Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Sgt. Devore

I don't read a lot of military blogs, but those that I do all have one thing in common: their authors have demonstrated a sense of professionalism, and a sense of empathy for the civilian populations in the areas where they work. Of these, Sgt. Devore has grown to become a real favorite of mine. His long and detailed posts seem like something more out of a Tom Clancy novel than a blog, and have so much detail and heartfelt feeling in them that one can easily see through his eyes what it is really like being a soldier in Iraq.

One thing in particular I like and respect about Sgt. Devore is that he has demonstrated a real sense of concern towards the Iraqi people around him. All soldiers care about the guys in their unit, but it takes a real sense of humanity to extend that thinking to people on the street, especially when some of those people may resent you. I honestly think if the US Army had a few more guys like Sgt. Devore and a few less guys like Charles Graner, the whole Abu Ghraib fiasco would have never happened, the US Army would have had a much easier ride in Iraq, and they would be respected today by most Iraqis as being level-headed and fair.

Sgt. Devore's best friend was killed by a sniper last week.

Sgt. Devore is a good man, and I really hate when bad things happen to good people. Last week, after Sgt. Devore's friend was shot dead by a sniper, Sgt. Devore was sent off to Qatar to clear his head, and his last post can give you an idea of how well he is taking it:

I curse my life. I cures the fact that I am left behind to remember. Why me? I do not deserve to live. I should have died. Why was I not killed? If I was the sniper I would have shot me. I was in the gun. I was the obvious target. Why not me?

This guy needs some support.

I left Sgt. Devore a nice comment yesterday, and I was glad to see that Hassan, my Iraqi friend in Baghdad, had left Sgt. Devore a comment also. For anyone else reading this, I would personally appreciate it if you click on this link and write something nice to Sgt. Devore also.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Iraqi Fuel Shortages: the real cause

Several of the Iraqi bloggers commented this past week that long lines have returned to gas stations in Iraq. What they haven't really talked about is why. One of my Iraqi friends tells me that gas stations have resorted to a simple measure to control lines: if your license plate ends in an odd number, you can only buy gas on odd-numbered days, and likewise for even numbers on even days. Despite this, lines for gas stations are half a mile long, and it can take 6 hours or more of waiting in line to get the gas tank filled up.

One might easily wonder how, in a country so rich in oil, that there would be a such a shortage of gasoline. The answer is simple: government subsidies.

Gas stations in Iraq are mostly government-owned, and the fuel they sell is heavily subsidized. According to one of my friends in Baghdad, a litre of gasoline in a government-owned gas station sells for 100 dinars, and on the black market for 350 dinars. When you convert these to US dollars and gallons, this equates to $0.25 per gallon at the official gas stations, and $0.88 per gallon on the black market, both well below the fair-market cost of the gasoline.

Let's do a little math here: a barrel of crude oil costs about $60 on the open market now, and a barrel contains 42 gallons, so crude oil costs $1.40 per gallon on today's market. If you consider that it costs about $0.30 per gallon to refine the crude oil into gasoline, and another $0.10 to transport it and run the gas station, you are left with a cost of $1.80 per gallon of gasoline. And yet, Iraqis are only paying $0.25 per gallon at the fuel pumps. Meanwhile, here in America, we pay over $2 per gallon of gasoline, and in parts of Europe, it is over $5 per gallon.

These artificially low fuel prices in Iraq are a legacy of Saddam Hussein. After Saddam was overthrown by the US invasion, the American administration did not want to infuriate Iraqis by having them see a sharp spike in gas prices, and so they continued Saddam's policy. For a period of over nine months in 2004, American taxpayers paid $200 million dollars per month to import gasoline from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to meet Iraq's demand and ease the fuel lines. And now, since the reins of government were handed over to the Iraqis, these imports and subsidies have been paid for by the Iraqi government.

One might argue that in a country rich with oil, it does not actually cost anything to give the oil away to the people, however, this is a fallacy. Oil and gasoline are both commodities - in other words, it doesn't matter where it comes from, it has the same value. So, if you have a commodity like oil or gasoline and choose to give it away rather than selling it for fair-market value, you are giving up the revenue you would have made from selling it. And, I am sure Iraq could sorely use this revenue for rebuilding, education, and fixing the electrical grid.

One major problem that is caused by subsidized gasoline is smuggling. You don't have to be terribly ingenious to figure out that if you can buy gasoline at a regular gas pump at $0.25 per gallon in Iraq, and sell it for $2 per gallon in Turkey, you can make a decent living smuggling gasoline out of Iraq. And, every gallon of fuel that is smuggled out of Iraq is a gallon less that is available at the local gas pumps. Some analysts have figured that this smuggling problem is the main reason for the current fuel shortage in Iraq.

Another problem with subsidized fuel is that it artificially inflates demand, and can allow demand to reach unsustainable levels. Prior to the Iraq war, Iraqi demand for gasoline was 15 million litres per day. Today, thanks to an influx of automobiles and electrical generators, the demand is 23 million litres per day. And, many of these consumers are driving cars they could not afford to maintain if fuel was selling at market prices.

Unfortunately, the basic nature of subsidies does not provide much of an incentive for the Iraqi government to fix the supply situation, since every gallon of subsidized gasoline they sell is another dollar of government money down the toilet.

The Solution

The true solution to this problem is to stop subsidizing gasoline, and to allow the free market to determine fuel prices. This will ensure a steady fuel supply, and free up taxpayer funds that can be used for other purposes (healthcare, fixing infrastructure, etc.). Unfortunately, this solution would probably not be very popular, and would probably need to be rolled out in stages to avoid shock waves rippling through the already fragile Iraqi economy. But, sooner or later, this will probably need to be done, or this problem will remain with Iraq indefinitely, and as the demand for gasoline continues to rise, the subsidies on it will increasingly sap tax dollars away from more important projects.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Canada's Military: freedom isn't free

Canada's Missile Defense System Posted by Hello

A few days ago, one of my readers Annette commented here that "Canadians are allowed to appear passive because they have the U.S. on its borders doing the dirty work for them." Annette's comment is only partially true: Canada is not passive because they have the US here to do the dirty work, they are considered passive because their government is too cheap to buy the Canadian military the equipment they need to be truly effective in what they do.

Canada has participated actively in most of the military actions the US has been involved in: World War II, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, the NATO operation against Yugoslavia, and the NATO invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, in the past 30 years, the only US wars that Canada has not been involved in are the Vietnam War, and the current Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, Canada's military has been so short-changed by years of government neglect that its contributions cannot help but be dwarfed by the American contribution.

In Yugoslavia, for example, Canadian CF-18 fighter jets were very active: Canadian laser-guided bombs accurately hit their targets 75% of the time, and Canadian pilots were well regarded enough that Canadian pilots led more than half of the joint missions in which they were involved. However, since Canada only sent eighteen CF-18 fighter jets out of approximately 800 airplanes involved in that mission, Canada's military contribution was just a drop in the bucket. And, since Canada does not have any refueling aircraft, Canada's contribution to the Yugoslavia operation was delayed, waiting for American refueling planes to ferry the Canadian fighter jets across the Atlantic.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reading Shaking Hands with the Devil, the first-hand account Romeo Dallaire of the Rwandan genocide ten years ago. Dallaire was the Canadian general commanding the United Nations effort in Rwanda. Dallaire's book describes one of the skills the Canadian troops had significant experience with, and which they found very handy in Rwanda: scrounging. When your government doesn't give you the equipment you need to do the job, you have to beg, borrow, buy, and occasionally steal just to get the job done. Canadian soldiers have been forced to become experts at making do with what they have, at at the classic art of scrounging for what they need to do the job, and as a result their lives have been unnecessarily put at risk. A number of Canadian pilots have been killed in the old and decrepit Sea King (a.k.a. "Sea Thing") helicopters, and as I wrote a few months ago, several Canadian sailors were hurt when one of the used lemon submarines they bought from Britain broke down on the way back to Canada.

Canada's chronic neglect of its military is a source of shame for me, and should be a source of shame for many Canadians. As a Canadian, I feel proud of our Canadian soldiers, who have proven themselves effective despite the lack of support from Canada's government, but I feel ashamed that Canada's government has put them in that situation. And, I feel a particular sense of shame that our allied brothers and sisters (America, Britain, Germany, etc.) have been holding up Canada's end of the load in terms of defence. Canada is a rich country, and does not need to accept other countries' charity like that.

Canadian soldiers have made a valuable contribution to a number of joint actions, and have been particularly prized for their support of United Nations peacekeeping missions. Given that these missions are such a source of pride for Canadians, why does Canada's government neglect the military by denying them the funding and the equipment they need to be truly effective?

Canada's military spending is a national disgrace, and a slap in the face to my father, my grandfather, and all the honourable men and women before them who served in the Canadian Forces. I do hope the Canadian government wakes up soon and starts giving military spending the attention it deserves.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Why I am Bullish on Iraq

I live about a 20 minute drive from Wall Street, the financial capital of the world. Wall Street is often described as a war between a bull and a bear: the bear representing falling prices, and the bull representing rising prices. A "bull market" is one that is rising, and a stock trader might say he is "bullish" on a particular stock offering if he thinks it is going to go up in the future. Usually, a trader would throw money at an offering he is bullish on, thinking it will rise in the future.

In this same context, I'm very bullish on Iraq right now. I have a few reasons to think this way:

Reason #1: Iraq's education system

Saddam did a lot of bad things, but he did at least one good thing: investing in education. Education in Iraq is free, right through university, and children in Iraq learn English in school as a second language similar to how Americans learn Spanish. The result is a large number of Iraqis who are capable of working in fields like technology and engineering.

India is successful in the outsourcing business right now for this exact reason, and there is no reason why Iraq could not enjoy success in the same way.

Reason #2: American Idealism

America may have invaded Iraq for the wrong reasons (non-existant WMDs, etc.) but they are remaining in Iraq for the right reasons. America could easily pull out now, but this would leave Iraq in an unstable state similar to how we left Somalia in the early 1990s. America has wagered too much of its own resources to be content with leaving Iraq in the hands of terrorists and thugs, and George Bush has wagered his legacy on the outcome of this war. I know under these circumstances that the US will not quit until Iraq is both stable and successful.

It has been a long time since the United States has made a "pet project" out of transforming and growing a country, but the US has a good track record on its past "pet projects": Japan, Germany, and South Korea are three of them. Hopefully, Iraq will be the fourth to add to that list.

I have sometimes been critical of some actions of certain American troops in Iraq, but I am overall very supportive of their efforts to stabilize the country and to help it to grow.

Reason #3: Democratic Trends within Iraq

Under Saddam, satellite dishes were illegal, news was limited to government-controlled media outlets, and the Internet was both censored and monitored by government authorities. Since the war, satellite dishes have sprouted from houses and Internet cafes and ISPs have drawn an increasing number of Iraqis into the world of the Net.

The Internet is a very powerful equalizing tool - anybody can publish on the Internet, and anybody can read what is published. People can talk with each other without regard to age, sex, religion, or even location. Very powerful.

With these changes, I've noticed some interesting trends, at least among the Iraqi bloggers. They have developed a willingness to question, and to criticize. Some Americans may blanch at the likes of Riverbend, Khalid Jarrar, and Truth Teller leveling criticism at their troops, but think about it: these same people would probably have never dared level this type of criticism at Saddam. The fact that Iraqis are willing to criticize American troops even when there is an American tank parked in front of their house is a positive development.

In a true democracy, you shouldn't expect everyone to like you, or to think the same way as you, you just expect everyone to be free to speak their minds.

This freedom of expression is the true root of democracy. As long as nobody comes along and forcibly takes this root from Iraqis, democracy will develop and flourish in Iraq on its own without anyone's help.

Reason #4: Investor knowledge

Two years ago, I did not know much about Iraq. I could point it out on a globe, but did not know much about the place. Since then, I followed the news, learned more about the place, and in my case, I even befriended a couple of fellow bloggers who live over there, who have helped me to learn more about Iraq and its culture.

I know I am not alone in this type of learning experience.

Wall Street is filled with many smart people, who like to pay attention to world news, and figure out where to channel investment capital. For these people, Iraq should have a lot of positive qualities, but has one overwhelming negative quality: the security situation. Security problems translate into business risk, and investors hate risk.

But, when the security situation in Iraq starts to improve, it may find itself a fertile ground for foreign investment, as those investors who have been impressed with the other aspects of Iraq may start channeling investment capital towards Iraq.

And, if this comes to fruition, it will stimulate Iraq's economy and translate into increased success and opportunity for Iraq's citizens. Of course, none of this is certain, but I am bullish enough on the odds that I am willing to bet my own money on it. I'm sure I am not alone in this either.

Monday, June 20, 2005

US Army in Iraq: The Police as the Target

Let's imagine we decided to make a small change in the police force here in New York City: instead of driving police cars, have them drive around in Brinks armored trucks with a million dollars in cash in the back of each. And, whenever they go out on foot patrol, we'd make them carry thousands of dollars worth of diamonds in their pocket. And, while we're at it, we'll store a sizeable stash of gold bullion in every police station.

Let's think about what would happen. Criminals would stop robbing banks and burglarizing houses, and focus their attention on robbing the police instead. The police's focus would shift from protecting the community to protecting themselves. And, while they would get good at protecting themselves, this would erode their effectiveness as police officers.

Would that make New York a safer place? Obviously not. And, while this whole question may sound asinine, this is not far off the situation the American army is working with in Iraq.

Yesterday, I was chatting with an Iraqi friend who lives in Baghdad, and I sent him a link to a news article. He was incredulous at seeing this picture below, of a Canadian military patrol driving in traffic in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was shocked that there were cars and people driving along the street around the military patrol, with people just carrying on as if the soldiers were not there. As he told me, you would never see anything like this in Baghdad: the US soldiers would shoot anyone who gets closer than 50 meters to them.

A Canadian military patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan
Photo: Sgt Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera Posted by Hello

One might wonder why the Canadian troops are able to drive freely in Kabul with this type of impunity. Is it because they are somehow better armed or better trained? Definitely not! The Canadian troops can operate like this because they know they are not targets. Nobody really hates Canada, so there isn't a big interest in attacking Canadian troops. As a result, the Canadian troops can drive around Kabul in the middle of traffic without being overly concerned about their own safety.

The US military is the most effective fighting force in the world, and unfortunately, this also makes them the biggest target in the world. If you are a terrorist and want to lash out at the "Great Satan", you don't need to send people all the way to the US - you can just load up a car full of explosives, drive across the border to Iraq, and find your target driving around in Humvees. One might easily wonder what percentage of the Iraqi insurgency have no real interest in Iraq, and are only fighting because they want to hit out at the United States.

The result is that the American troops who are trying to provide security in Iraq instead become the biggest targets in town. And, this hurts their effectiveness, since they are forced to focus on protecting themselves rather than providing security.

I am sure the US army is painfully aware of this problem. What is less obvious is what the solution to it is.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Iran: Our's lost opportunity at reconciliation

Like many Westerners, the name "Iran" brings back unpleasant memories to me of a glaring Ayatollah Khomeini on the TV screen, chants of "Death to America", the ordeal of American hostages being held in the American embassy in Tehran, and oppression of women. However, while many of us in the West continue to be haunted by these memories, Iran has made some progress over the past two decades.

Eight years ago, Iran elected a reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, whose vision for Iran included warmer relations with the West along with political reforms. As late as 2000, Khatami extended an olive branch through the US news media, speaking of the desire to establish cultural exchanges with the US in an attempt to improve relations.

Then, 9/11 happened, and Iran was lumped into the "Axis of Evil" in Bush's post-9/11 speech, sending Khatami a message telling him where he could shove his olive branch, and putting Iran/US relations back by several years. And now this week, Iran is going through another presidential election, and Khatami is blocked by Iran's constitution from seeking a third term. Our failure to improve relations with Iran during Khatami's presidency is really a missed opportunity: the two finalists in this week's Iranian presidential election are Hashemi Rafsanjani (who has been president of Iran twice previously) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline former mayor of Tehran, neither of whom are likely to be more sympathetic to the West than Khatami.

There is an old saying, medicine goes down better with a spoonful of sugar than a spoonful of salt. Iran is like this. If we want Iran to modernize, the best way to accomplish this is to be supportive to Iranian leaders like Khatami who are promoting modernization. By lumping Iran into the "Axis of Evil" and shoving Khatami's olive branch back in his face, we only succeeded in allowing Iranian hardliners to further marginalize Khatami, further setting back the clock in terms of Iranian internal reform, and Iran's relations with the West.

Hashemi Rafsanjani has been running on a platform of better relations with the West. I only hope he means it, and that our leaders in the West do not give his entreaties the same response we gave Khatami's.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Housing Boom or Housing Bubble?

Last week, I read an article in Time that I found really annoying, talking about the housing boom in the United States. For me, I am renting an apartment, and am staying out of the housing market for one big reason: it looks way too much like the Nasdaq did around 1999.

Think back to the late 1990s and year 2000, where people were still talking about the "New Economy" that was going up and would never go down, and the "Goldilocks Expansion" (not too hot, not too cold), etc. Thousands of people pulled their life savings out of stable investments and threw it into this bull market, only to have the rug yanked out from under them in 2001. The bull market of the late 1990s and early 2000 was like an oversized Ponzi scheme; growing only by the virtue of all the other suckers piling their money into it. And, like the original Ponzi scheme in the 1920s, most of the suckers in the Nasdaq bubble got burned when it burst.

Today's housing market seems way too much like the "New Economy" Nasdaq for my liking. People are throwing around the same type of analogies, that that real-estate is a good investment, and that housing will continue to increase for the forseeable future. Personally, I am sceptical for two main reasons:

Reason #1: Interest Rates

The housing boom today is being fueled by historically low interest rates. Many people have responded to these low interest rates by taking out variable-interest mortages, and by buying a more expensive home than they could really afford.

For these people, the Grim Reaper cometh - in the form of higher interest rates.

As the economy continues to expand, inflation will become more of a factor, and interest rates will go up. All of a sudden, that mortgage payment that was affordable at 4% becomes unaffordable at 8%, and the homeowner is forced to sell, along with many other homeowners.

But, at the same time, the higher interest rates make the housing market less attractive for buyers, leaving the for-sale sign on the homeowner's front lawn for months. Eventually, the homeowner gets desperate to sell, and starts cutting his asking price, eventually selling his home for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than he paid for it - leaving the poor guy on the hook to the bank for the balance.

Enough of this type of selling pattern could produce a glut in housing availability, and precipitate a crash in the housing market.

Reason #2:

Also lending into the current housing boom is the spending patterns of the post-war Baby Boomers. In the next few years, these Baby Boomers will start to retire, and will probably seek to move in large numbers to lower-cost areas (Florida, etc.) and away from higher-cost areas (New York, northern California, etc.).

If this migration occurs at around the same time as Reason #1, this could exacerbate a housing market crash fueled by interest rates.

Some economists have commented that the housing market could not crash like the Nasdaq did, arguing that a house has "intrinsic value" unlike stocks because you can live in a house. Personally, I think this argument is hogwash: mortgages (especially the variable-rate variety) are loans just like the margin accounts that got so many consumers in trouble in 2001, and what the brokers refer to as a "margin call" the banks call "foreclosure". Except with a margin call, you are sitting home cursing your broker, but with a foreclosure you're out on the street.

In short, this housing market may look attractive right now, but seems way to perilous for me. Ten years ago, I was a homeowner, and two years ago, I was a landlord. Now, I am just a tenant. I cashed my chips in because of my concerns about this unstable housing market, and I still believe I was right to do so. If this market crashes, it will be painful to see millions of people lose their life savings, but at least mine won't be part of the crash.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

America's big game of Whack a Mole: the "war" on drugs

Today I'm going to talk about a war that America and other Western countries have clearly been losing. No, not the war in Iraq, and no, not the war on terror either. I'm talking about the self-styled "war on drugs" that has been waged by successive US presidents. And, this is a war the US is clearly losing.

Think about this: despite all the taxpayer dollars that are going towards drug enforcement, how many Americans who want access to illicit drugs are unable to buy them? Not very many. For those willing to pay the price, drugs are still very available, from the street-corner drug pushers in the housing projects, to the guys wearing suits peddling cocaine to the high-roller stock traders on Wall Street.

Why? The law of supply and demand: when the demand stays the same, and the supply is short, the price goes up.

America's "war" on drugs has spent almost all of its effort targeting the supply of drugs, and very little effort targeting the demand. In targeting the supply, America has successfully taken some of the drugs off the market, but not all of them, and this pushes up the price for the remaining drugs. As the price goes up, the dealer's profit margin goes up, and the expense to which he/she is willing to go to import drugs goes up with it.

Having spent enough time in Jamaica, and having met a couple of farmers down there who grow marijuana for a living, I know that a typical price the dealers pay the farmer there for a pound of marijuana is about $20 per pound. That same pound of marijuana will sell for about $1,000 on the street corner here in the United States. Knowing this, is there any wonder why you see the DEA drug-dog pacing around the immigration area whenever a flight from Jamaica arrives, or that you hear about tourists being arrested with suitcases packed full of marijuana? Think about the windfall one of these tourists could make if he/she gets through - you spend $400 in Jamaica on something, then sell it for $20,000 up here. And that is just marijuana - perhaps the least potent illicit drug, and one of the cheapest and most readily available.

On the other side of the spectrum you have cocaine, which is one of the most expensive drugs on the street. Cocaine is a naturally occurring substance that is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. Drug dealers have become very crafty with ways of sneaking cocaine into the country, including fast boats, airplanes, people swallowing condoms full of cocaine, etc. They have found ways of dissolving cocaine in bottles of imported rum (for later extraction), soaking sweaters with a cocaine-soaked solution for later drying and packing in suitcases, putting false compartments in suitcases or shipping containers, bribing airport workers and customs agents, etc.

America's drug eradication program seems like a game of "whack a mole" like one might play at a fair. You take the mallet and whack a mole, but no sooner do you do it that others pop up, and keep popping up over and over. You whack some, but others slip by. The more drugs the American government is successful at removing, the higher the price will be for the remaining drugs, and the higher the expense and effort a drug dealer will be willing to undertake to circumvent the American system.

America's war on drugs bears a striking similarity to an earlier failed effort: prohibition. Back in the 1920s, America banned the sale of alcoholic beverages. Did that stop anyone from having a drink? No, it just drove the price up, and made guys like Al Capone and his Mafia rich. Likewise, today's "war" on drugs is only serving to drive the price up and channel money into the hands of criminals, gangs, and terrorists. If you criminalize something, than the only place you can buy it is from a criminal.

America needs to get serious here - either tinkle or get off the potty. Either take the "war" on drugs seriously and impose severe punishments on the users of recreational drugs, or stop this ludicrous "war" and legalize them. The way things are now, by targeting only the supply and not the demand, is not working, and is feeding crime problems in inner-city America, as well as other countries like Jamaica, Mexico, and Colombia. Legalizing some of these drugs would allow America to better control the drugs' use, and would prevent all of this money from being channeled into the hands of criminals.

Friday, June 10, 2005


This evening, I just got back from Manhattan, seeing the Broadway show Wicked. Wicked is interesting - it is based on the old movie The Wizard of Oz, except that in Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West is the heroine of the story, not the villain.

Wicked is the story about a girl named Elphaba (who later grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West) growing up in a place called Oz who was made fun of throughout life because of a deformity (green skin). When she was going to college, she saw some things she didn't like, where animals (who could think and talk in Oz, and even be a professor in college) were being locked in cages and being prevented from speaking. Then one day her history professor (who was a goat), was dragged off and replaced by a guy teaching people that animals belong in cages, and Elphaba startst to rebel against the system and the status quo. Later, Elphaba is invited to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard of Oz, but when she realizes that the Wizard is the epicenter of the system, and the instigator of all of the bad things she has seen, and rebels against his rule, and is demonized by the Wizard's "press agent" as the "Wicked Witch of the West", causing the Munchkin people go off hunting her with pitchforks because she has dared to assail the system they know.

I won't spoil the ending of this one - you'll have to go see the show if you want that part. It is very good, and well worth the trip to Broadway.

Many Broadway shows and operas are all about symbolism, and Wicked had an extra dose of it tossed in for good measure. You cannot sit through the show and not realize that there is an additional meaning that the writers wanted you to take away with you. Perhaps nothing better summarizes this than the Wizard of Oz himself in this excerpt from the Wicked lyrics:

Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren't true. We call it - "history."

(sung) A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist*

Of course, anyone who ever watched the movie The Wizard of Oz knows that the "where I'm from" the Wizard is referring to is America. And Elphaba is someone who is standing up to the system, and to the policies of the government in power. The big unanswered question for me is which minority group "animals" are supposed to symbolise in this play: I can think of a few possibilities here.

In any case, Wicked was definitely an interesting show, and one I'd recommend to anyone reading this to go see it.

*Note: These lyrics are the property and copyright of their owner, and are included here for learning purposes only.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Family Feud at ITM?

A few days ago, I noticed that the links on Iraq the Model (one of the most read Iraqi blogs) had changed around a bit. So, being curious, I went to Google and pulled up a cached copy of their blog from January and compared it with today, and found a few very interesting things: the Fadhil brothers had not only added a few links, they also rearranged a couple, and deleted some:

It is easy to understand why they moved Neurotic Iraqi Wife to the top of the list - after all, she's an Iraqi expat who decided to move back to Baghdad, and I can see why the Fadhil brothers would like that. It is also easy to understand why they deleted Kurdistan Youngs and Iraq & Iraqis - after all, these blogs had gone for several months without being updated by their owners.

But, deleting their brother Ali's blog and A Star from Mosul is much more interesting, since both of these blogs are regularly updated, and both are very popular in their own right. Let's think about this: a blogger may add a link to another blog for many reasons. But, they will only delete a link for two reasons, one being that they see the other blog is not being updated, and the other because they disagree with something the other blogger wrote, and no longer want their blog to advertise the presence of the other blog.

For A Star from Mosul, it's hard to say why the Fadhil brothers might have taken their link to it down. Perhaps they don't like that Najma's father has been critical to US troops on his blog, or maybe they don't like something Najma wrote herself. Who knows? What is more interesting, though, is taking down the link to their own brother's blog. Now that is an action that provokes some curiosity.

For Ali's blog, I am betting this has something to do with the whole Spirit of America (SoA) and Friends of Democracy (FoD) scandal that Ali dredged up on his blog. You may recall that Ali, Omar, and Mohammed were all involved in Friends of Democracy (and helped found it). A few months ago, after visiting the US with his brothers, Ali inexplicably quit ITM to start his own blog, and just a few weeks ago, Ali told the world that he had quit ITM because he had become suspicious of the motives of SoA. Evidently, his brothers (who still work with SoA) must have really taken offense to that so much that they took his link down. Personally, I'd have to be very angry to take down the link to my own brother's blog, and it seems the Fadhil brothers were that angry. It would be interesting to know if Ali even talks to his brothers these days after airing that scandal on his blog.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Age Discrimination

A few years ago, I was hiring for a technical position and spent several days phone-screening candidates for the job. Then, one day, I got a guy on the phone who really impressed me. I interviewed him over the phone for an hour and realized this guy was one of the most amazingly technical people I'd ever met. So, I arranged to meet him over dinner for a second interview with me and my former boss. When I had been talking to him on the phone, I'd developed a mental picture of him - I imagined him as tall, slim, about 32 years old, and with glasses, and a moustache. Well, I was right on three out of the five: he had no moustache... and he was 76!

I remember sitting there over dinner thinking to myself how incredible that was. Here I was talking to someone who knew computer technology as well as anyone I'd met, and yet he was the same age as my grandfather. Here was a man who would have been in his late thirties at the time the first ever commercial mainframe computer (the UNIVAC 1) was produced; and who probably never had his hands on a computer until he was in his late forties or early fifties. And yet, he was able to function, and indeed excel in the technology industry. And, of course, we had a very pleasant dinner with the man, and hired him at the end of it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience. The man I interviewed for a technical job wasn't 76, but he certainly had a full head of grey hair - and, he was the best candidate of the lot I interviewed. He will be starting work for me next week.

Unfortunately, there are many managers out there who do not think the same way I do. They hold onto the old mentality that it is better to hire someone who is young and who they can "mold", and they tell themselves that old dogs cannot learn new tricks. But, they fail to realize that most workers today (young or old) do not stay at a job for longer than a few years, and by holding onto this outdated mentality, they are depriving themselves of a large segment of potentially qualified workers. From my experience, older workers may be more set in their ways, but they also bring with them a lot of maturity and are often better able to maintain their composure in stressful situations. A major technical problem that would make a younger technician panic would likely be handled calmly by an older technician.

Decades ago, people set a norm that people retire at 65 years old. Pension plans kick in when you turn 65, Social Security here in the United States kicks in at 65 (soon to be 67), and in some countries (Canada, unfortunately, being one of them) employers often force workers to retire at 65. What some people fail to realize is that when this age was chosen, people were only expected to live to about 65 years old - anything above this was living on borrowed time. However today, with modern medicine, longevity expectations are going up, and I expect by the time I reach that age, the average life expectancy here will be over 100. Ask yourself, does retiring at 65 and being in a retired state for 35 years really make sense in this context? I think not.

Another thing people often don't realize is that we humans thrive on stress. Seniors who engage in mildly stressful activities (working, going back to college, etc.) keep their brains young, and avert the mental decline that tends to affect those who allow themselves to be put out to pasture.

I am still relatively young myself, but I have personally seen enough examples to realize that I will have lots of time to be retired after I am dead. And, until that time, I have no intention of putting myself out to pasture, and would hate anyone to make that decision for me by forcing me into "mandatory retirement" or by refusing to hire me because of my age. I only hope more managers develop my outlook on this issue before I have to worry about it.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Happy Birthday HNK!

Today (June 3) is the 16th birthday of hnk, a blogger from Mosul, Iraq. Please drop by her blog and wish her a happy birthday!