Saturday, October 30, 2004

Terrorism and Elections (Part II)

The last day or two have been interested. We have a new tape out from Osama bin Laden threatening the United States (as usual), and scaremongering talk in the news media about a possible "constitutional crisis" if terrorists successfully disrupt the American presidential elections on Tuesday.

You see, in the entire history of the United States, the elections have never been disrupted, and there is no constitutional protocol about what to do about it. The election date is fixed by the constitution, and nobody has the authority to change it, so if a terrorist attack disrupts the election, there could be a drawn-out challenge in court to determine the winner.

Talk like this is really scaremongering, and does not take into account the true nature of this country. Terrorists really do not understand this country either - some of them think that it is like Spain: a place where they can disrupt the political process by attacking it just before an election. What they don't understand is that Americans have a long history of putting aside their disputes and fighting against a common enemy when attacked.

If terrorists attack America on election day, it will not matter for them who won the election: the Republicans and Democrats, Bush and Kerry, will stand united against whoever attacked America, and will come together to reach a compromise on how to determine the winner of the election.

The United States has over 200 years of history of being a democracy. Democracy is so deeply ingrained in the mentality of the average American that he/she cannot imagine living in a society where it does not exist. Even if a terrorist attack prevented the elections from proceeding successfully, the American politicians are reasonable enough that I am quite certain they would work together and reach a compromise.

Scaremongering about the possibility of a constitutional crisis in America by the news media serves only to make terrorists think that this may be an achievable goal for them. This is a dangerous and incorrect message. Terrorists should realize that Americans are strong-willed and will not allow their country to be cowed, scared off, or disrupted.

Friday, October 29, 2004

My Favorite Blogs

I'm going to dedicate this post to two people who really inspired me to start blogging myself: the first is a young woman who goes by the pseudonym of Najma Abdullah. Najma lives in Mosul, Iraq, and is just 16 years old - although if you read her blog, you will see her maturity is far beyond her years. Najma's blog is a very well written chronicle of her daily life in Iraq, its good points and its bad points. We all know about the bad points from reading the newspapers, but Najma gives a really nice window into the good points.

If you read Najma's blog from the start, along with some comments she has posted on other blogs, you will notice a real evolution in her blogging. When she started her blog in June, her English was a bit rusty, and she had had some real anger at what she saw of the actions of US troops. In July, When CBFTW (a blogger/soldier stationed in Mosul) put up a post about a sortie in a Christian section of town, Najma became angry and put up a poignant comment on his blog. Najma's comment raised a few eyebrows, but also attracted some regular visitors to Najma's own blog. In the months since, Najma's English has become noticeably more polished, and through her correspondance with people, it seems she has really developed a truly balanced view of the situation in Iraq, simultaneously understanding the viewpoints of the average Iraqi on the street, the American soldiers driving around in their tanks, and the average person in America sitting at home watching all that on the 6:00 news.

Najma's blog is a real pleasure to read, and I visit it daily. I sometimes think if the world had more people like Najma, especially in leadership positions, it would be a far better place.

Another blog I really enjoy is a woman who goes by the pseudonym Riverbend. Her blog, called Baghdad Burning is a very well written assortment of personal experience and political commentary on the Iraq invasion, written by a resident of Baghdad. Some of my political views disagree with Riverbend's, but I enjoy her blog nonetheless. Riverbend's stance is not really anti-American, but is definitely anti-occupation, and anti-Bush. Her personal account of sitting in a windowless hallway with her family while the bombs dropped on Baghdad was so vivid that I found I could almost picture myself there in the hallway, seeing the scene through her eyes. This is a side of the invasion you could never find in the news media here.

One of Riverbend's best posts was about the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco. Here is a quote from this post (titled "Just go"):

I sometimes get emails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions.
Fine. Today's lesson: don't rape, don't torture, don't kill and get out while
you can- while it still looks like you have a choice... Chaos? Civil war?
Bloodshed? We’ll take our chances- just take your Puppets, your tanks, your
smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your
rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.

I don't agree with all of Riverbend's political views, and in particular I do think pulling out of Iraq in its current state would just turn it into another Somalia. But, I strongly respect Riverbend for having the courage to publish her views, and I can really feel empathy for the ordeal she and her family have gone through. I hope Riverbend continues to blog, and I wish her and her family all the best.

One thing I strongly respect both of these young women for is publishing a blog in a language that is not their own. English is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn as a second language, and there is always a higher standard applied to written language than spoken language. Both of these women obviously felt that they would reach a bigger audience in English, and took it upon themselves to make the extra effort to communicate with this audience.

I appreciate both of these women's efforts in publishing their blogs, and I hope that both of them are able to keep doing so for a long time.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Electoral College

To paraphrase George Orwell's Animal Farm: all voters in America are equal, but some voters are more equal than others.

Many people here in America misunderstand the election process here: when they go to the polls and cast a ballot, they think they are casting a ballot for the presidential election. In fact, this is not the case. They are casting a ballot for a slate of "electors" to represent their state in the Electoral College. The real presidential election is held by the electors in the Electoral College on December 13.

The Electoral College dates back to the founding of the United States. Two hundred years ago, when the United States consisted of 13 distant colonies without modern communication systems, and where it would have been impractical to hold a popular vote, the Electoral College would have made a lot of sense. Today, however, with modern communication mechanisms, it is just as easy to call the other side of the country as down the street, and holding a popular vote would be relatively easy.

For those of you reading this post and scratching your heads, I'll give a little background. Each state has a certain number of "electors" - one for each house member elected that state, plus one for each senator. The District of Columbia (which doesn't get to elect senators or house members) gets three electoral votes. These "electors" are real people picked by the two major parties: if most of the votes in the state go to the Republican party, their slate of electors goes to the Electoral College, and if most of the votes go to the Democrats their slate goes. There are a couple of key problems with this process.

The first problem is a concept called "faithless electors", which is enough to make someone's blood boil. See, the electors don't actually have an obligation to vote for the candidate endorsed by their party - they can vote for whomever they want. Occasionally, you'll have an elector who decides to cast a ballot against the wishes of his/her constituents (i.e.: a Republican elector who votes for the Democratic slate or vice-versa).

The second (and by far the biggest) problem with the Electoral College is that it disenfranchises most of the voters in the United States. Think about this: if you are a voter in Texas, New York, or California, your vote doesn't count at all, period. If you are in Texas, whether or not you like the Republicans, your vote is going to count towards the Republicans, because they have such a large number of supporters they always get the majority in Texas, and thus all the Texas electoral votes. Likewise, if you're in New York or California, your vote is going to the Democrats whether you like it or not - your vote just doesn't count.

Under the Electoral College system, the only votes that really count are those in "swing states" - those states that do not consistently vote Democrat or Republican and which could go either way. The candidates know this too - why do you think they spend so much time kissing babies and having "town hall meetings" in little hick towns in Ohio and Florida, while practically ignoring big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas? Because they already know which way those states are going to vote, and don't need to worry about them. The Republicans know New York and California are not going to vote for them, so they ignore them - meanwhile the Democrats know they are going to vote for them, so they take them for granted and don't pay any attention to them either. The same thing goes in reverse for traditional Republican states like Texas, which both parties routinely ignore. The two parties only really pay attention to the states where there is an actual contest for the popular vote: places like Ohio and Florida.

Allowing this farce called the Electoral College to continue encourages the presidential candidates to heap a disproportionate amount of attention on states that represent a relatively small percentage of the US population, which I do not think is remotely fair. The American society was founded on the principle of equality for all people, and yet every four years we allow this ideal to be corrupted by this useless historical baggage called the Electoral College.

I contend that the Electoral College has long outlives its usefulness, and should be relegated to its proper place in history, along with other relics such as horse-drawn carriages, steam locomotives, and stone tablets. My suggestion for a replacement is simple: one man or woman, one vote - add them up at the end of the day, and whoever has the most votes becomes president.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Second Guessing Ourselves on Iraq

Life is often like a big game of chess. We make decisions, and then have to live with the consequences - we cannot take our moves back.

About two years ago, a decision was made to send American troops into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein's regime and install in Iraq a free and democratic government. Then, and now, many people do not agree with that decision. This criticism has been fueled by the fact that the main pretense for the invasion (weapons of mass destruction) has subsequently turned out to be baseless. It has also not helped matters that the American forces have made a number of key blunders in Iraq since the invasion, including the Abu Ghraib fiasco, mistakenly bombing a wedding party, failing to secure key cities such as Fallujah, and failing to earn the trust of many Iraqis on the street.

But the decision to invade Iraq was made, and a commitment was entered. The time to second-guess that decision is over: it ended on March 19, 2003 at around the time the first bomb dropped on Baghdad in the "shock and awe" campaign, or when the first American tank crossed the Iraqi border. From that moment on, the United States took on a responsibility to complete the job it started.

In just 26 days, the United States took care of the "easy part" of that job - deposing Saddam's regime. With the greatly superior firepower, training, and technology of the American troops, there was no question as to the eventual outcome of that exercise. But, then came the hard part: helping Iraq to rebuild, and helping it to install a democratic government in a part of the world where democracies are few and far between. In deposing Saddam's regime, and dismantling his security infrastructure, the United States took on the responsibility to secure Iraq until Iraq could rebuild an effective police and military force to do the job itself.

Many people argue that the United States should pull its troops out immediately, but this is the worst possible time America could do that. To employ this type of cut-and-run approach now, putting Iraq in such a vulnerable state (after being the one who put it there), then abandoning it to the wolves would be an act of cowardice - and America, is not a nation of cowards. Abandoning Iraq now would leave it without any effective government, and without any effective security force - pretty much the same situation as Somalia 12 years ago: a Petri dish ripe for the incubation of terrorists. And, abandoning Iraq now would motivate terrorists around the world by showing them that the American military can be easily scared off.

Now that America has its troops on the ground in Iraq, it has taken on a commitment to stay and see the initiative through to completion, leaving Iraq as a stable democracy, and not come running home with its tail between its legs when things get difficult. For America to shirk from its responsibility now would be a wanton act of disregard for the people of Iraq, and would be a stain on America's reputation.

Let's stop focusing on the past, and focus instead on the future. Rather than second-guessing ourselves on the motives behind the Iraq invasion, let's think a bit more about how America can best help Iraq to stablilize; and in the process bring American troops home - soon, but not prematurely soon.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Gross Incompetence: 44 Iraqi soldiers killed

I woke up this morning to a news story about 44 freshly trained Iraqi soldiers and their four drivers who were found killed "execution style" at the side of a highway about 80 miles east of Baghdad. The men had just completed their training and were on their way back from their graduation ceremony in a convoy of mini-buses. They were dressed in civilian clothes and unarmed.

Which leads me to a very troubling question: what the hell were these men doing, traveling in a convoy of mini-buses, unarmed, and with no security escort? With the current security situation in Iraq, someone should have expected that these men would be targets, and should have provided a security escort to protect them, or at least equipped them with weapons to let them protect themselves.

The incompetent fool who made the decision to send these men in such a large and vulnerable convoy is just as responsible for their deaths as the insurgents who killed them. If the US military is serious about developing a viable Iraqi army, they need to do a better job of protecting these people, or equipping them with the weaponry they need to protect themselves.

Abu Ghraib - waiting for the other shoe to drop

Late last week, Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the guards charged with abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison by a US military court-martial. So far, three of the soldiers who were charged with abusing prisoners have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced.

When this is really going to get interesting is in a few months, when the soldiers who have not pleaded guilty go to trial. The first on the block will be Spc. Charles Graner, whose trial is scheduled to commence on January 7, and the second will be Sgt. Javal Davis, whose trial will be starting on February 1. The reason this is going to get interesting is simple: all the soldiers convicted thus far pleaded guilty and did not mount a defense in court. Their lawyers did not cross-examine witnesses or introduce competing theories that might have exonorated their clients. This is all due to come this winter in the first contested trial.

Let's think about what went on in Abu Ghraib for a second: didn't some of the techniques used on these prisoners seem just a little too effective to be something spontaneously dreamed up by a group of junior enlisted men? Consider these facts:

  • Most Middle-Eastern Muslim men have a real sigma against homosexuality, and some also have a real stigma about nudity (being seen naked, or seeing someone else naked - even other men). Some also have a stigma of having their photo taken (I wonder if this is why these pictures were taken). Would one expect your average junior soldier from a small American town to understand these things? I think not.
  • The American military culture has a real stigma for homosexuality too. Do you really think a typical American soldier would enjoy stripping a bunch of male prisoners naked and watching them masturbate and writhe around handcuffed to each other? I think not.

Ockham's Razor states that if two theories exist that describe the same thing, the simpler theory is probably correct. Let's think about this in the context of Abu Ghraib: we have two theories. The one put forward by the government is that these eight junior soldiers suddenly developed homosexual tendencies and decided to have some illicit "fun" with some prisoners without their superiors' knowledge or approval, and just happened to stumble across some sophisticated interrogation techniques in the process. The alternate theory is that these techniques were developed by someone higher up the military food chain, then recommended and taught to these soldiers, who subsequently followed what they were taught. Both of these theories are possible, but which one is more likely? I think Ockham's Razor can suggest an answer, and it's not theory #1.

You can also bet money that the defense attorneys for the remaining five soldiers are thinking a lot about this second theory, and what evidence might exist in support of it, and will try to lay out a very convincing case in the winter in defense of their clients.

I'm not sure how much publicity the military judges will allow in the courtroom, but in the unlikely scenario that they allow cameras, move over O.J. Simpson, this one will be good.

Friday, October 22, 2004


Earlier this week, a group of criminals in Iraq kidnapped Margaret Hassan, the president of CARE International in Iraq. Before this kidnapping, I really did not know a lot about Margaret Hassan, but since her kidnapping, I have read a couple of news articles about her life, and felt my blood starting to boil with anger and revulsion.

Here is a snippet from an article from the BBC. (to read the whole article, click here)

As aid worker Margaret Hassan is held by kidnappers in Iraq, freelance
journalist and long-time friend Felicity Arbuthnot describes the charity
boss's heroic endeavours to help the people of Iraq.
Even in the bloodshed and turmoil of post-invasion Iraq, the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, head of Care International in Iraq, is incomprehensible.
Margaret Hassan fell in love with Iraq more than 30 years ago, when she travelled there as a young bride with her Iraqi husband Taheen Ali Hassan. They had met while studying in London and the former Margaret Fitzsimmons, from Dublin in the "land of a thousand welcomes", fell in love for a second time with Baghdad - formerly Madinat al Salam: City of Peace - and the land known through time as "the cradle of civilisation". She converted to Islam, learned Arabic and took Iraqi

In short, Margaret Hassan's life story reads like an Islamic version of Mother Teresa. Out of love for humanity and compassion for her adopted Iraq, Margaret Hassan has dedicated 30 years of her life to helping the needy in Iraq. Even during the Gulf War in 1991, the UN embargo, and through the more recent Operation Iraqi Freedom, Margaret Hassan risked her life, standing her ground in Iraq to look after its neediest people. She must have known she was vulnerable, but probably thought to herself that her status as a charity worker would protect her: nobody could be so evil as to kidnap a charity worker, could they? She was tragically proven wrong this week: evil, it seems, knows no bounds.

Of course, in the aftermath of Margaret Hassan's kidnapping, Care International has pulled out of Iraq, leaving behind cadres of people who could use its help.

Which leads me to a question: what the hell kind of monster kidnaps a charity worker? Some of these criminals claim to represent their religion (Islam) or an "Iraqi resistance", but look at their actions here: kidnapping the head of a charity (who ironically is also Muslim) and preventing the charity organization from providing aid to needy Iraqis in the middle of an Islamic holiday (Ramadan). By this one action, these self-serving miscreants have brutalized a truly decent human being, impaired the ability of a major charity to serve the poor in Iraq, denied the needy the help they would have received from this charity, and hurt Iraq as a whole.

Earlier today, a video of Margaret Hassan appeared on Al-Jazeera showing her crying and pleading for her life. While this must be a terrifying experience for her, she should take some comfort in knowing that if she is killed by these monsters, she knows where she will be going afterward. We all die eventually, the key question is what will happen to us on the day of judgment. With her life of charity and compassion, Margaret Hassan already knows the answer to that question.

Which is better than one could say for her kidnappers. If these criminals are truly believers in God, they should understand the magnitude the crime they have committed here, and should be letting Margaret Hassan go and begging God's forgiveness for having harmed such a fine example of humanity.

I will say a special prayer tonight, for the Lord to give peace and strength to Margaret Hassan to help her through her ordeal, and for Him to help her kidnappers to see the error in their ways.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Canada's National Inferiority Complex

I spent almost all my life living in Canada, and throughout most of it, I'd hear comparisons of Canada against the United States. I'd hear Canadian businesses comparing themselves against American businesses, Canadian professionals comparing themselves against American professionals, and Canadian cities comparing themselves against American cities.

One of the things that really struck me when I first moved down here is the fact that Americans don't spend much time comparing themselves to anyone, or even to each other. American cities each have their own personalities, and may even have their own rivalries (e.g.: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox). But, you don't see New York comparing itself to Chicago, or Atlanta comparing itself to San Francisco. Each of these cities has their own unique flair, and all seem to be content with being themselves. Americans in general do not spend much (if any) time comparing the United States with other countries. Americans may travel and appreciate the differences with other countries, but are generally content with the United States the way it is.

Since moving to the US, I've traveled to Canada several times, and sometimes I'm asked by Canadians what Americans think about a particular issue, such as the recent drop of the American dollar versus the Euro or against the Canadian dollar. They usually seem shocked when I tell them that most Americans just don't seem to care much at all.

In 2002, an American fighter pilot flying his F-16 jet over Afghanistan mistakenly dropped a large bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers when he mistook their live-fire exercise for an attack on his aircraft. What was really striking was the difference in coverage of the incident between the Canadian press and the American press: in Canada, it was a huge scandal with big front-page newspaper articles and angry speeches in parliament, while in the United States it was much more subdued. It is not that Americans did not care about the issue, in fact the response here was pretty much the same as would have happened if the pilot had dropped a bomb on a bunch of American soldiers: he was tried before an American court martial, found guilty of dereliction of duty, and punished. Americans realized that, while the incident was tragic, it is not the first time a soldier has been killed by "friendly fire" and will certainly not be the last.

Now for those Canadians reading this, think about this scenario: if it was a Canadian fighter pilot who dropped that bomb, would there have been such an outcry? I think not. I suspect if it were a Canadian pilot, the response would have been much more muted, and probably about the same level as we saw here in the United States. But, the fact that it was an American pilot meant that many Canadians perceived it as an attack on all Canadians by the whole United States, and took personal offense when Americans did not see it the same way.

Canada in general seems to be suffering from a national inferiority complex, where Canadians feel insecure about their country's achievements, and their own strengths and capabilities. Canadians so easily get caught up in comparing themselves to each other and their southern neighbors that they can easily lose sight of what is superior about Canada. Most Americans I've met who have been to Canada tend to be very impressed with how clean the place is and how friendly the people are. The Canadian educational system is second to none and turns out a quality of graduate you can only get down here from an Ivy League school (at four times the cost). Canadian cities are clean, and filled with examples of beautiful architecture and well-designed facilities.

Canadian politics are filled with terms like "regional disparity", and all sorts of regional rivalries. Quebeckers (québecois) hate English Canada because they think English Canada doesn't understand them. Western Canadians hate Ontario because they think Ontario has too much pull, and think Quebec is a province of whiners. The Atlantic provinces only care about their fishing industry, British Columbia its timber industry, and the northern territories just want the rest of Canada to leave them the hell alone. Here in the US, even though regional diversity is more pronounced, you don't hear much talk about it.

Canadians really need to spend less time thinking about the differences between each other and between themselves and other countries, and take more pride in what makes Canada and themselves distinct. For me, it is ironic that I had to live outside Canada to discover that fact for myself.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Terrorism and Elections

Terrorists really do not understand America. They don't understand what makes this place tick. They proved this on September 11, 2001. They proved it again time and time again in their kidnappings and grisly murders of innocent American civilians in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I've read in the newspapers recently that terrorist groups are planning terrorist attacks timed around the US presidential elections in a couple of weeks, with the hope of producing a similar effect to that in Spain immediately after the train-bombings there.

These terrorists just don't get it - attacks like that might work in Spain, but they won't work here. They'll backfire, and blow up in their faces.

To understand America, you really need to live here among Americans, to talk to them, go to church with them, and hear their reactions to the news. What you realize is that the "Wild West" mentality is very much alive and well here. While an attack against another country may scare them off, against the United States it will only deepen Americans' resolve.

Americans take war seriously. America was born in war (the American revolutionary war against Britain), and has fought many wars over its history and in recent years has been involved in a number of successful military interventions (Grenada, Panama, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, etc.). They do not like getting into wars, but when they do, they play to win. Attacking America does not make it afraid, it simply makes it angry. The Japanese found this out the hard way after Pearl Harbor in World War II.

I remember watching on the news a few months ago, and saw a picture aboard the US Navy Ship "USS Kitty Hawk" and saw an interesting flag, that looked a bit like the American flag, but with a rattlesnake on it and the words "Don't Tread on Me" in bold letters. I found out later that this flag has been around since 1775, and is actually the predecessor of the regular American flag (the Union Jack) by about 10 years. The flag is called the First Navy Jack, and was first flown by the Revolutionary Navy in their fight against the British.

The First Navy Jack (copyright Posted by Hello

I think the First Navy Jack perfectly sums up America's attitude towards terrorism and terrorists.

Monday, October 18, 2004

A sad story

Last night, I ran across a very interesting and sad blog from an American soldier named Dave who had been running a blog about his deployment in Iraq. Dave came back home to the US in August only to find out that his wife had moved in with another man while he was in Iraq, and that she was leaving him. It's especially sad when you read some of Dave's earlier posts and hear him talk fondly about his wife Megan and how much he was looking forward to seeing her again.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Dave to be deployed in a far away place with the constant threat of being killed, thinking pleasant thoughts about my wife to get me through each day, only to have my heart torn out from me upon arrival home. I would not wish an experience like that on my worst enemy.

I found Dave's blog at about 2 AM just as I was going to go to bed, and ended up staying up until 3:30 AM reading it - I found his story so riveting I could not let myself away from my computer. After reading Dave's blog, I walked upstairs and gave my sleeping wife a hug, and said a silent prayer of thanks that my marriage and my family life are good.

Here is a link to Dave's blog. Check out his post from August 19.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The American Presidential Race: Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee

Earlier this week, I watched the last of the presidential debates, and by the end of it I was ready to change the channel in disgust. Neither George Bush nor John Kerry seemed to be saying anything original, or anything that hadn't been heard before. By the end of it, I couldn't help but feel like I was watching Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee dancing around in Alice & Wonderland, except here, maybe we'd be better off calling them Tweedle-Dumb and Tweedle-Dumber.

During the debate, both candidates seemed to stick very close to their respective "comfort zones", and never really said anything that I found surprising or revealing, or even really that interesting. They are both probably so afraid of the special interest groups, they stick very close to their respective party-lines.

The United States seems to be run by a collection of special interest groups. Special interest groups don't really like anybody, but hate those candidates that say anything against them. You have these statements which I'll call "political landmines" - they're just sitting out there idle, waiting for some gullible politician to utter them, and as soon as the guy says them, they blow up in his face. The trouble is, some of these special interest groups are against each other, so if you make any strong statement, you're sure to piss someone off. If you talk about a woman's right to have an abortion, you piss off the pro-life people. If you talk about gun control, you piss off the NRA and the pro-gun lobby. If you say anything about Israel, you're sure to piss someone off: either the pro-Israel lobby for not being strong enough in favor of Israel, or the anti-Israel lobby for not being strong enough against them. About the only way you can win is to keep your opinions to yourself and say nothing controversial at all.

It seems to me the ideal presidential candidate here in America would be the androgynous "Pat" from Saturday Night Live. You can't tell if Pat is male or female, Republican or Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life, pro-gun or pro-gun-control, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, homosexual or homophobic, or anything like that, because Pat is so afraid of saying anything that would piss off some special interest group somewhere that he/she spends a lot of time spouting off meaningless drivel.

You wonder why so many younger people are disinterested in the political process here. They simply don't care about who wins: Bush, Kerry, who cares? It's a simple case of "same shit, different barrel." I think it was this same voter sentiment that propelled Jesse Ventura (a former professional wrestler) to win the election as the governor of Minnesota a few years ago, even though he wasn't affiliated with either of the two main political parties. I wonder how Jesse would do if he were to run for president in this election - probably better than he would think.

Groucho Marx once said, "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies." This definitely sounds like what is going on in this election.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Health Care

Have you ever heard the saying about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? When it comes to health care, this is a very true statement.

I spent most of my life living in Canada, and one of my children was born there, but for the last few years I've been living in the US and my second child was born here. So, I have had the experience of living on both sides of the border and experiencing two very different health care systems.

The health care systems in Canada and the United States are very different. In Canada, we have completely socialized medicine - anybody living there pays into a government-provided healthcare system as part of their taxes and is issued a "health card" that can be used at any doctor, specialist or hospital. Here in the United States, it is almost the opposite, a free-enterprise system run for-profit.

When I was living in Canada, you would always hear on the radio about how some doctors are leaving Canada because they can get more money in the United States. You'd hear horror stories about patients on waiting lists for surgery and certain procedures (like MRI scans), and you'd hear people negatively comparing the Canadian heathcare system to the American system. I was very surprised when I came to the United States to hear people griping about the high cost of healthcare here, hearing horror stories about people being bankrupted by major illness, people not able to afford health insurance, and you'd hear people wishing for the Canadian system here. Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!

Having experienced both systems, I can appreciate that both countries have quality doctors and quality healthcare, but I do think the Canadian system has its advantages. Because doctors do not have to deal with billing patients, calling their insurance companies to make sure their coverage is still valid, collecting co-pay fees, or haggling with insurance companies about whether services are medically necessary, the administrative overhead in Canada is much lower. When I first came down here to America, I was surprised to see that in a typical doctor's office, you have three or four administrative personnel for each physician. In Canada, some clinics have eight or nine physicians to each administrative person because the administrative workload is so low (they just swipe the patient's health card through an electronic machine that looks like a credit-card reader and the doctor automatically gets paid).

One time in Canada, I took my daughter to a specialist's office - there was a guy behind the counter who swiped her health card and asked us to wait in the waiting room. I was surprised a few minutes later to see the same man wearing a labcoat and a stethoscope call us into the exam room - it turned out the receptionist wasn't there that day and the specialist was covering for her himself and running the office by himself. You'd NEVER see that in the United States, the administrative workload is just too high here.

In Canada, it's also much tougher to sue a doctor for malpractice. Because it's socialized medicine, there are no medical bills to fix the mistake, and Canadian courts are not nearly as generous with awarding damages for pain-and-suffering. As a result, doctor's malpractice insurance is less expensive in Canada than the US.

Doctors in the US make more money, but doctors in Canada get to keep more of what they get paid. Which system is better for the doctors? Hard to say - I know Canadian doctors practicing medicine in the United States and American doctors practicing medicine in Canada who would give you very different perspectives on that argument.

One interesting point: despite the fact that it is free for everyone, Canada spends significantly less on healthcare per person than the United States. Also, if a person gets so sick that they cannot continue to work (cancer, etc.), the system will cover that person in Canada. In the United States, health insurance is usually tied to your job, and if you lose your job you can be in trouble.

For me, as a Canadian citizen, I have the inalienable right to return to Canada, and I know if I do that I will be covered by the Canadian medical system no matter how sick I am. Part of me feels a bit guilty about that, in the fact I am living and paying taxes in the United States, and yet I still have that Canadian safety net available to me if I get sick (a luxury none of my American coworkers have).

Monday, October 11, 2004

Canada's Used Submarines

As a Canadian, I've been reading the news over the past few days with a mixture of pride, shame, and anger. A few days ago, I was surfing the Internet and reading the news about how a Canadian submarine called the HMCS Chicoutimi had caught fire off the coast of Scotland, immobilizing the sub, killing one crewmember, and injuring two others. I sat there wondering what the sub was doing off the coast of Scotland (Canada doesn't have that many submarines to be patroling that far out), and after some more reading, I realized with anger that this submarine was one of the used ones Canada had purchased from Britain.

To get the full meaning behind this story, we need to go back about 12 years. From 1984 to 1993, the Conservative party was in power in Canada with Brian Mulroney as the prime minister. Near the end of their time in power, the conservatives had put forward a plan to modernize some of the equipment being used by the Canadian military. They planned to retire the aging Sea King helicopters and replace them with the Cormorant helicopter. They also planned to buy a number of new and modern nuclear-powered submarines to allow them to patrol Canada's shorelines. In 1993, there was a federal election in which the Liberal party attacked the conservatives for their planned defence spending, lambasting it as being extravagant. When the Liberals won, they promptly cancelled the Cormorant contract (paying almost $500 million in penalties) and instead of buying the modern nuclear-powered subs, they decided to buy some used diesel-powered submarines from Britain.

Since then, things have just gone downhill. After cancelling the Cormorant helicopter purchase, the Department of National Defence conducted a detailed study for a replacement helicopter, and five years later ended up selecting and purchasing the same helicopter as was in the deal that was cancelled. So, at the end, all the Liberals managed to do was waste $500 million in cancellation penalties, and continue for five more years to jeopardize the lives of Canadian Air Force pilots in the decrepit and accident-prone "Sea Thing" helicopters.

And now, five years later, it seems the other shoe drops. The used diesel-powered subs sold to Canada by Britain turned out to be plagued by problems. Should that really surprise us - if those subs were so great, wouldn't Britain still be using them? In this latest debacle, one of Britain's used subs, which was just this past weekend renamed the HMCS Chicoutimi, caught fire on its maiden voyage from Britain to Canada and had to be towed back to Britain. So instead of buying modern new submarines, Canada tried to save a few dollars and ended up buying some beat-up old used jalopies from Britain. What a disgrace!

The Canadian military has been chronically underfunded for years, and has been making do with insufficient and antiquated equipment for a long time. For example, Canada played an active role in the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia five years ago, but their participation was delayed for a couple of weeks because the Canadian fighter-jets were dependent on American refueling aircraft to allow them to make it across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe (Canada doesn't have any fueling planes or aircraft carriers). The Canadian aircraft did well once they got to Yugoslavia, but I personally found it shameful that they could not make it there without the gracious help of Canada's southern neighbor. What a disgrace!

As for my feelings, I'm proud of the Canadian military personnel, who have gotten very good at doing a lot with very little. I feel ashamed of the Canadian government, who constantly short-changes these same Canadian military personnel, keeping their salaries low while denying them the basic equipment they need to work with. And, I feel angry at the British and Canadian bureaucrats: the British bureaucrats who thought they could make a quick buck by unloading some of their problem subs on one of their allies while risking the lives of their allies' sailors, and the Canadian bureacrats who were stupid and gullible enough to fall for the British sales pitch. Shame on all of them!

The Canadian government needs to wake up and realize that if they want to be able to be active in United Nations peacekeeping activities, and wants to be an active particpant in NATO, they need to provide the troops with the equipment they need to get the job done - and not the used hand-me-downs from our allies. To keep scrimping and saving only serves to put Canadian soldiers' lives at risk and make Canada's military the laughing stock of NATO.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Slavery in America in the 21st Century

About 140 years ago, slavery was officially abolished in the United States. I say "about", because the abolition of slavery in this country took a number of painful years during which the southern states, averse to giving up slavery, fought a hard-fought civil war against the northern states. Slavery in the United States was all about economics. The economy of the southern states was heavily dependent on a labor-intensive activity (cotton). Slaves were simply a cheap source of labor that allowed the cotton industry in the southern states to be more competititive.

Today, 140 years later, slavery is still alive and well here in America. In the 18th century, slaves were known as "blacks" or "negroes", today they are called "illegal immigrants", or more euphemistically, "undocumented workers".

Like 140 years ago, there are many businesses in America such as car washes, poultry processing plants, janitorial services, and the like that are dependent on a workforce willing to do hard work in poor working conditions for low wages. Most Americans are not willing to do this type of work for these low wages, so these businesses have a choice: they can either pay their workers more money (increasing their cost and decreasing their profit), or they can hire undocumented workers who are generally willing to work under these conditions. Many businesses choose the latter option, especially when their competition is also doing it.

Many illegal immigrants are honest, hardworking people whose only goal is to provide a better living for themselves and their families. They work hard for little money, and many business people actually prefer hiring them, since it is widely perceived that for $7 an hour, you can either get the type of lazy worker nobody else wants to hire, or a hardworking illegal immigrant.

Because of their legal status in the country, undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to maltreatment by their employers. Since their employers know they are illegal, and are unlikely to complain to government agencies about working conditions, employers may feel free to cut corners in terms of working conditions, benefits, and even workplace safety. In all their social interactions, illegal immigrants must carry on with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads every day, knowing that just a single anonymous phone call from anyone to the Department of Homeland Security could disrupt their family life by getting them locked up and eventualy on a plane back to their homeland.

The government in the United States has a mixed record in dealing with illegal immigration. On one side, you have the Department of Homeland Security (formerly the INS) patroling the borders and doing a thorough job with questioning travelers arriving by air or sea, but on the other side you have other government agencies who turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants living in plain view inside the country. Many of these businesses that depend on illegal immigrants in their workforces have traditionally been very good at making political contributions, hiring lobbyists, and doing what they need to do to make sure that any attempt by government bureaucrats to crack down on them is promptly shut down by their bosses in Washington.

This problem has been festering here in the United States for a long time, and would have continued festering even longer if it were not for the events of September 11, 2001, when people were shocked by the fact that these terrorists had been living among us for years prior to the attack. It is exactly the same illicit infrastructure that aids undocumented workers that can easily be used by a terrorist to obtain false identification, obtain employment, and live here in the United States under the nose of the authorities.

The conundrum the United States is in now is what to do with the millions of undocumented workers in this country. These are hardworking people, many of whom have been living here for ten or more years, whose only goal in coming here was to make a better life for themselves and their families. But, as long as they remain here in their illegal state, the whole infrastructure that supports them, the employers who hire them, and the people who provide false identification for them will remain there and operational, ready to provide unintended support to the next batch of terrorists that set foot on American soil.

But what is one to do about it? Cracking down on employers of undocumented workers would force some of them into a life of crime. Deporting them would be difficult, and would cause ripples through the economy. But leaving them as they are leaves the door wide open for terrorists and criminals to come here and live here under the authorities' noses. But, on the flip side, issuing an amnesty would only encourage more illegal immigration.

The fix for the problem of illegal immigration will be difficult, but is extremely necessary. September 11, 2001 was evidence of America's inability to guard its own border and to control who it allows into this country. This is a deficiency that desperately needs to be fixed.

More to come in a later post.....

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Humor in American Politics

The last couple of weeks have been insanely busy for me at work, and every time I sit down to write a post, something happens to distract me from it. A few days ago, I actually got partway through one, and never quite got through it. Hopefully, I'll get through that post and put it up in a few days.

This past week, they had the presidential debates between Kerry and Bush, and the vice-presidential debates between Edwards and Cheney. The one thing that struck me in watching these debates is how sterile they all seemed. That feeling of sterility makes sense when you think about all the stupid rules they put around these debates - like the one that says the candidates aren't allowed to direct questions at each other, or the fact that all of the questions were pre-determined prior to the start of the debate, and not created ad-hoc during the debate based on the candidates' answers.

As a Canadian living here, I find American politics to be very dry and boring - people have no sense of humor about it. Here in America, the candidates seem to think that making witty remarks may be perceived by the public as being unbefitting a leader, and may cost them votes. They're also afraid of the personal attacks the other party will launch against them if they allow their true selves to surface.

In Canada, it is quite the opposite: people (including politicians) realize that if they use humor, people will laugh but remember what they said, and sometimes they even go a bit overboard. I remember when I was a kid watching a debate the Canadian parliament and saw the following humorous exchange: Brian Tobin (the fisheries critic in the Liberal party, complaining about French vessels fishing in the Grand Banks): "I don't think the Candian people appreciate the honorable Minister's idea of French Immersion." The retort from John Crosby (the fisheries minister at the time): "I'm sure any Western farmer can tell the honorable member what he is immersed in!" (in other words, cow manure). John Crosby's the same guy who was once debating Sheila Copps and quoted a song: "Pass the tequila, Sheila. Lie down and love me again," - he ended up publicly apologizing for that one, but Copps is still known by the nickname "Tequila Sheila" by some people to this day.

About eight years ago, Mel Lastman (then the mayor of North York, a suburb of Toronto, Canada) read a news magazine comparing Edmonton (another Canadian city) to North York and commented, "Comparing North York to Edmonton is like comparing a stylish brick bungalow to a clapboard outhouse." He made that comment in front of a bunch of reporters, making for some interesting coverage, especially in the Edmonton newspapers. A few years later, Lastman was mayor of Toronto and was supposed to be going to a meeting in Mombasa, Kenya, and quipped, "What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa? ... I'm sort of scared about going there ... I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me." Of course, the Kenyan press picked up on that one, and not knowing Mel's history of making jokes like that took it very seriously. Of course, you'd never see anything like that in American politics - EVER.

That is one thing that really struck me in moving to the United States is how serious people seem to be about everything all the time. People seem to think that allowing their true selves to come through in their business dealings exposes their vulnerabilities and allows others to know their flaws, and thus they only let their guard down when they're around people they really know. Of course, the politicians, thinking they need to make an even better example of this, make a point of never being funny, and never even allowing people to see them laugh or making funny remarks. There have been a few notable exceptions to this rule, but most American politicians seem to like to follow the model of Queen Victoria with her famous quote, "we are NOT amused!"

The flip side to this is people tend to better trust a person who has demonstrated that they are human, flaws and all, which is one of the reasons I think Clinton remained so popular, even after the debacle with Monica Lewinsky.

You wonder sometimes why there is such a high degree of apathy among many voters here today. Maybe if Bush and Kerry made a more heartfelt attempt to emotionally connect with voters, it would help fix this sense of apathy. Dumping the "image consultants", and letting voters see politicians as their natural selves (complete with a sense of humor and some weaknesses and vulnerabilities) would be a good start.