Monday, October 31, 2005

Out for a Week

I'm going away on vacation this week, and will be out until November 9. So, don't expect to see any new posts 'til then.

To all my Muslim friends, I wish you all a safe and joyous Eid al-Fitr later this week with your families. Eid Mubarak and see you all next week.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Messing with Metaphors: The Foot in Mouth Award

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language -- compare SIMILE

Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Metaphors are things we all learn in high school, but most of us aren't very good at using them. When you use a metaphor, you explain a concept by drawing an analogy to another concept. What is funny with metaphors is sometimes the reader doesn't realize you're using one, and may take what you say literally, drawing a completely different meaning from what you're saying.

A really hillarious example of that just like that happened yesterday in the blogosphere. Last week, Truth Teller closed his comments section, and a few days ago, my friend Najma wrote a post about it, where she used a metaphor, referring to her dad's comments section as his "second wife", who "took too much of his time, and he wasn't being fair enough to mom when it comes to dividing time between the two wives." She was drawing an analogy between her dad's comments section and the provision in Islam where some men will have multiple wives (but are supposed to treat each wife equally).

Of course, anyone who knows Najma and her family would know she wasn't being serious. Her family is very progressive, where men each have one wife, and women tend to have their own careers independent of their husbands. Najma's mom is a university professor, her older sister is a physician, and many of her female relatives are professionals (doctors, engineers, dentists, etc.).

A few days ago, when Najma first wrote that post, she asked my opinion on it. I thought the metaphor was brilliant, but I wondered in my mind whether some readers may not quite get it. Najma's post linked to her dad's post (where he said he was closing his comments section), so I'd think most people would clue in it was a metaphor. But, some people, it seems just aren't that observant....

Sure enough, someone at Iraq Bloggers Central found Najma's post and started an discussion in the comments section there:

Any comment on the momentary expansion of the Family in Mosul? (I'm still fumbling around the floor, trying to find my jaw.)Michael in Framingham Email Homepage 10.27.05 - 8:50 pm #

Michael in Framingham,"momentary expansion"? What happened?CMAR II
Email Homepage 10.28.05 - 9:50 am #

CMAR II,Well, I guess it really amounts to little, an illustration of "other countries, other customs." I admit to some true shock, and, perhaps less respectably, some amusement. Star of Mosul, Aunt Najma, presented a post on Oct 27, "Second Wife." Her father, Citizen of Mosul, Truth Teller has a second wife. Perhaps it has been mentioned before, in a post I haven't read, but it's news to me. So, the known size of a Family in Mosul suddenly expanded.Of course, I know that Moslems are allowed four wives under the Koran. This man, however, is the first person I've encountered--if reading and commenting on his blog count as "encountering"--who actually does it. I've read that it is becoming less fashionable among Moslems, especially educated, westernized ones. Truth Teller said he is a doctor and has been in the US. He also indicated that he is a devout Moslem.I wonder about his posts on family trips to Kurdistan and the trip to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Did both wives participate? If the second wife stayed home, does she get exclusive trips with Truth Teller, while Najma and her family stay home? No mention.Najma's post, however, announces that her father just divorced his second wife. The known size of the Family in Mosul thus almost immediately shrank back to where it started.Najma repeatedly says that she hates the second wife, for taking too much of her father's time. Ill feeling between multiple wives and their children is an obvious risk of the custom. This episode is a sad example of the risk.An unclear point is that she may be indicating that her father is divorcing his second wife by sending her an email! Under Muslim religious law, apparently, a husband can divorce a wife unilaterally and verbally. A wife cannot divorce a husband as easily. One doubtful thing about this interpretation of events is that Iraq currently has a civil law for women that is very different from sharia.Michael in Framingham Email Homepage 10.28.05 - 7:21 pm

Michael,My immediate reaction to Najma's post was a racy "WTF." And you may append anywhere between two to four exclamation points to the end of that "WTF" in your attempt to approximate my surprise.Little ol' Najma with TWO MOTHERS. Man, THAT's how SPECIAL that girl is!I guess ONE would not have been enough to bring her to term.Heh.*Jeffrey -- New York Email
Homepage 10.28.05 - 10:42 pm #

I laughed my head off for about half an hour when I saw this comment chain - I can't believe anyone took Najma literally on this one. Najma and Hassan both got a good laugh out of this too.

To Michael in Framingham and Jeffrey, in honour of your superior metaphor comprehension skills, and in particular to Michael for your brilliant and detailed analysis, I am pleased to present you both with the Foot in Mouth Award. Congratulations to you both on a splendid achievement!

Friday, October 28, 2005

What to Do about Iran

Tsk, tsk, tsk.... what a lovely mess we have on our hands in the Middle East. Just when we thought Iran was starting to come around, this happens. First, Iran's new hardline leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a conference in Tehran called "A World without Zionism" and gave a speech calling Israel a blot that needs to be "wiped off the map." Then, while Iran's diplomats were busy trying to downplay his remarks, Ahmadinejad held a large anti-Israel rally in Tehran and there described his prior remarks as "just" and that criticism of them from Western countries "did not have any validity."

Ahmadinejad's remarks under normal circumstances would be simply annoying. However, when you couple them with the fact that Iran has recently thumbed its nose to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and restarted its nuclear program, they become quite alarming.

Now, I admit that many Middle Eastern countries do not think highly of Israel, but even they realize that coming out with an inflammatory statement like this, a statement that could easily be interpreted as an open declaration of war, is not a good idea.

These remarks could not have come at a worse time for Iran. Just a week ago, Russia, a traditional ally of Iran, and one with a permanent seat (and veto) on the UN Security Council was actively resisting calls to sanction Iran for its pursuance of its nuclear program. Yesterday, this all changed: Russia joined the European Union, Canada, the USA, China, and several other countries in denouncing Ahmadinejad's remarks.

Which suggests the obvious question: what do we do about all this? Do we allow Iran to continue in its present path, developing nuclear technology while uttering warlike statements like the ones uttered by Ahmadinejad this week? Do we allow ourselves to go on wondering if sometime Iran will put its money where its mouth is and attack? Do we allow this to drag out until Iran develops a workable nuclear bomb and becomes a much more sizeable threat? Or, do we take action to put a stop to it first? I am sure these questions, or ones like them, are being tossed around this week in at least a few government offices around the world.

Unfortunately for Iran, Ahmadinejad's remarks seem to have severely damaged any credibility his regime might have, and has alienated many countries that would otherwise have been prepared to give Iran the benefit of the doubt. And so, it now seems quite possible that there is enough of a groundswell against Iran in the world community that any punitive action against Iran might be under the mantle of the United Nations.

Ahmadinejad has also opened his country up to the possibility of a preemptive strike by Israel - a strike aimed to eliminate Iran's nuclear capabilities. Israel has done this sort of thing in the past to stymie the nuclear ambitions of its neighbors: in 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak reactor to derail Saddam's nuclear weapons program. Until this week, fear of the backlash from the world community was perhaps the only thing holding Israel back. Now, after Ahmadinejad's ill-conceived remarks, a preemptive strike by Israel would not likely provoke much backlash at all.

All of which should leave Iranians asking one question: what the hell were we thinking when we elected this guy?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Iraq Referendum Results

Well, the results are in: the constitution passed the referendum in Iraq by a comfortable margin. Nineveh did vote "no", but only with a 55% majority, a full 12 percentage points short of the 67% required to veto the constitution.

As for the rest of Iraq, the referendum had a 63% turnout, and the constitution passed by a wide margin, with over 78% of voters casting a "yes" ballot, and in 11 out of Iraq's 18 provinces (all Kurdish and Shia dominated areas), the votes was over 95% "yes".

While there will undoubtedly be allegations of fraud, the voting and the subsequent counting process was monitored by United Nations observers. Carina Perelli, the chief of the UN Electoral Assistance division said the referendum "has been audited, controlled - it has been done really in a very professional way." UN observers are important in a referendum like this, since they are impartial, and do not have a hidden agenda. The Americans have an agenda - they would prefer to see the constitution pass, since they think this will allow them to bring their troops home sooner, but the UN is the world body that refused to sanction the war in Iraq, and where most member-countries oppose the US presence in Iraq. The UN has nothing to gain either way the referendum result falls, so having them observe the referendum can help guarantee fairness.

As I mentioned in my last post, there is no such thing as a perfect election - here in the United States, we have over 200 years of practice in holding elections, and we still have minor election irregularities. The key question is whether these irregularities are enough to skew the vote count enough to change the result. In the case of the Iraq referendum, the turnout was sufficient, and the constitution passed by such a wide margin that nothing short of a fraud on a massive scale would be enough to skew the vote count far enough to change the result. And, it is highly unlikely that a fraud this massive could be perpetuated without the UN observers catching wind of it.

So, in summary, the vote results are in, and the constitution passed by what appears to have been a fair voting process. I only hope some Iraqis are able to learn the next lesson in successful democracy: how to lose a vote gracefully.

The full election results can be found here.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Iraq Referendum: Florida deja-vu

Last week, I wrote a post about the parallels between the Iraq referendum and the 2000 American presidential election. Over the past few days, it has been apparent that my predictions seem to be coming true. In 2000, the American presidential election came down to the results of one state (Florida), and it seems this whole Iraq referendum is coming down to one province (Nineveh), home to the City of Mosul.

And, like Florida, there have been some allegations of voting irregularities in Mosul. The Chicago Tribune describes Nineveh as, "one of the four provinces from which results are being audited after UN observers monitoring the count noted suspiciously high turnouts at some polling stations, as well as suspiciously high numbers of 'yes' votes at some of them."

The key question here will be how many "no" votes were cast in Nineveh. It is not sufficient for a simple majority of voters in Mosul to have rejected the constitution: at least 67% will need to have voted "no". This is a bit more complex to predict than meets the eye. Mosul is an ethnically mixed city of 1.7 million people, including Sunni Arabs, Turkomen, Kurds, and a smaller minority of Chaldeans and Assyrians. Like most of Iraq, Mosul is overdue for a census, so there are no accurate numbers of exactly how many of each ethnic group reside there, although it is generally known that Sunni Arabs make up a slight majority.

It is also unclear what percentage of each group voted for or against the constititution. While the general mood in Mosul may have been against the constitution, and while most Sunni Arabs likely did vote against it, I personally know of at least three Sunni Arabs in Mosul who voted "yes". And, with the angry mood and threat of violence in Mosul, and the fact the voting was based on secret-ballot, someone might easily tell his friends and family he voted "no" while he really voted "yes".

Whenever the final referendum results come out this week, I expect there will be a lot of controversy. This is, I am sure, why they are taking the time on the count. It must be very close - if it wasn't, I expect they would have announced the results already.

Original Post from October 17

Like many people here in the United States, I still have painful memories of the 2000 presidential election, where George Bush narrowly beat Al Gore. The vote was so close, it all came down to a single state, Florida, and to a few narrowly-contested counties within that state. Unfortunately, Florida had one of the most screwed up voting systems at the time, relying largely on antiquated punch-card voting systems with confusing "butterfly ballots" and the like. For weeks, our evening news coverage was replete with stories about "hanging chads", "dimpled chads", confused voters who ended up voting for the wrong candidate on a butterfly ballot, etc. Even today, some people argue that George Bush did not legitimately win that election.

From the preliminary results It seems that Iraq may be going down the same road.

The process for the draft Iraqi constitution passing is relatively straightforward: it just requires a simple majority. However, there is another factor: if two-thirds of the population in any three provinces vote "no", the constitution is vetoed. With the Shia Arab and Kurd factions (who together make up nearly 80% of the population of Iraq) heavily in favor of the constitution, it was easily expected to win the simple majority vote. However, with many Sunnis vehemently against the constitution, and four of Iraq's provinces with Sunni majorities, having a 2/3 vote in three of them is a real possibility.

From the early results that came out today, Anbar province (home to Fallujah, Qaim, and other restive cities) had a heavy voter turnout and over 90% voting "no". Likewise Salah al-Din province, home to Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and Samarra had a heavy "no" vote, while Diyala had a narrow "yes" vote.

If these initial reports are true, the whole election may boil down to Nineveh province, home to Mosul and a number of my online Iraqi friends.

The news today offered differing opinions on Nineveh. The Associated Press reported a 78% "yes" vote in Nineveh. Meanwhile, CNN quoted a senior elections official as saying the early Nineveh counts were 778,800 voters with 424,000 (54%) voting "no". Based on my good friend Najma's reports of the voting and the general sentiment among the Sunni population in Mosul, this latter CNN report sounds a lot more accurate.

While 54% would be a majority "no" vote in Nineveh, it would not be a high enough number to veto the constitution and override the majority "yes" votes in the other parts of the country. To veto the constitution would require 67% in Nineveh voting "no" (two thirds of the total ballots).

If the vote tally in that one province ends up being close to that 67% mark, Nineveh may end up being Iraq's Florida, and Mosul may end up Iraq's Miami-Dade County in this referendum. When there is a strong majority, the room for error is much greater, however when you are close, every ballot counts and needs to be scrutinized. Minor voting irregularities, which otherwise would not make much of a difference, could tip the final result either way.

This week is going to be very interesting....

Friday, October 21, 2005

An Assignment

I got tagged by Najma, a very good friend of mine. Najma is the one who really inspired me to start this blog, and even a year ago when I'd be lucky to get 3 or 4 visitors in a day (and she was getting hundreds), Najma was a regular visitor here.

I don't usually answer chain letters, but this one is rather cute and comes from a friend of mine, so why not? This chain letter has a bit of an interesting history - it looks like it started in English, got translated into Arabic, then got translated back into English.

Anyway, here goes... :)

Seven things I plan to do:
1. Start my own company and earn a billion dollars.
2. Use some of that billion dollars to fund education in developing countries.
3. Meet in person as many of the friends I have met through blogging as possible.
4. Learn to fly an airplane.
5. Learn to play the piano.
6. Join a jazz band.
7. Visit every continent in the world.

Seven things I can do:
1. Give a speech in front of a large crowd - the bigger the crowd, the better my speech gets.
2. Break into a computer system.
3. Prevent some other schmuck from breaking into my computer system.
4. Design a computer network.
5. Fix almost any broken household appliance.
6. Speak French.
7. Cook a gourmet dinner.

Seven things I can't do:
1. Read Arabic (Arabic writing still looks like a big scribble to me).
2. Fly an airplane (yet).
3. Play the piano (yet).
4. Sit still for longer than a minute or two.
5. Get to work on time - I am usually at least 30 minutes late getting to work in the morning.
6. Leave work on time - I am usually at least two hours late in leaving work (which is why I can get away with #5).
7. Buy decent clothes - if it wasn't for my wife, I would go around looking like a real nerd.

Seven things I say most often:
1. "I love you." (to my wife and kids). I never let a day go by without saying this at least once to each of them.
2. "Excellent." (when I'm happy with the answer I get to a question I ask)
3. "Not particularly." (as in, "are you concerned about such-and-such")
4. "Hey!"
5. "Extremely busy... is this a sales call?" (When you spend a lot of money as part of your job, you get a lot of sales guys calling you. This is my typical answer when some sales guy I don't know calls me at work and says, "Hi, how are you?")
6. "I'd love to know what those engineers were smoking when they designed that bloody mess!"
7. "If all this computer stuff did everything the manufacturers said it does and worked exactly the way the manufacturers said it's supposed to, me and all the people working for me would be out of a job." (a little IT humility lesson I teach my staff sometimes)

Seven people I want to pass this tag to:
Najma tagged a few of the bloggers I would have tagged, so let me start with a few people who sometimes comment here but don't have blogs:
1. Strykerdad (I know you don't have a blog, but you sometimes read this one, so perhaps you'll see this. Strykerdad, you can leave your reply in my comments section if you like).
2. Programmer Craig (I don't think you have a blog... please correct me if I'm wrong)
3. Melantrys
4. Laila el-Haddad
5. Riverbend
6. Khalid Jarrar
7. Lynnette in Minnesota (I don't think you have a blog either... please correct me if I'm wrong)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Saddam Trial: "I Want My Blankie!!"

My two year old daughter is attached to her baby blanket, and we can never travel far away from it. She carries it around the house with her, and goes to bed with it, and anytime she gets upset about something, she goes looking for it and cries if she can't find it: "Waahhh.... I want my blankie!"

And, while I expect that sort of thing as a parent, I never expected it to have a parallel with Saddam's trial in Iraq....

The trial of Saddam and seven of his henchmen started yesterday, but here in the US, we only got to see an abbreviated highlight of the trial in the news. I was chatting with my friend Najma today. She watched most of the trial live on TV, and and I was amazed at her description of some of the parts of the trial we did not get to see in the news over here.

Perhaps the funniest was this guy on the left, named Awwad al-Bandar, who was the president of the Revolutionary Court under Saddam. He went to the court wearing traditional Arab dress, including a thobe (traditional Arab robe) and 3gal (Arab head-scarf), but shortly after he got there, the guards took away his 3gal, perhaps thinking it was rude to wear it to court.

So, when the judge questioned Bandar, he started whining to him like a 2 year old:

Judge: What is your name?

Bandar: They took my 3gal!
(translation: "where's my blankie?!")

Judge: I just want your name.

Bandar: But my identity is my 3gal!
(translation: "waaaaahhhhhhh.... I want my blankie!")

Judge: Just tell me your name!

Bandar: But they took my 3gal!
(translation: "waahhhhhhh..... waaahhhhhhhh.... my blankie.... waahhhhhhhh!")

Judge: Who took your 3gal?

Bandar: The court.
(translation: "waahhhhhhh..... that bad man took my blankie! Gimme my blankie!!! WAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!")

And so, the judge had to order a 10 minute recess for the guards to bring al-Bandar his 3gal / "blankie" along with the other prisoners who'd worn them to court.

Here's Awwad al-Bandar with his "blankie"... still not happy, though, but that just goes to show you can never satisfy a 2 year old, even an overgrown 2 year old. Even Saddam in this picture is looking embarrassed to be sitting beside the guy.

If this is what they went through on the first day of this trial, I'd hate to see what kind of childishness the proceedings will devolve into in November when the trial comes back from adjournment.

Hopefully Najma will write a longer post tomorrow with some other highlights.

Update: October 21

As I hoped, my friend Najma put up her post today, and it's very good. Click here to see it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Saddam Trial Timing

Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the start of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Rather than being tried on some of the more major alleged crimes, Saddam and seven others, including his former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, will face charges over the murder of 143 people from the town of Dujail in 1982 after an assassination attempt there against Saddam.

What is special about the Dujail murders is that Saddam is shown on video interrogating people on the side of the road after the gunmen shot at his car, and ordering the capture and interrogation of several people. Unlike other more serious alleged crimes, such as the gassing of Kurds in Halabja in 1988, this video footage as well as a decree ordering the execution of 148 Dujail residents shows direct involvement from Saddam. It is for this reason that this case was selected to be tried first.

The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote a very good article on the Saddam trial here, while the BBC published a photo gallery from the Dujail video footage.

The timing of Saddam's trial is interesting, and I suspect no accident. Surely when they scheduled the trial, they realized that Iraqis would be voting in the constitution referendum on Saturday, and the official results would be coming out in the latter part of this week. It seems as if the authorities figured Saddam's trial would present a distraction for Iraqis from the constitutional referendum and the upcoming election.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Iraq referendum

Well, today is the big day.... Iraqis are voting in the much anticipated referendum on the draft constitution.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a very long analysis of the draft Iraq constitution: in my opinion, it is actually very good. It is not perfect but then again, neither is the American constitution, the Canadian constitution, or any other country's constitution. This draft, however, I would consider just as good as the American constitution, and a legal document that could easily be the foundation for a stable and long-lasting democracy. Personally, if I were living in Iraq, I would vote "yes".

I wish all my Iraqi friends the best in this crucial day - I know a lot of bad people will be out there trying to disrupt the referendum today, and I hope all of my friends and their families are safe.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Iraq referendum: is no news good news or is no news bad news?

This Saturday (October 15) is the date on which Iraqis will vote in a referendum on their new draft constitution. It seems a bit hard to believe this date is so close and yet we are hearing little or nothing about it in the news media over here. Looking on the main pages of CNN, and the BBC, and other mainstream news organizations, there is no mention of the referendum at all.

Given how much is counting on Saturday's vote, this lack of coverage is very strange...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

When disasters strike developing countries

Graphic courtesy BBC News

Yesterday, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Kashmir region causing massive devastation. Today, estimates show the death toll from this earthquake at over 20,000, with over 42,000 people injured.

The area this earthquake struck is one of the most politically troubled areas in the world. The Kashmir region has been disputed between India and Pakistan ever since the partition of India by legacy colonial power Britain in 1947: Kashmir was given to India in the partition, but Pakistan has viewed it as rightfully part of Pakistan since it is predominantly Muslim. The other areas within reach of this earthquake included Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, and the North-West Frontier, the restive area alleged to be the hiding place of many Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.

In looking at this catastrophe, it is important to realize that earthquakes don't kill people - they damage buildings. It is when those damaged buildings collapse with people inside them that people are killed. Thus, the quality of the buildings, and whether these buildings are properly designed to withstand an earthquake can mean the difference between thousands of deaths and a few injuries.

Consider Japan, where earthquakes occur on a fairly regular basis, and where strict building codes ensure buildings are able to withstand them. In Japan, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake would be considered a moderate earthquake, and would result in some damage and a few hundred people injured, but few or no deaths, because the buildings in Japan are designed to withstand it. And yet, this same magnitude resulted in over 20,000 deaths and 42,000 injuries in Kashmir, mostly due to buildings collapsing with people inside them. In Islamabad, even a highrise apartment building collapsed, killing many people inside it.

It is truly sad to look at a catastrophe like this and realize that many of these deaths and injuries could have been prevented through better building construction standards.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Immigration Fraud (Part II): Visas for Sale

According to some well-informed sources of mine, it is still possible, even now after 9/11, to "buy" a visa to come visit the United States by bribing a corrupt consular officer. Given that a visa is the first step for anyone wanting to get on an airplane to come here, this is a very scary thought.

One of the main problems with the US immigration system is the amount of authority that is placed in the hands of a single individual: the consular/visa officer. In private companies, we prevent this type of corruption by employing segregation of duties: the person who writes the checks is not the same person who issues purchase orders, etc. However, with the US immigration system, the front-line officers are empowered to make unilateral decisions without having to verify these decisions with another individual. Because of this decision-making process, many visitors to the US will tell you that their chances of getting a visa depends more on the individual visa officer they get to see and what mood that person is in than it does on the relative merits of the individual cases.

With this type of unilateral decision-making process, it is relatively easy for a corrupt invidual to significantly boost his income level by accepting bribes. It is also possible for an individual to employ an overly harsh approach, denying cases that should be approved, leaving little avenue for appeal for the prospective visitor - a future post will give a few examples of this. Officers may even arbitrarily decide cases based on their own private reasons (racism, sexism, bigotry, etc.), with little room for questioning.

To prevent this type of abusive activity, the State Department should consider redesigning their business processes, so that the duties of assessing visa applications are split between two officers, both of whom must agree on the disposition of each case (approval or denial). If the two officers disagree on the disposition of a particular case, a third officer should be brought in to cast the deciding vote. While this type of process is more labor-intensive, it is far less susceptible to corruption, since both officers would need to collaborate with each other to take a bribe. In addition, this process would improve fairness by making it more difficult for an officer to apply an overly harsh approach or to decide cases based on his/her own private agenda.

Sorry for the delay in posting

Sorry for the delay in posting, everyone, it's been a very busy and stressful week for me at work. You can expect a new post in the next day or so.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Peace Bridge Story

Many Americans do not realize how many legal hoops the US immigration system makes people jump through. As a Canadian working here, I just got back from jumping through a big one earlier today, and thought I'd share the experience.

I have been here in the US on a temporary work authorization (H1B) for a few years, and needed to convert it to a different status (TN), as my H1B status was expiring in just a month. To do this, I had two choices. I could do it by mail, or I could do it by leaving and re-entering the country. If I did it by mail, I would not be allowed to leave the US for any reason for the whole time it was processing (over 4 months). With almost all of my family and my wife's family outside the US, this was too much of a burden, so I decided to leave and re-enter, and accept the risk that entails.

Of course, leaving and re-entering has its own challenges: the person who makes the final decision is not a nameless bureaucrat, he is right in front of you. And, if he turns you down, you don't have much in the way of right to appeal. But, for me the risk is worth it when it makes it possible to let my kids see their grandparents for Christmas.

As I figured, there were four possibilities that could have happened:

Option A: They approve me.
Option B: They turn me down, but let me come into the US to finish out my H1B. If this happened, I'd have to quit my job, pack my belongings, pull my kids out of school, and leave.
Option C: They turn me down, but let me come in as a visitor to pack up my things. This would have been the same as B, except it would yank the rug out from my employer: I'd be forced to quit with no notice.
Option D: They turn me down and tell me to go away. With this option, I'd need to leave my wife to do all the packing and handle the move while I'd wait in Canada.

While option A was the most likely, I knew that all four options were legal possibilities for me, and would be at the sole discretion of the immigration officer I'd meet. I knew I was to speak at the Oracle OpenWorld a week ago, and did not want to mess that up if the Department of Homeland Security picked options B, C, or D for me, so I waited until this past weekend to make the trip.

Last week, I forewarned my boss about all this, I put together (with the help of my attorney) an application package about an inch thick, and on Thursday, I went into work late at night (so nobody would see me doing it) to clean out my office in case I was not allowed to come back and clean it out myself. Then, on Saturday, I kissed my wife goodbye, and drove to Toronto, Canada to stay with friends and family and feel totally stressed out.

Earlier this morning, I left Toronto, stopped in at the Duty Free Store, said a little prayer, and continued driving across the Peace Bridge into Buffalo, New York.

On the American side of the bridge, I came to the border checkpoint (which looks a bit like a toll plaza) and told the officer I had a TN application package. After a brief but friendly conversation, he radioed a description of my car, handed me a red referral form, took away my passport and put it into a yellow envelope, and told me to "make a hard right, pull into the parking lot beside the U-Haul truck, and go through door number 1". I followed his instructions, and as I got close to the U-Haul truck, I saw another officer beckoning me and directing me to a parking spot. After I got out of my car, she asked me if I was going to door #1, and directed me to it.

Inside door #1 was one of the most miserable rooms I have ever been inside in my life. In an obviously old building, the "waiting room" we were in was really a lobby, with dingy green tiles around the walls, four decrepit chairs with ripped fabric in the corners, and steel-trim doors, one on each wall: the door to outside (from which I entered), two other doors with one-way glass and "do not enter" written on them, and a third door with a sign reading, "if the immigration officer outside took your identification, wait here, otherwise come inside." Inside the room with me were about 20 bewildered and stressed-out people, about half with brown faces, many speaking foreign languages, and all of whom were "referred" there because the first officer they saw could not admit them to the country. Here, they would be called a few at a time through the door with the sign, where a "secondary inspection" officer would decide their fate.

Of course, I knew I was going into this room, knew I'd be interviewed, and knew I'd be there a while, so I went wearing a suit and tie, and brought a novel with me to read. In that room, sitting calmly reading my book among all these bedraggled and bewildered people, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

After about half an hour, a very serious 50-something man in a uniform came through one door, pointed at me, and told me to go through the door with the sign. He beckoned me to a booth with a video camera mounted on the side panel, pointed at me. He stood on the other side of the counter, took my application packet, asked a few simple questions, and told me to go back to the other room and he'd be with me in a few minutes.

On the way into the room with the counter, I'd noticed a girl, perhaps 17, walking like in a stupor back into the waiting room. When I returned to the waiting room, she was there sitting in shock for a few minutes. She walked over to a payphone, made a call, and broke down crying on the phone, saying she was "stuck here" and wondering what to do. Evidently, she had been pulled off a bus (perhaps a school trip) and was now being denied entry into the US and stuck at the border crossing with nothing but her suitcase while the bus and the rest of its passengers were allowed through.

I was called back in, told "go pay the cashier, you're all set". I paid the cashier, picked up my passport, and as I was coming back out, an immigration officer interrupted the crying girl and told her, "here's your ride to Canada". As I was walking out the door, the poor girl was being escorted out of the building by an immigration officer and into a waiting taxi: "expedited removal". I hope she made it home okay.

You could probably write a book about all the drama that goes on at that border crossing every day. Fortunately, my story had a happy ending today.