders why the water is just coming out a faint dull brown colour! He is an intellectual so I will bring him into contact with reality such as the need to grind the beans first. My little daughter has now woken and come to give me a hug. The phone has started to ring. I think that marks the end of my "free time".

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Are we all ready to play Wii?

Scary food for thought. The video games industry is trying to grow the interactive games business. That is what experts in this area told me this morning on BBC radio. What this means is getting more games to appeal to a wider audience; the existing players are near their limits. Selling to kids has gone nearly as far as it can in developing games based around sports and various forms of combat. Most parents have been driven totally insane in the process by the waves of demands from children as innovations move on.

What does widening the market mean? The expert said that growth needs "building games around personal interests". "OK," said the interviewer, "I'm interested in opera. What kind of game can you build for me?" The expert was caught off guard and came up with some weak ideas: training opera singers for a concert (come on!), games that build around the stories of some operas (more interesting), or being the conductor (those interested are already wielding their batons, real of mythical).

Now, I saw the way that my wife was very excited by her young nephew's Wii, which he got as a Christmas present. Her interest was not just because it has a good tennis program but because she liked the energy the kids had to use to keep the games going. You can see in the video clip the kind of action that got her going (and that is not her playing).She even tried it and this lady is as anti-video games as they come.

I see the potential for Wii games that would horrify many a man. One activity that has a large potential audience that never seems to falter is SHOPPING. This must be the basis of THE GAME OF GAMES. Without much imagination you can foresee games about filling shopping trolleys, either at speed or in quantities, or based around types of goods, etc. You can even make it "narcissistic" by having a game based around Internet shopping. It's almost endless because you can have whatever you want as goods on the shelf.

If the makers of Wii follow this idea of games based around shopping I will expect to get more than a pittance in royalties.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I have spoken or tried to speak (or sign) all of the languages below at some time in my life! (If you did not realize it, Breton, Cornish and Welsh are related.) Thanks to my African friends who introduced me to some of their tongues. Thanks to my Norwegian "cousins" for visiting the Caribbean and also allowing me to meet up again centuries later. Thanks for an absence of fear in trying to say at least "Hello" and "Thank you" whereever I travel. Thanks to my parents for never letting me think that the colour of my skin had anything to do with anything except the colour of my skin. Thanks to all those people I have met who had never met a black man before and now know that we are a lot like them.

The world is really small and languages are one of its barriers. Let's try to get over them little by little with seasonal greetings (see a much longer list of Christmas greetings that will help).

American Sign Language

Arawak - Aba satho niw jari da'wisida bon

Breton - Nedeleg laouen na bloav ezh mat

Cantonese - Seng Dan Fai Lok, Sang Nian Fai Lok

Carib - Sirito kypoton ra'a

Cornish - Nadelik looan na looan blethen noweth

Creole/Seychelles - Bonn e Erez Ane

Dutch - Vrolijk Kerstfeest en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

Estonian - Rõõmsaid Jõulupühi ja Head uut aastat

French - Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

German - Fröhliche Weihnachten und ein glückliches Neues Jahr!

Greek - Kala Christougenna Ki'eftihismenos O Kenourios Chronos

Hausa - Barka da Kirsimatikuma Barka da Sabuwar Shekara!

Igbo - Ekelere m gi maka Keresimesi na ubochi izizi afo ozo

Irish - Nollaig Shona Dhuit

Italian - Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo

Japanese - Shinnen omedeto. Kurisumasu Omedeto

Latin - Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis

Latvian - Prieci'gus Ziemsve'tkus un Laimi'gu Jauno Gadu!

Malagasy - Arahaba tratry ny Krismasy

Norweigan/Nynorsk - eg ynskjer hermed dykk alle ein god jul og godt nyttår

Norweigan/Bokmål - God Jul og Godt Nyttår

Polish - Wesolych Swiat i Szczesliwego Nowego Roku.

Russian - Pozdrevlyayu s prazdnikom Rozhdestva i s Novim Godom

Spanish - Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo

Swahili - ºKrismas Njema Na Heri Za Mwaka Mpyaº

Turkish - Noeliniz Ve Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun

Welsh - Nadolig LLawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda

Yoruba - E ku odun, e ku iye' dun!

The once a year that is Christmas

Christmas is essentially a religious festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but its true meaning has been lost for many people. In the Caribbean the strong influence of Christianity has kept the religious element to the forefront of lives in this region. Whatever else happens at Christmas it really revolves around the religous celebration. It is a time for giving and receiving which takes on a some special shape where I spend Christmas, in Nassau.

Christmas Eve is the final time to prepare for Christmas Day. Last minute shopping is essential for some even with weeks of shopping already done. The food preparation starts and takes up most of the day. The house smells wonderful as the seasoned ham and turkey are roasted and fresh bread is baked. We already had a day with the kitchen filled with the smell of "benny cakes" (sesame seeds and caramelized sugar) and "peanut brittle" (peanuts in caramelized sugar).

The long Eve-day ends with a visit to church for midnight mass. Carols precede the service, which means getting to church for 11pm. The mass ends around 2.30am, and is then followed in this family with a visit to a sister of my mother-in-law for chicken souse, sheep tongue souse and Johnny [journey] cake (a kind of flour and cornmeal bread--in other Caribbean countries "Johnny cake" refers to a completely different dish but each based on flour and water). (For non-Bahamians reading, Bahamian souse is hot and is really like a broth with potatoes, celery and onions, not the cold cooked pork dish that is familiar to Bajans.) A wide array of traditions exist for Christmas in terms of events and food and it makes good reading to see how that varies [see BBC web site].)

On Christmas Day morning the young children rise earliest of anyone and make sure that their parents are awake too. Some of the little ones are awake from in the middle of the night. Cookies and milk were already placed ready for Santa's arrival: we tickle the children's imagination and ask if they can see Santa coming on his sleigh or ask if they can tell which reindeer is Donner and which is Blitzen. It takes less than ten minutes for their presents to be unwrapped. Paper flies all over the floor and the gifts get their moments of glory. "Ooh! A bike", "Dora and her own back pack", "Lipstick", "Harry Potter!", "A camera"...

Slowly those who are past their teens appear in their PJs. Grandma and Grandpa take centre stage in the rest of the proceedings, as we all gather near the Christmas tree. Like the children the grandparents' first thoughts are about their gifts. No real exchange of gifts takes place. The tradition with my in-laws is for the daughters in the family to organize a pool to buy one substantial gift for each person. The household is a true queen-dom and the few males who are present are fondly overshadowed by the women. For Christmas gifts we men will get a few items that really please: a tool kit, a radio or a camera make good gifts. But the ladies get the real big set of treats: jewelery, perfumes, earrings, other accessories. I am personally always content with any gift I get and I love to get a bottle of cologne or aftershave. There is nothing that most of us need but plenty that we want and we know that Christmas has become a time for self-indulgence.

Once all the gifts have been opened regular life resumes and we really start on the road toward Christmas dinner. In this family the tradition is to have a rotating location, with all relatives gathering at a designated home. Cooking is shared. Several turkeys and hams are cooked in different homes. My mother-in-law makes macaroni pie. One of her sisters is in charge of peas and rice and baked beans (guarding a family recipe from her father). A third sister, who bakes for a living, is in charge of the array of desserts. We all take charge of eating as much as we can.

After the meal the events are varied. When I first shared Christmas with this family nearly 10 years ago each family would try to give a brief account of what they had achieved or had to deal with over the past year. But this "tradition" seems to have lapsed and a variety of "presentations" now take place, but with no structure. The main thing is that the many branches of the family are together for one day and we are content to share time and to exchange stories.

After all the eating and drinking it's time for rest. The already long day has a long way to go. Junkanoo will start at about 2am so those who want to attend would be wise to get some rest; by the time it ends near 9am many of the spectators are ready to hit their bed.

This family has added another event in recent years: the "dine and dash". The normal meaning of this phrase is to eat a meal and run out of a restaurant without paying (sometimes called "chew and screw" or "doing a runner"). However, our version is almost the opposite and quite honorable. We rent a minibus and take a tour to a few family homes on one of the days after Christmas, taking one course at each stop: appetizers, salads, main course, desserts and coffee. It's a chance to eat something a little more exotic than the traditional Christmas dishes as each family tries to be adventurous and offer something special. The "dine and dash" takes a whole afternoon and has been the source of a few adventures. The first year the minibus got a puncture on our way to the last stop, which this time was home, and we had to be rescued by a wrecker and the busload was ferried in a shuttle of cars.

All of that is enough to wear out the best. But it is all part of a celebration, perhaps over indulgent to some. But celebrations by definition need to be excessive. Christians believe that this time of year, and remembering the birth of Christ, is when they should be excessive about their faith. They and their beliefs get refreshed.

The old year will soon be done and we are again ready to send it out on a high note, which is Christmas. On that high note we will sing our Alleluias.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas: a little history and etymology

Most countries that celebrate Christmas do so on December 25; however, in many countries the main event is Christmas Eve (December 24). The word Christmas originated as a contraction of "Christ's mass". Its origin is from the Middle English word "Christemasse" and the Old English phrase "Cristes mæsse", which was first recorded in 1038 and is a compound from Old English derivatives of the Greek "christos" and the Latin "missa". In early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ. Hence, Xmas is often used as an abbreviation for Christmas.

Christmas in the Caribbean

Christmas is special, and very much so in the Caribbean. Not only do we enjoy warm weather when most of the rest of the world is cold, but we also have a way of making the season festive. For most of the past 10 years I have spent the season with my in-laws in Nassau; my wife has never spent Christmas anywhere else. The Bahamas has its unique way of celebrating Christmas and New Year, with the annual street parade-carnival, Junkanoo (see official web site).

Junkanoo is held on the mornings of "Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year's Day (January 1). The events usually last 7 to 8 hours and the participants ("rushers") are exhausted at the end, in part because some of them need some liquid sustenance to keep going; power bars alone don't cut it. We see some of their tired bodies on our way home for breakfast. Whether shaking bells, beating drums of playing brass the body gets a full work out. I have rushed once and it took me days to recover. It's better to be on the street to watch and listen and jump to the beat of the advancing bands, as the goombay drums pound. The bands have "colourful" names (such as "One Family", "Roots", "The Valley Boys", "Saxons", "Fancy Dancers", "Barabas and the Tribe"), and rivalries are intense even within families. Costumes are hand made and only last for one event. It is always a labour of love to cut, glue and paste the costumes and part of the buzz comes from starting a costume late and working madly to get everything finished before the parade. Last year, all hands were involved getting one of my sisters-in-law ready for her first rush.

In Barbados and Jamaica pantomime is still an regular feature of Christmas and we enjoyed a show put on by school children in Barbados before leaving on holiday.

Church is an important part of celebrating the season, and Christmas week will involve many visits to church. However, with little children to deal with we can't all make the late night masses, especially if watching Junkanoo on the streets is part of the plan. We love to sing carols and parties are even better if they have carol singing as well as food, drink and music. The traditional Christmas fare is something we all anticipate greatly: turkey, ham, peas and rice, macaroni pie, etc, plus the desserts like black cakes and guava duff. In Barbados they eat jug-jug and pudding (made from sweet potatoes). You have to accept that there will be a lot of eating and think about sweating off the pounds afterwards. Drinking alcohol in great quantities is done much less these days. But if there is egg nog on offer (whether "leaded" or "unleaded") then you have to take at least one glass.

Christmas is about families getting together and the airports are jammed with returning students and other family members in time for Christmas. They come and go with heavily laden bags. Of course shopping and gift giving take on enormous proportions during the season. But generosity is not limited to family and friends. Many of us will take the time to remember those who have been helpful, even in simply doing their jobs like garbage collectors. Some have developed plans to help families who are needy and have little to enjoy at Christmas.

People who live in North America and Europe love to visit the Caribbean at Christmas time. The weather is an obvious attraction: who could resist temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius, sandy beaches and a relaxed attitude, compared to zero (freezing), snow and ice, and a lot of stiffness? The "snow birds" fill the planes from New York, Toronto, and London, England. A lot of people travel the other way too, especially to Miami and Fort Lauderdale for shopping.We have had the good fortune of being able to take a vacation of at least two weeks every Christmas, and it has been a great time for decompression; our employers have had to understand that Christmas is the most important holiday for us and just deal with it. This year I will have been "off" for a month; taking time off is much easier when you work from home. I spent two weeks in Jamaica with my family (with whom I plan to spend Christmas next year), and will now spend the rest of the time in Nassau.

Children get the most out of Christmas and often cannot wait for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. "Is Santa here yet, Mummy" is the daily wake up call. I will feed off their excitement.

Everyone who celebrates Christmas deserves to feel that it is a time when people should be especially kind. I hope that people can take that spirit a little bit longer into the new year.

I wish everyone a wonderfully merry Christmas and hope that all will have a very happy New Year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Maggie: an ambassador for cats

Maggie is a flat-faced Persian cat who belongs to one of my Bahamian sisters-in-law. I met this furry feline for the first time a few days ago and now know the type of car, if not breed, that inspired the cartoon character, “Garfield” created by Jim Davis in 1978 (see official web site); Garfield is a tabby.

Maggie has all the characteristics that make cats so despicable: slothful, needy, fuzzy, destructive (especially of cloth furniture and Christmas trees). She has not yet shown any anthropomorphic talents but if she does I will include some of her comments.

I don't really like cats but they seem to be attracted to me. My first daughter, Eleanor, has had a cat and dog almost all her life. My wife had one when I met her; the cat was traumatized when my wife-to-be moved home, ran away as soon as we arrived at the new place and was never seen again. Rhian will get a cat after our Christmas holidays; he has been picked out and is being weaned. So, I will have to get used to having a cat in my daily life again in 2008. I hope he and Maggie will provide good blog material.

The Christmas story: a true Jamaican tale?

I don't want anyone reading this to think that I am being irreverent. But once again when I heard the Bible readings that explain the birth of Jesus (see Matthew chapter 1, verses 18-25), I have to say to myself what really was going on in Nazareth? When I attended church this morning with my wife and her family in Nassau, The Bahamas, I saw the Christmas story in a whole new light after I had spent much of the past year in Jamaica.

Here we have a story that is all about a prevalent way of life in Jamaica and is much in discussion. Joseph is engaged to Mary and before they can get hitched, she tells him that she is pregnant. But wait. Joseph has never had sex with Mary. So who is the father of the child and how can she keep telling Joseph that she is still a virgin? What kind of nonsense she trying to lay on the man? She says that the real daddy is someone called the Holy Spirit. "O'Lee Sperrin? He from foreign?" would have been a good reaction from Jo'. "He know you having his child? He going to marry you? Wha' happen to our engagement? What about the trust? Man, I don't know if I can deal with all this. We ain't married yet and trying to make a fool of me?" These would have been a reasonable set of questions from most men when presented with this "sit-u-a-tion".

In Jamaica, that would be a classic situation of Joseph having to recognize that he was going to be the daddy of a "jacket" and that his wife-to-be had "given him bun". In Jamaican slang a "jacket" is a child raised by a man who is not his/her father, and "bun" is to get cheated on [as well as to smoke] (see Jamaican slang dictionary): for example, "She giim bun ka 'im bun whole heap a herb" [She cheated on him because he smokes a ganja all the time]. (There is another complex and separate issue about the warped thinking that would lead a woman to seek to punish her man by getting pregnant by another man.)

Now Joseph was surely a man of extraordinary understanding. He heard out his fiancee and decided that this story sounded alright to him and that he should still go ahead and marry the girl. He did not feel the need to blast her, kick her out, cut her up or shoot her. He calmly took this news and said "You know what? I can live with this." I must admit that I have always found this story so amazing. Not just the "immaculate conception" but also the reaction of the man who was possibly cuckolded. But having been brought up a Christian it has been a part of the faith that you have to take as it's written in "the good book".

The story is one that plays out occasionally in the modern Caribbean. Jesus turned out to be a good man despite his very odd arrival in the world. His parents raised him as a couple and ensured that he never felt any stigma about his daddy not being his true father. He did got through some trying times, including learning that his father was in fact called "God, the Holy Spirit". Then to confuse the boy more, he heard that God also went by the sobriquet "The Father" (he was some kind of Don?). But weirdest of all God also wanted to be called "The Son" even though everyone knew that Jesus was the son (some kind of schizophrenia going on here?). Jesus had his run-ins with the law but never had to do much time for his "crimes"; he also had lots of issues with almost everyone in authority. Sure, he embarrassed his parents on more than a few occasions. There are a lot of places that bore the mark of his anger and more than a few buildings barred their doors to him. But he managed to fall in with a good crowd and many of them realised that he was someone who could lead them to be more than the wayward bunch that they seemed headed to be. In the end he did more than enough to make all three of his parents proud.

However too few of the Caribbean's young men seem ready to carry themselves like Joseph and work to become like Jesus? I don't think that today's youths need to be Christians to get themselves off a bad path. But they need to recognize that a story from Christian teachings has characters with whom they can truly relate. It's too easy to say that the young men who are today's villains are victims of a bad start to life and a harsh environment. It takes much more than a bad start to ruin a life. It takes more than a series of bad events to ruin a life. There are enough examples of people coming from starts that are so bad that you wonder how they survived; and many have overcome devastating upsets during their lives to still make themselves good and great in terms of what they do that is positive for themselves and for others.

We love easy excuses but need to work more to reject them for what they are. You have to be prepared to work your way through problems for successes to last. You can't make your life better by making other people's lives worse. If as a child you do not get good guidance from adults you will go astray. If adults do not help young people understand the meaning of limits youths will go beyond reasonable bounds. No child can raise itself, and whatever a child becomes--good or bad--it has been with consent and support (or lack of) from adults.

Have a blessed day.

Restoring downtown Kingston

It's ironic that in this morning's Gleaner there is an article about restoring the full charm of Kingston's downtown (see article). As I drove through the area on my way to the airport last Thursday I did what I often do on this drive. I reminisced about what I remembered of my early childhood. You see, I lived downtown in the mid-1950s, in an area close to the waterfront, near the prison. The street where I used to live, Vauxhall Avenue, is now full of dilapidated properties. It looks like one of those US inner city shells that have been abandoned by the middle classes after the race riots. None of the earlier charm is there. Yet, we have not had people flee because of race, but economic interests have surely shaped the capital. Most of the older structures are still there. You can walk past store fronts that take you back to the 1950s but there is no economic activity going on inside the stores. Property owners and government have somehow conspired to blight this whole area, both its corporate and residential sides, which if restored would be one of the most visible signs that Jamaica wants to be a better country. Instead of the bland concrete and glass of New Kingston, I want to see the stone and wood of Old Kingston.

Over 40 years have passed since Jamaica got its Independence and during that time many plans and agencies have been created to revitalize downtown Kingston. But why have none of these plans borne fruit? The area's low rise buildings can easily be envisaged as a charming bloom in a capital that has few charming buildings. The exceptions are well known such as Devon House (see website). But why does no one appear to care for Kingston's old architecture?

For me, such a project is laced with the romance of my childhood memories: of stories told by my parents about going to Bray Street; walking along Orange Street; shopping in King Street; of Mr. Chin and other Chinese-owned grocery stores. The city was then literally centred around downtown and the bustling areas such as Parade. Not every old building is as beautiful as Ward Theatre,
but many houses and store spaces could be restored to give it company.

Almost any city that I have visited that has had its core revitalized has also enjoyed a resurgence. Baltimore and London are great recent examples of how the old structures of the city or parts of it have been given new life and founded a new base for boosting the city. it may be chicken and egg. Jamaica's many economic problems (especially its inability to control budget spending may be at the core of its inability to restore its capital. This continued dilapidation is also ideal cover for criminality and in sweeping it away the cobwebs that support crime would also star to give crime less of a base. I trained in urban planning but rarely worked in the field. I wonder why (if not because of government blockage) private sector ventures have not taken on this task. The organizations that are located downtown show what can be done and the beauty that remains: just look at the Grace Kennedy and Jamaica Stock Exchange buildings.

Jamaica's new prime minister is talking about "sprucing up Jamaica". I would like that to start with restoring Kingston.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Hooray for Guinea

For three years I worked to try to help the government of Guinea to get an economic stabilization program with the IMF, but as they say, things did not work out. After I left in October 2006, the socio-political situation became very tense culminating with national strikes in January during which many people were killed by the security forces. The demand of the population was for a change of government and that happened. I wont go into all the details of how that was achieved.

The new government was made up of ministers who were all new to government, and mainly techocrats, including a good friend who became Finance Minister. Growth had been slow (1-2% a year) and inflation high (30-40% a year), and the exchange rate had depreciated rapidly. The new government set about improving economic performance. Most notably inflation was nearly halved and the exchange rate appreciated and has since stabilized. A first reward for a commitment to economic reform came yesterday when the IMF's Executive Board approved a new support program for Guinea (see details from IMF web site).

The money that comes with that support is only part of the benefit. Agreement with the IMF opens the door for other donor agencies such as the European Commission and the World Bank to provide direct budget support. That additional finance should help achieve many economic and social goals.

I wont go further than that at this stage. Guinea has had a history of slipping off the rails quickly, but I hope that this time the train will stay on its tracks long enough to give a solid base and hope for this country of 9 million very poor people.

For all my friends in Guinea I hope that this "present" coming ahead of Christmas will be a welcome gift.


If you have children you will have experienced the ease with which they make friends. A friend for a child is someone with whom to play. So Mums and Dads are naturally friends. Anyone who does not offer an immediate rejection or give off bad vibes is also a potential friend. I love to watch Rhian “make friends”.

At the Norman Manley Airport last Thursday friendship making was in full force. Another little girl, aged about 6, was sitting near us with her mother. She had a Dora the Explorer roll-on bag from which she took out paper and pencils. Rhian siddled up to her and asked if she could draw too. In no time, the two girls were happily colouring on the same sheet of paper. Then Rhian started some reciprocal behaviour and took out the bright colouring pens from her back-pack, and the girls got into more colouring, this time being fascinated by the patterns coming through the back of the paper. Along walked another girl, aged about 5. “Can I do some colouring with you?” she asked. “Sure” was the natural reply, and the new entrant ran off to get permission from her mother before coming back to make a lovely threesome. And so they played for about an hour; all flights were delayed by about an hour so this was a blessing.

The friends began to break up as the flights got ready to leave. The last arrival was the first to depart—somewhat unhappily as her mother unceremoniously came to take her, and to the disgust of the other two girls never even acknowledged them or asked if their friend could leave.Really! Rhian recoiled from the mother—a bad vibes person—and had to be reassured before going back to play with her first friend. We too soon had to leave when boarding started for our flight.

As usual the parents barely got to meet each other. We did not get down on the floor and start colouring too. Adults make friends more slowly than children; I don't know at what point we lose spontaneity over friendship. As we get older we develop “agendas” so making friends is part of that; friends offer advantages that we cannot otherwise get. So friendships need more maneuvering and developing. We think about relationships, asking questions about why someone is appearing to be nice. That gets more complicated when the two genders are involved. As a father who has spent a lot of time with my children I know that I'm still an oddity because parenting is still often seen as “mothering”. A father or mother starting a conversation around their children can easily be surrounded by some sexual friction, real, or imaginary.

It's funny though that when thrown into an alien situation as we have been recently when based in another country on assignment friendships can happen more spontaneously. We now have lots of really good friends from our three years in Guinea and a smaller number from our ten months in Barbados. And we came to be good friends by just taking each other as we are. We seem to operate without agendas and enjoy casual socializing, which helps us bond better. We don't get to know each other very well in terms of full information about each others lives; we get to know some intimate snippets, enough to feel connected. This spontaneity can only work if you are open to it, so many adults and children will find themselves in new social settings and feel unable to make friends, then tending to limit contact and so end up having few friends. We can see this when children have to change schools and of course we adults experience it when we move to new places.

I like the way that children make friends most of all because they don't feel the need for personal details. No need to say, “Hello. My name is...” before you get down to play, and no problems just leaving, with no need for “See you again.” With socialization we adults feel the need to have that detail, so we are going to try to exchange addresses or phone numbers and of course we have to know names. That takes the fun out of it, and losing the sense of fun is sadly part of growing up.

Learning to love Canada again

Remember my post a few days ago saying that I would not be sent to the madhouse by the lunatic antics of the “loonie” (Canadian dollar)? Well, I put him back in his straight jacket good and proper. The more you trade the more you learn.

Well my lunatic friend helped me with its movement below parity with the US dollar, which was dramatic (see chart). I went back to the loonie as I sensed that it was indeed gaining its legs. I saw that after the US dollar rally of the past few weeks, the Canadian dollar was grinding around, almost aimlessly hovering around 1.003-1.008and then reversing toward parity with the US dollar with a certain regularity and each test lower was getting closer to the figure and the resistance less each time. So, I joined the sellers on Wednesday evening, at about US$ 1.003 to the Canadian dollar, hoping that it would fall initially to some 0.9980 and then 0.9940 and hopefully to 0.9920 before moving toward 0.9840.

The intial move worked very well and came around 6.30 on Thursday morning and my three lots netted me US$ 140, as the rate fell from 1.003 to around 0.9980. As I was due to travel for almost a whole day I decided to leave trading this pair alone. With travel completed on Thursday evening it was somewhat frustrating that the Internet connection was down at my in-laws. I was not able to review the market until Friday morning, by when I had missed the chance to get back in above 0.9975. When I was able to trade (on a somewhat slow and erratic connection) I managed to get in again when the rate was 0.9950, sold it again and made several one lot trades to net $20 several times, as the rate edged through 0.993. Better than expected Canadian economic data released today initially led to little market reaction then a reassessment suggested that future interest rate decreases would be less likely and the exchange rate continued its fall. Oil prices rose during the day, which also helped the Canadian dollar strengthen.

The rest of the day was a struggle with support around 0.992, which was stiff and is not completely broken, though the rebounds were contained to about 0.9933. Perhaps because the attack came at the end of the trading week and just ahead of the holidays, follow through was limited. For much of Friday afternoon the rate hovered between 0.9915-0.9933, and closed below 0.992, which should imply further downward movement. I hope that next week starts off well and my target rate of 0.9845 is reached. That would do nicely before Christmas.

In the market rate changes are not in straight lines, but often in waves. I have not studied wave theory but that could be something for private study soon; I will have to get academic and learn about “Elliott wave analysis”. After the initial major break below parity mentioned above the rate tried to get back up to parity and had I been smart I could have foreseen that and taken the bet on the increase. But I did not.

I have ridden waves several ways, including taking profit as an intermediate target is reached, letting the rate bounce back and getting in again. That risks missing the critical breakthrough so I tend to do it with caution, feeling that it's better to stay in at the initial position and maybe see such opportunities pass. With hindsight one can always review the wisdom. Hindsight is of course 20:20.

The other aspect that I am learning and will focus on more is a good lot size and even in a cautious trade the initial positions should always be two lots. That way one can opt to ride through waves by taking profit on one position and regaining the other position after a reverse movement; that works well if the subsequent retracement is dramatic and one could get in near the starting price.

I am still not sure if I can make a living out of trading but I have made $1000 in December. That is a return of about 40 percent, which is an impressive rate but I do not see that as sustainable; though I had targeted trying to make about 1-2 percent a day. Making $1000 a month would not be bad though.

Another lesson I have learned several times now is that online trading is very tricky when technology is not helping. Poor Internet connections or slow computers can lead to missed opportunities or at worst losses. For that reason alone setting stop-loss limits as soon as a trade is executed is really important, just in case the connection drops or computer freezes a and one is left totally exposed. I have tended to trade on two platforms simultaneously and found that this provides some protection as at least one platform tends to be running at any time. (It's sometimes astonishing to see the different speed with with each platform refreshes and if one is not paying attention, then deals can be opened or closed at the wrong rate.) But I am enjoying the challenge of trading “on the move”. Other people's computers are set up differently and I have had a devil of a time getting things set up as I would have them at home. Fortunately, all of that tweaking has not been too costly. But the essential element is the connection.

I plan to trade little over the Christmas period, hoping that the market also decides to take a break through the first week of January. It should be a time for friends and family so I will aim to respect that.

PS: I was heartened to read one of the analytical comments from Todd Gordon, Currency Strategist at Gain Capital (with whom I trade) in his “Strategy of the Day” for December 21, who analyzed averaging down, i.e. building positions when the price moves against you. I have used this technique several times to good effect, once really testing the nerves as with one of the recent repeated Canadian dollar 100+ point reversals against the US$ (see blog). Of course the practice can go sour as the rate moves further than some are prepared to risk as in the above example, or never really turns around, at which point you have to eat a large loss.

The technique worked nicely this week as I traded pound sterling/US dollar while the rate fell from 2.03 toward and then below 2, netting about $210 on two trades. He points out rightly that this technique must be part of a plan, within a correctly assessed strategy. Little by little my strategic sense is getting better; I know that the experts are not always right and twice recently when following their assessments, against my own judgement, I lost not so heavily but let's say unnecessarily. I wont pin blame on them for that, but it is important to remember that we are all fallible.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Do we know what we are doing?

Many bureaucratic procedures exist and we comply with them without much question. I am a terrible skeptic when I can see little rhyme or reason in actions. Immigration forms at airports are a good example. Take my arrival in Nassau last night. Why do I need to give the precise details (name, address, telephone number) of the persons with whom I am staying? Is it really to be able to reach me in an emergency? I get uncomfortable when I ask why the information is needed and the reply I get is "Believe me. We need it." Why should I believe? Is this some tracing mechanism about who and where get the most visitors?

What I have noticed from a lot of international travel is that these types of details seem to be demanded more by certain types of countries. Those that have poor facilities for processing and analyzing them, such as many poor African countries, and Caribbean countries (with limited human resources). Those countries that have a clear central control regime (such as in the former Soviet Union). Countries that have a certain "make work" culture, which reflects a political gesture and a relatively easy way to fool people into thinking that unemployment is low. We see this last model sometimes in the Caribbean. Whatever the motivation there is a lot of seemingly useless paper shuffling. By contrast, the information needed to travel to and through most of western Europe and North America is minimal. Even though many of us dislike the new surly posture of the US Department of Homeland Security the information demanded at immigration is minimal.

I like to know why I do something. I like transparency. In the Caribbean we have a lot of problems with being open about official activities, as if everything told to the public can really threaten national security. Why also the plethora of immigration forms across the region? One of the great benefits of Cricket World Cup was having a Caricom common visa, which temporary eliminated a lot of bureaucracy at border points within the region, as should be the case if we are moving to a true common economic space.

We need to do a lot of streamlining in the region and we have shown in some areas that the task is not too hard. But all too often we hold onto old ways of doing things, or keep doing nonsense to as an act of political payback. I would rather live in a region that excelled in all it did and was a model of modernity. It could start appropriately at the border, the first point of contact for visitors.

Why should I be insulted?

Every year I am insulted when I arrive in The Bahamas and it's because of Jamaica. I don't know who I should blame, the Bahamians or the Jamaicans. “Full search mandatory” the Customs officer told me, explaining that for most visitors checks are made randomly, but for Air Jamaica flights every passenger's bag is checked. “Oh and the belt ain't wo'kin' so you have to push the bags yourself” she adds as I hauled my Santa-like sacks onto the belt. Of course, I had no drugs or guns in my bags and I passed through with no problem. But why do I have to endure this every time I use Air Jamaica to The Bahamas? America has far more crime but American Airlines passengers don't get this treatment. Is it about tourist dollars? I don't endure this when I travel with Air Jamaica to any other Caribbean island, especially Barbados, where Air Jamaica is also Barbados' flagship carrier and provides a direct link between the two islands.

Thank you all you drug smugglers and petty criminals who have tainted the reputation to every decent law-abiding Jamaican. I wish you a very unmerry Christmas and a pox-ridden New Year. There are many decent people who readily advocate the kind of brutal punishment that is still practised in some Muslim countries for petty crimes and crimes against the person. When I feel shamed of my national heritage because of these criminals I can understand such sentiments.

The irony is that The Bahamas is no Eden. Like Jamaica, it too is scourged as a transit point by drug-running problems, and is famous for “night fishing” from Bimini or other islands close to Florida. Several major drug dealers are employing expensive lawyers to help them avoid having to face full justice.

The Bahamas is also Sodom but does not seem to know it. This is a country obsessed with people's sexual behaviour, where people openly talk about “sweet hearting” (being unfaithful to a partner), yet any sign of sexual misconduct by politicians gets blown into a major issue. Remember Shame (sorry Shane) Gibson and the late Nicole Smith being photographed with the Minister having a close constituency meeting in his office that looked remarkably like a bed? When I arrived last night I saw the sensational tabloid newspaper The Punch headline “MP caught...sexing”. The story is about opposition PLP MP Alfred Gray who had been caught by police euphemistically "in his birthday suit" with a "female companion" who was decidedly not his wife in a church car park close to his home and was outed with front page pictures by the more sedate The Tribune (see latest report). The MP was given a "harsh warning" by the police officers. That makes no sense. Ain't you all got nothing better to do? In Jamaica newspapers don't waste time reporting such rubbish: “We know unnu all a sexin' but a no fiwi bizniz. That is between you and you missus. Why you wan' put dat inna paper?” More of an issue for me would be the fact that this MP is also a deacon at a Methodist Church. What method in his madness? Where is a man like this leading his flock if he is caught under some "other woman'" frock?

Heaven help you in The Bahamas if you are a gay man. The same phobia that engulfs Jamaica is present here too, where there is no tolerance for "sissies" as gays are disparagingly called.

The other sadder side is that here is a country of only about 300,000 people, whose average income is the highest in the English speaking Caribbean, which is showing signs of sliding down a slippery slope of social degradation. It is now being plagued by one the ills that has haunted and shamed Jamaica for decades. Murders and violent crimes are on the rise. The number of murders through mid-December (74) has already exceeded the total for 2006. That translates into a rate per head of population that is half that of Jamaica's, which records 1500 murders a year for its 3 million people, which means that it is lower but still very high. And solutions? “All the politicians are talking is foolishness” my father-in-law rails; he should know as he is a keen observer of international developments and a barrister. So like Jamaica no credible solutions are being proposed to deal with violent crimes, and people continue to pay for this failure with their lives. We'll see for long that will go on.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that The Bahamas has hit a cycle of decadence. The murders is one marker. I put much of the blame on the US, or at least the ease with which Bahamians can get access to goods and services from America, and the extent to which American culture floods the islands. Car ownership in Nassau/New Providence is ridiculously high and Nassau has so few roads that congestion is just horrible every day. Conspicuous consumption is a national sport. The currency is pegged 1:1 with the US dollar so that gives immense spending power. The islands are buoyed by financial services and tourism but barely produce anything so most consumer needs are imported. Any kind of bling is available tax free and Bahamians love name brands! Gucci, Fendi, Ralph Lauren, Rolex, diamonds etc are must haves. It's a consequence of not really having had to work to get rich so there is little understanding of the sacrifices and hard work that are usually needed to get wealthy, as would be the case in Singapore, for example. With a sense of privilege running like water through the veins it's little wonder why many younger men (yes, it's a boy thing) are seeing that the best route to quick richness is through crime and now the stakes are raised because guns are easily obtained.

But look out. The same problem that makes Bahamian Customs officers humiliate Jamaicans is ready to bite them. As Jamaica has seen, once the guns get entrenched in the society it's a devil of a job to get them out again. None of the Christian pleading—and yes, there's a growth industry in that too—is making a jot of difference. In fact, some of the church leaders seem to be contributors to this malaise with their views on how being good Christians gives some rights to being flagrant in all forms of behaviour.

I am going to enjoy my next two weeks in Nassau and look forward to the conch salad and grouper and macaroni pie and turkey and ham and Christmas cake an sky juice. But I will keep my eyes and ears open to sense better how far down the slope The Bahamas has slid.

God's in his heaven but we know that all is not right with the world.