Saturday, December 31, 2005

Disturbing Search Words

Over the past few weeks, I've noticed this blog has gotten a disturbing number of hits from search engines from people looking for information on "homemade bombs".

I'm a trained chemist, and a while back I wrote a post about how easy it is to make explosives with readily available ingredients - something that I think should be worrisome to many of us (which seems to be the post most of these hits are going to). I've also written a post called The Real Terrorist Nuclear Threat where I talked about how we should all be concerned about terrorists making a real nuclear weapon.

Fortunately, one thing I did when I wrote these earlier posts, and which I will continue to do in future posts: I intentionally did not provide enough technical detail that someone could read my post and go make something he shouldn't be making. I was either intentionally vague (e.g.: referring to "paint thinner" without referring to which type), or I left out certain key details that someone would need to be successful in making an explosive compound.

I do not want to be responsible for providing the information that some roach-turd terrorist could use against us, or for some teenage kid blowing himself up in his garage.

So, if you're here looking for information on how to make homemade bombs, you've come to the wrong place. If you want a discussion about terrorism and its negative effects, you've come to the right one.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The End of Iraq's Gasoline Subsidies

As my friend Hassan wrote on his blog, the outgoing Iraqi government had a little post-election surprise for the electorate: a 800% hike in gasoline prices. Iraqis were outraged, protests were held, some areas in Iraq refused to implement the new pricing scheme, and in other areas, Sadr's militia took over gas stations to make them keep selling at the old price.

I am quite sure the timing of these gas price hikes was no accident - the outgoing government knew they'd be highly unpopular and if they did it before the election, it would have cost them dearly at the ballot box.

Iraq's fuel price hikes may be painful, but they are a necessary step in ensuring Iraq's long-term financial viability. For decades, Iraqis have gotten used to paying rock-bottom prices for gasoline - perhaps the lowest prices in the world. These low prices have fueled a thriving black market in gasoline - both for local consumption as well as for export. A few months ago, Christian Science Monitor published a very informative piece on how this black market works:

Typically, a truck driver will pick up a load of fuel at a refinery. Rather than delivering it to a gas station, he will take it to a place like White Gold. Oil ministry officials are paid to look the other way, the gas station owner is paid off for not receiving his shipment, and the driver makes a profit when he sells it.

"The employees at the gas stations these days are like emperors," says Hassan. "The guy in charge of cleaning the station has a brand-new car. Everyone knows this. It's not a secret anymore." On the highway, he says, "If you notice, you will see six or seven trucks guarded by the Americans. This is not for protection. It's to prevent corruption."

The Christian Science Monitor piece also describes how low fuel prices, "can entice people like factory workers or fishermen to sell their ration to smugglers and even forge documents to get more rations. Smugglers can then resell the fuel in neighboring countries at much higher prices."

Back in June, I wrote a blog post titled Iraqi Fuel Shortages: the real cause where I discussed Iraq's chronic fuel shortage problem, and how the problem stems directly from the heavy subsidies and the artificial demand created by them. The elimination of these subsidies, while painful, is the only real cure.

As I wrote in my earlier post:

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.

In addition to causing supply-chain problems, Iraq's gasoline subsidies cost the Iraqi government over $3 billion per year to sustain. Think about that number: THREE BILLION DOLLARS. That's a lot of money. That kind of money could go a long way to buying medical supplies, fixing hospitals, buying school books, patching up the nation's woefully unstable electrical grid, or adding new electrical generating capacity. Instead, it is being wasted.

The gasoline price hike that Iraq just implemented is probably only a first step: taking the gas price from a measly 5 cents per gallon to 40 cents per gallon. While this is eight times higher than the old price, it is still heavily subsidized: here in the US we spend about $2 per gallon of gasoline, while in other Persian Gulf countries, the average gas price is just under a dollar. According to a Washington Post article today, these price hikes will not be the last:

The price increase brought the cost of a gallon of gasoline to the equivalent of about 40 cents from less than 5 cents. It is meant to be the first in series of jumps over the next year designed to raise the price of fuel to the average in Persian Gulf states, which a U.S. official said Tuesday was about 93 cents per gallon.

When the price reaches 93 cents per gallon, it will be at fair market value with respect to the rest of the region, and I would expect Iraq's fuel supply headaches will be completely gone. The black market will disappear, since the fuel is no longer being sold below-cost, and supplies will become more free-flowing from neighbors as Iraqis will no longer be dependent on government imports.

Interestingly, some officials in the outgoing Iraqi government blamed the price hikes on former prime minister Iyyad Alawi. Of course, this is a fallacy. Iraq recently struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to forgive up to 80% of Iraq's foreign debt, which required Iraq to phase out its fuel subsidies as a precondition. The real blame for the price hikes should be levied at Saddam, who instituted these heavy subsidies in the first place.

While Iraqis may find the price hikes in gasoline painful, this step is necessary to ensure stability of the gasoline supply-chain in Iraq, to eliminate the black market, to encourage Iraqis to use fuel responsibly, and to free up tax dollars for better uses.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Canada's Open Season on Americans

Updated December 27

Over the past few years, there seems to have been a prevailing "stick it to Uncle Sam" attitude that has seeped like a fetid rot into Canadian politics. As a Canadian myself, I have been thoroughly disgusted by it all.

The Canadian government has stuck it to Uncle Sam a few times in the past year, cancelling Canada's participation in the North American missile shield, publicly rebuking the United States over a trade dispute over softwood lumber, and a couple of weeks ago, publicly lambasting the United States at a climate conference in Montreal, and with the Prime Minister exchanging caustic barbs with the US Ambassador on the Canadian news.

It should come as no surprise to Canadians that if you play "stick it to Uncle Sam" too often, Uncle Sam may stick something back to you. Last week, while I was enjoying my Christmas vacation in Canada, the news media here was abuzz with talk about American commentator Tucker Carlson's comments on MSNBC: "Anybody with any ambition at all, or intelligence, has left Canada and is now living in New York. Canada is a sweet country. It is like your retarded cousin you see at Thanksgiving and sort of pat him on the head. You know, he's nice but you don't take him seriously. That's Canada." He went on to say that it's pointless to try to convince Canada to stop criticizing the United States because "it only eggs them on. Canada is essentially a stalker, stalking the United States, right? Canada has little pictures of us in its bedroom, right? It's unrequited love between Canada and the United States. We, meanwhile, don't even know Canada's name. We pay no attention at all."

While I disagree with much of what Tucker Carlson said, part of the reason his remarks kicked up such a storm in Canada is there is a grain of truth to them. Both Canada and the United States have their flaws, and Tucker Carlson seems to have hit on a few of Canada's, including one I discussed in a post last year. And, after enough rampant American-bashing going on in Canada, a bit of Canadian-bashing should come as no surprise to anyone. Like the a child in the playground, Canada may find it's fun to throw rocks at its friend, but it becomes decidedly less fun when that friend starts throwing rocks back at Canada.

Some of the silliness going on here in Canada can be attributed to the political climate here. For the last couple of years, there has been a minority government in power, where the party in power controls less than half of the seats in Parliament. In practical terms, this means that the Prime Minister is walking around with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head all the time - any time he slips up, and the opinion poll numbers seem to suggest he might lose the election if it were held then, the opposing parties can gang up on him and force an early election through a vote of non-confidence. The Canadian government has been hobbling along like this for the past couple of years, and just a couple of weeks ago a non-confidence motion was passed that will force a January 2006 election.

Canadians tend to think very similarly to Americans living in the nothern states. Many of the northern states dislike George Bush, and do not have as much support for the war in Iraq as in the South. In Canada, the Iraq war is highly unpopular, and George Bush is even less popular. Thus, a Canadian politician who is seen by voters as too closely aligned to the Bush administration could find themselves losing support at home. And, because of their minority-government situation, Prime Minister Paul Martin, who had come to office promising to patch up relations with the US, had very little latitude to go against public opinion and support certain US-led initiatives that are not popular (the missile shield, etc.). In the last few weeks, things have gotten even worse: with the opposition parties threatening to force an early election in Canada, the United States has seemed to be a convenient scapegoat; and criticizing America for its flaws a convenient distration from Canada's own problems at home. Politicians in Canada seem to think that if they stick it to Uncle Sam on the short-term and win the election, they can patch up the damage later, or if they lose the election, it'll become someone else's problem. A decidedly short-sighted approach.

As a Canadian myself, I've been repeatedly disappointed over the last couple of years at the nonsensical American-bashing that has gone on in Canada. Canada's politicians need to realize that Canada is highly dependent on the United States: Canada may be big in area, but 80% of Canada's population lives within a two hour drive of the US border, and the United States is by far the largest importer of Canadian goods. And, while Canada is also the largest importer of American goods, it is quite obvious that Canada needs the United States far more than the United States needs Canada. As a general rule of thumb, when you are sleeping next to a large bear, it is best not to poke and prod the bear a whole lot, because if the bear wakes up and gets angry, it's gonna hurt!

Some Canadian politicians need to GROW UP and realize that while hurling insults at your closest ally may provide some sort of sadistic fun on the short term, the long term negative effects far outweigh any short term gains.

Update: December 27

Silly season continues: Canada blames US for Gun Violence

"What happened yesterday was appalling. You just don't expect it in a Canadian city," the mayor said.
"It's a sign that the lack of gun laws in the U.S. is allowing guns to flood across the border that are literally being used to kill people in the streets of Toronto," Miller said.
Miller said Toronto, a city of nearly three million, is still very safe compared to most American cities, but the illegal flow of weapons from the United States is causing the noticeable rise in gun violence.
"The U.S. is exporting its problem of violence to the streets of Toronto," he said.
Miller said that while almost every other crime in Toronto is down, the supply of guns has increased and half of them come from the United States.
What an idiot!

When you have a problem, it is always useful to look at what changed. Guns from the United States have always been available to smuggle across the border into Canada. The issue isn't the gun, it's the guy pulling the trigger of it that needs to be addressed. And, in the case of Toronto, there has been an upsurge of gang-related activity in recent years. Fix this, and the gun violence will fix itself.

In several US cities such as New York, despite the fact that guns are still readily available, violent crime has dropped significantly over the past few years and continues to decline. For Toronto's mayor Miller, trying to blame Toronto gun crime on US gun laws is just deflecting the problem. Mr. Miller would be better trying to learn the effective strategies that have been used in places like New York to reduce violent crime.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Traditions

Today, I'm going to take a break from writing about serious topics and write about one that I really enjoy: Christmas. As I do every year, I am in Canada now at my parents' house where we'll all be spending Christmas together as a family.

Christmas in Canada

Christmas is really big in Canada. It's big in the US too, but people seem to have gotten too politically correct these days and it seems everyone's afraid to wish each other a merry Christmas - they say "Happy Holidays" out of fear of offending anyone who isn't a Christian (something that really irks me, as I wrote last year). Here in Canada, it seems everyone likes Christmas. It's always been a tradition here, and the immigrants (including non-Christians) who came here generally like the holiday and have adopted it too. I remember when I was in university and asked a Sikh friend of mine if they did anything at that time of year - I was surprised to hear about how they put up a Christmas tree and hung stockings, exchanged gifts, Santa came to visit, and all that. Here in Canada, they don't bother with any of that "Happy Holidays" nonsense, nobody seems to get offended by being wished a merry Christmas in Canada.

Perhaps one reason Christmas is such a big holiday in Canada is that Thanksgiving is a very minor holiday here, and we have a bit of catching up to do.

The whole tradition of Santa Claus is taken quite far in Canada too. If a child writes a letter to Santa Claus here and drops it in a mailbox in Canada, he/she will get a personal reply. In the days before Christmas, the television or radio news may feature stories about Santa's workshop, and on Christmas eve, the good folks at NORAD (the joint Canada/US air defense command) track Santa's path across North America, and provide video that is covered by the major news organizations here.

Christmas in my Family

Every family seems to have their own traditions around Christmas. Many of these traditions are common across Canada, and others are unique to a particular family. In some cases, these family traditions have evolved over several generations in reaction to the family's unique history. Of course, Canada shares a history interwoven with that of the United States, and so it should come as no surprise that our traditions here are very similar to those in the US, and in most cases identical.

A few oddities about my family's Christmas:
  • The Christmas tree you see in the picture is the one at my parents' house. It may not look like much, but it means a lot to us. Growing up in a military family, we did not always have an opportunity to go get a real tree, so about 30 years ago, my parents bought an artificial tree, and there it is, the same tree 30 years later. One real benefit of an artificial tree in a military family: when you're moving around from place to place, it is nice to have one thing that stays the same each year.
  • On Christmas Eve, we eat a nice dinner (usually duck a l'orange or another gourmet dish), then go to midnight mass at church. I've always enjoyed midnight mass on Christmas Eve, as it reminds us of the real reason behind our doing all this.
  • On Christmas Eve, the kids are looking anxiously at all the presents under the Christmas tree, which they know they're not allowed to touch until Christmas morning. To whet their appetite a bit, we sometimes let them open just one present on Christmas Eve.
  • On Christmas morning, the kids come down and see their stockings and everything Santa's left them. When the rest of us come down, we all sit and take turns opening presents until they're all done. Then, we sit down to a brunch of eggs benedict with homemade hollandaise sauce and champagne, and in the afternoon the kids play with all their new toys while we phone all of our out of town relatives, and go visit friends.
  • One odd thing our family does on Christmas day: all bows and gift bags are put away and reused the next year. This is a bit of a tradition that dates back to the Great Depression in my family, when my grandparents used to save wrapping paper and re-use it year after year.

If anyone else has any of their own Christmas traditions they'd like to share, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

New York Transit Strike: FIRE THEIR ASSES!

This morning, for the first time in over 25 years, the New York City transit workers went on strike, leaving over four million people without a way to get to work. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg called the strike "morally reprehensible", and I must say I agree with him here. Transit strikes are not like the strikes the may affect a normal company. With a normal company, when workers go on strike, that company is the only one affected. However, transit workers provide a service to the entire city, and when they go on strike, it affects the entire population of a city.

In a city like New York, the effects of a transit strike are particularly acute. Most New Yorkers rely on public transit to get to work - even Michael Bloomberg, New York's billionaire mayor, takes the subway to work. As millions of New Yorkers can attest this evening, when you shut down the public transportation system, what results is a virtual domino effect:

  • People who own cars may try to take them to work.
  • The extra cars clog roads and bridges.
  • Eventually, the intersections on roads get congested to the point that "gridlock" conditions exist, where vehicles may be stuck for hours trying to go a relatively short distance.

In addition to people getting stuck in their cars on the way to work, emergency vehicles such as police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances can get stuck in the same gridlock. And, when one of these vehicles is delayed due to traffic, people can die waiting for an ambulance, houses can burn to the ground waiting for the fire trucks, and crimes can go on undeterred by police cars stuck in traffic.

It is for reasons like this that New York has the Taylor Law, making transit strikes in New York illegal: they shut down the entire city, and pose a real safety problem for all seven million people who live in the city.

How many people died today because of the transit union's illegal walkout? How many people died waiting for an ambulance to arrive? How many babies were born in the back seats of cars stuck in gridlock? How many mothers died from childbirth complications because they couldn't make it to the hospital in time? How many people died in fires today that could have been saved if the fire department got there just a few minutes earlier? If any lives were lost like this today, the transit workers union caused their deaths.

Earlier today, it was announced that the Transit Workers Union would face a million dollars per day in fines as long as they're out on strike. This may sound like a lot of money, but when you realize that this illegal strike is costing city businesses over $600 million a day, a million dollars a day in fines is chump change. Not to mention, with 37,000 transit workers, that's just $27 per worker per day. Laughable.

I think much more serious measures are warranted for such a blatant flaunting of the law....

Measure #1 - a good firing: To quote Michael Bloomberg, the transit workers "turned their backs" on New York today. I say that New York should return the favor: FIRE THEIR ASSES! Don't give them an opportunity to come back to work. Anyone who wilfully creates the mayhem that was created today, and recklessly endangers the lives of as many people as they did today deserves nothing less. Reagan did it to the air traffic controllers in 1981 - and air traffic controllers are much harder to replace than subway operators.

Measure #2 - class-action lawsuit: The transit strike is estimated to be costing $600 million a day to New York businesses, not to mention lost wages and other costs for New Yorkers themselves. I think New Yorkers should take it out on the union's hide. All it would take is for an enterprising New York law firm to sign up as many plaintiffs as they could and go after the transit union and each of the 37,000 workers who are on their illegal strike and milk them for everything they're worth.

Measure #3 - criminal charges: If someone does die in New York as a result of ambulances caught in gridlock or fire trucks unable to reach a burning building in time, the TWU leadership should be held criminally responsible for that person's death. A murder charge is probably a bit too severe, but manslaughter or reckless endangerment probably are not.

Update: December 21

There seem to be a lot of very pissed off New Yorkers visiting my blog these days. Here are a sampling of some of the keywords that have been bringing New Yorkers here to this blog from Google (with my comments in italics):

  • nyc strike fire them all (this guy doesn't pull any punches does he)
  • NYC Strike Ronald Reagan Fire (hmm.. being fired by Ronald Reagan's ghost... wouldn't that be a good theme for a horror film)
  • transit union strike ronald reagan (another horror movie fan)
  • transit strike, air traffic controllers, reagan (someone else making the connection)
  • bloomberg firing transit workers (I wish.. )
  • transit strike illegal (yes, it is)
  • ronald reagan fires striking workers (yes, he did... and someone else should learn from his example in this case)
  • new york transit workers fired taylor law (another "I wish"...)
  • fire all transit workers (YES!!!!)

Sounds like more than a few New Yorkers agree with the theme of this post: FIRE THEIR ASSES!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Senate 1; Big Brother 0

Over the past few days, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has been leading a filibuster in the US Senate around the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act, some sections of which are expiring on December 31. For those of you not familar with a filibuster, it is where senators just keep debating and debating an issue incessantly, without ever allowing it to come to a vote. For the USA PATRIOT act, this is important, since if senators can drag the process past December 31, key sections of the bill will die before it can be extended.

Just on Friday, there was a vote to try to shut down the debate ("cloture") in the senate, which would have required a 60% majority to pass - the cloture vote failed to pass by 8 votes. So, unless something extraordinary happens in the next couple of weeks, it seems likely that several sections of the USA PATRIOT Act will die on the books. And I won't shed any tears for its passing... good riddance to bad garbage!

In the fall of 2001, when the United States was reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a bill was brought before the House and Senate. This bill was over 300 pages long, and had a slick-sounding name: the "USA PATRIOT Act", which was intended to make it easier to catch terrorists operating inside America's borders. Right after 9/11, being seen as soft on terror was an anathema for lawmakers, and thus this "USA PATRIOT Act" was passed with almost no debate and with an overwhelming majority. Most of the lawmakers had not even had time to read it.

It also helped that they had come up with a slick name for the bill: the name "USA PATRIOT Act" sounds very patriotic and as American as homemade apple pie. Let's face it, if they'd called it the "George Orwell Act" or the "Big Brother is Watching You Act" or the "Spying on American Citizens Act" (which I think are all more reflective of what the bill does), maybe the House and Senate would have probably thought about it a bit more before passing it.

The Patriot act was a hastily drawn up reaction to the terrorist actions of 9/11. The authors of the bill seem to have known it was an overreaction, and so they built into it a sunset provision, so that some of the more controversial provisions would expire at the end of this year, 2005.

Now, I've never really been a big fan of the USA PATRIOT Act. Yes, it has a purpose and has been useful since 9/11, but it was a rush job and is overly broad. It is something that was quickly thrown together, not properly studied, and was not adequately debated in either Congress or the Senate. I would personally prefer the USA PATRIOT act to disappear into the annals of history, and perhaps be replaced by another law that would be more carefully drafted and debated, and still provide for the needs of law enforcement, but without unduly impinging upon the privacy of people here in the United States. And so, in that light, I am very happy that the Senate, and in particular Russ Feingold, are looking out for our long-term interests by fighting the renewal of this Act.

Update: December 21

According to a Washington Post article this morning, one of the judges on the secret court overseeing the warrantless searches and wiretaps being done under the USA PATRIOT Act out of concern that the program was "legally questionable" and that the court's work was "tainted" by it. Click here for more.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Iraq's Clockwork Election

An old fashioned clock consists of a number of moving parts: gears, weights, a pendulum, etc., all moving together in rhythmic precision. These clockwork parts move slowly, but predictably, and produce an accurate result. Just like yesterday's election in Iraq...

Iraqis went to the polls yesterday in overwhelmingly large numbers to elect a new government. While official statistics have not been released yet, news reports have estimated the turnout at between 70% and 80% of eligible voters - a number significantly above the 60% turnout rate typical for federal elections here in the US. It is also worth noting that there have been very few allegations of irregularities, and by most accounts the voting took place smoothly, with minimal violence.

The Independent Election Commission of Iraq (IECI), who are probably quite busy counting votes right now, should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. A year ago, they managed the election for the current interim government, and there were some reported irregularities. But, they learned from their mistakes, and two months ago, they managed the constitutional referendum, and the irregularities were few and far between - about par with a typical election here in the US. Now, the voting in this latest election seems to have proceeded like clockwork.

The IECI staff have really done their homework on this election, crafting a unique approach based on best practices from other established democracies, lessons learned from the past election, and some of their own innovation:
  • They used the tried and true method of paper ballots and manual counting. While this is more labor-intensive than automated voting machines, and the results take longer to be released, it is much easier to ensure transparency in the process and the results tend to be extremely accurate.
  • They allowed candidates to send representatives to observe key processes, like the transport of ballots and ballot boxes.
  • They used purple dye to mark the index finger of each voter to prevent repeat voting.
  • They used transparent ballot boxes, and devised a system of codes for each ballot box to prevent fraud and tampering.

In terms of running election, the IECI were novices a year ago. But, in the course of three national elections in a year, under trying conditions, they have honed their expertise and appear to have run this latest election with the precision of a Swiss watch.

If the counting process goes through with the same clockwork precision as the voting itself, this Iraqi election may go down in history as one of the fairest elections ever held anywhere in the world. And, when you combine this with the overwhelming voter turnout, the product may very well end up being one of the most credible election results in the history of democracy. Not bad for a country that only held its first real election a year ago. Not bad at all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

New York Transit Strike

Update: December 21

I've noticed I'm getting a lot of hits from Google coming to this post (which is from last week before the strike started). If you came here from Google, you may want to click here to see my latest post on the NYC transit strike.

Original Post:

Later this week, the lives of 4 million people may be severely disrupted. People will be unable to get to work, companies will see their entire business operations disrupted. People will die in their homes waiting for ambulances that cannot make it there through the gridlock, and people will die walking out in the cold. Sound like a terrorist attack? Perhaps, but it's not. I'm talking about the possible New York transit strike that may happen this Friday, on a day when we are expecting a major winter storm here.

New York is a city dependent on transit. Much of the business community in New York is in the big office towers in Manhattan. Of course, most people don't live there, but about 4 million people a day commute into Manhattan in the morning and out again in the evening, and a huge number of those folks do so using public transit: subways and buses. It is estimated that a transit strike by the 34,000 transit workers will result in almost 700 million dollars PER DAY in losses for New York businesses.

Now, transit strikes are supposed to be illegal. In New York State, we have something called the Taylor Law, which is supposed to make transit strikes illegal. The City of New York went today to get a court injunction against the union, barring them from going on strike. And yet, after all this, Roger Toussaint, the president of the Transit Workers Union, had the unmitigated gall to stand up at a rally and yell to the crowd, "If Mayor Bloomberg wants to know what we think about this lawsuit, I'll show you," tearing up the legal papers in front of them. Evidently, the injunction isn't fazing these guys from their nefarious strike plans at all.

What I do not understand is why the city politicians are even putting up with this. Have they no spine? Why are they letting this small group of low-skilled workers hold an entire city of 8 million people hostage?

If the Transit Workers Union defies a court injunction, breaks the law, and goes out on strike anyway, I say fire their asses. Don't even give them an option of coming back to work: they don't show up on Friday, they can consider themselves fired. Good riddance to bad garbage. If they want to come back to work after that, they can re-apply, but the fact they were fired for cause will probably preclude all but the highest performers from being rehired.

Ronald Reagan did this in 1981 for the air traffic controllers, and that worked out quite well. The air traffic controllers had gone out on an illegal strike, and Reagan gave them 48 hours to get back to work or be fired. Many of them thought Reagan was bluffing, and found out the hard way he wasn't. And, it's a heck of a lot harder to replace an air traffic controller than it is to replace a subway operator.

If Ronald Reagan could fire all the illegally striking air traffic controllers in 1981, why can't Michael Bloomberg fire the illegally striking transit workers in 2005? I see no reason at all why he couldn't.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Tookie: What's all the fuss about?

For the past few days, I have been completely shocked and disgusted at all of the news coverage that has been showered on a murderer in California, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who is due to be executed tonight by lethal injection. Now that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has denied him clemency and the California supreme court denied his final appeal, it looks more and more like this execution is going to happen.

Michelle Malkin has been covering the Tookie story for the past several weeks, before it got plastered all over the front pages of the newspapers and mainstream news websites. While I sometimes disagree with Michelle on some issues, this is one I do not disagree with her on at all.

Even though I am a political moderate on many issues, I am very pro-death-penalty, especially in cases like this where the evidence is so strong. I believe that some crimes are just so heinous that the loss of one's own life is the only justifiable punishment. And, in the case of Tookie, this execution seems especially justified.

Tookie Williams is a cofounder and former leader of the notorious Crips street gang - a criminal organization responsible for hundreds if not thousands of deaths. Tookie himself was convicted of the cold-blooded murder spree described vividly in this CNN article:

On February 28, 1979, about 4 a.m., Williams and three friends got high on their psychedelic smokes and took two cars, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber handgun to Pomona in search of a place to rob, according to court documents. They ended up at a 7-Eleven where Albert Owens, 26, was working the overnight shift, sweeping the parking lot.

The military veteran was a "redheaded, freckle-faced kid who had the biggest smile you wanted to see," according to his older brother, Wayne Owens, 55, of Olathe, Kansas.

Albert Owens said, "Take everything you want," says the now-retired prosecutor, Robert Martin, who remembers the case in detail.

Williams ordered Owens into a back room at gunpoint, shot out a security monitor, then ordered, "Get down on your knees, (expletive)," and shot him twice in the back, according to testimony. Williams "later laughed about it as he was eating his hamburger," Martin says.

There were no witnesses other than accomplices.

Less than two weeks later, on March 11, Williams broke down the door at the Brookhaven Motel, ripping through four locks and shattering the molding, according to a prosecutor.

Killed were Yen-I Yang, 76; his wife, Tsai-Shai Yang, 63, and their visiting daughter, Yee-Chen Lin, 43. The Taiwanese immigrants were about to sell the business because the neighborhood had become too rough, Martin said.

And if that doesn't justify the death penalty, I don't know what does...

Over the past few years, Tookie Williams has tried to redeem himself by writing children's books and has gotten a few celebrities on his side, including actor Jamie Foxx, rapper Snoop Dogg (himself a former member of the Crips) and even South African archbishop Desmond Tutu. Williams has been the subject of a Hollywood movie about himself ("Redemption"), and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times (once by the Swiss parliament), and nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature once.

And yet, none of this erodes the fact that Tookie Williams is a mass murderer and the founder of a criminal organization that has killed many more than he killed himself. He is one of these people who would have done more for the world by never being born than what he has done in his life. For a man guilty of such heinous crimes, death is the only reasonable punishment. And, I do not understand how a man so undeserving has become such a rallying point for anti-death-penalty activists around the world.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Why I'm still bullish on Iraq

About six months ago, I wrote a post titled Why I'm Bullish on Iraq, where I explained several reasons why I am optimistic about Iraq's future. For those of you not familiar with the word, "bullish" is a stock-market term used by an investor to describe his feelings towards a stock or a market that he thinks is going to go up in the future (as opposed to "bearish" which is something he thinks will go down).

A few nights ago, when I was sitting down to dinner in New York with Baghdad Treasure, I had a lengthy conversation about why I still feel bullish about Iraq's economic prospects. I thought it prudent to capture a few of my thoughts in this post.

A lot has happened in the last six months that has led many people to question the long-term viability of Iraq. Fayrouz was so disgusted by the events in Iraq a few weeks back that she announced the closing of her blog (fortunately she recanted since then and has continued to write). Here in the United States, the news media seems to have grown increasingly negative in their outlook, and positive stories about Iraq have become more and more scant.

Many people out there may think I'm nuts for saying this, but I am still quite bullish on Iraq's future prospects, and the events of the last few months have made me even more convinced of this. While things in Iraq are still not good, it seems to me that country has finally gotten on the right track and is taking gradual steps in the direction of stability.

The most encouraging sign I have seen is the engagement of the Sunnis along with other groups in the constitutional referendum in October, which appears is a trend that will continue in next week's election. This is important, since about 90% of the insurgents are local Iraqis (mostly Sunnis) who feel disenfranchised in the current political process and government. When people feel disenfranchised, they feel that the government does not represent them or their needs. This feeds into feelings of resentment towards the government and may lead some to take up arms against that government.

This disenfranchisement showed itself strongly in the election of the interim government a year ago, where many Sunnis boycotted the polls. However, in October, the Sunnis did make a strong showing, and even though the constitution did pass, the Sunnis were quite engaged in the process.

Even more encouraging was the Sunnis attitude after the constitution passed. Even though there were a few allegations of irregularities, the general feeling seems to have been that they will try to make the best of the new constitution even though they would have preferred the vote be "no". Anybody can be a gracious winner, but it takes a real man (or woman) to be a gracious loser, and the Sunnis of Iraq have really shown a mastery of that art in the aftermath of the October referendum. Many stable democracies have much greater problems around election time around the losers accepting the results, and the Iraqis (particularly those who voted "no") should feel a sense of pride in their self-restraint.

It seems likely all the ethnic groups in Iraq (including the Sunnis) will be fully engaged in the elections next week, and if so, the government that is elected will resemble more of a cross-section of Iraq than the current government. If this happens, and Sunnis feel a greater engagement with the political process, they will feel less motivation to take up arms against it.

The first real step in the stabilization of Iraq will likely be the evaporation of the insurgency. Note, I am not saying the defeat of the insurgency, rather its evaporation: insurgents realizing that they don't need to fight anymore, putting away their guns, and going home. This process would likely need to be accelerated through a negotiation between the newly elected government and some of the insurgent groups that might result in some sort of amnesty for those fighters who renounce violence.

The violence and instability in Iraq is like a ball and chain around its leg, weighing it down and preventing its economy from developing to its full potential. Instability translates into uncertainty and risk, and investors hate risk. However, when these shackles are released, Iraq will become a more fertile ground for investment and the economy will start to improve.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

East meets West

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of having dinner with Baghdad Treasure, a distinguished journalist and fellow blogger who is visiting the United States from Baghdad.

We'd planned this dinner from about a month ago. I knew when Baghdad Treasure was coming and that he was going to be in town in New York for about a week, so we had planned that when he was here we'd meet up for dinner.

Now, doing dinner in Manhattan at a nice restaurant is not something you do on a whim. You have to put some planning into it, or you're going to get screwed.....

The first tricky part of going for dinner in New York is securing reservations at a good restaurant - and since I knew Baghdad Treasure was coming from a long way away, and this was his first time here, I really wanted to take him to a very good one. Of course, part of the reason I'd planned our dinner for a Wednesday was I knew I could get something - you want dinner in a good restaurant on a Saturday, you may need a reservation booked days or even weeks in advance. My first pick was Peter Luger, a famous steakhouse in Brooklyn. I called around noon, but they were booked solid. So, my next pick was Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Midtown - I called them up and got lucky: they had an opening, and we had our reservation.

The second tricky part was figuring out where to meet. I was driving a car, and in the heart of New York, you can't exactly pull over and park on the curb in rush hour (unless you relish the thought of watching your car leave on the back of a tow truck). Fortunately, Baghdad Treasure had acquired himself a cellphone and I was able to coordinate with him from my car, and was able to pull over on 7th Avenue and pick him up.

I'd never met Baghdad Treasure in person before, and it was a bit new for him too: I was only the second blogger he'd met, the first was my friend Hassan in Baghdad. The first thing I realized was that Baghdad Treasure shared one thing in common with me: the love of talking. Given my way, I'd tend to monopolize on a conversation, but with Baghdad Treasure around, I would never have this opportunity - he likes to talk too. And, over the next six hours we talked and talked and talked and neither of us wanted to shut up.

We drove near Central Park and through Times Square and I parked my car in a garage on 51st Street and walked over to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse - one of my favorite restaurants. We waited in the bar area and ordered drinks (apple martini for me, Heineken for Baghdad Treasure) and stood there talking about the situation in Iraq and his experiences in New York. After we were brought to our table, we continued our conversation over a meal of filet mignon, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and a very nice bottle of 2001 vintage Chateauneuf du Pape.

I wonder what the waiter and some of the folks around us were thinking if they overheard us and some of the conversations we were having. We talked about the difference between an "insurgent" and a "terrorist" (and that there seem to be a lot more of the latter than the former these days), and about blogs and comments and some of the posts he'd written or I'd written. We talked about the Iraqi economy and where I think its possibilities are, about what it's like to be a journalist in Baghdad, and about all sorts of other things (my background, his background, how he became a journalist, how I got into blogging, etc.).

After Ruth's Chris, we walked over to Times Square and Baghdad Treasure looked around marveling at the bright lights, and took a number of pictures, then stopped in at a souvenir store and bought several miniature Statue of Liberty replicas, keychains, mantle plates, and other souvenirs to give his friends and family when he gets back to Baghdad.

After leaving the souvenir shop, we got my car, and I took Baghdad Treasure for a circuit tour around the island of Manhattan: we drove down the West Side Highway through Chelsea and past Ground Zero (the location the World Trade Center used to stand). Baghdad Treasure was very interested to see Ground Zero and took out his camera to take a picture of the big empty pit with a green fence around it as we drove past. Then I continued through Battery Park, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and across the Manhattan Bridge back to Manhattan, through Chinatown, then up FDR Drive and Harlem River Drive past the United Nations and Yankee Stadium, then cut through Washington Heights to the Henry Hudson Parkway, past the George Washington Bridge, then back down to the Upper West Side where I dropped him off at the apartment he was staying at in town.

It can be a lot of fun taking a guy like Baghdad Treasure, who's never been to the US before, on a tour like that: watching the amazed look on his face as he gazed at the lights in Times Square, or his attentive interest in seeing places like Ground Zero or Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge was amazing. For me, I am so used to driving past these places, they are just ordinary to me, but having Baghdad Treasure with me was rather like allowing me to see them for the first time again.

Perhaps the biggest laugh of the evening was when we were driving down 5th Avenue before dinner: Baghdad Treasure spotted this sign (at left) on the side of the street and started laughing and said you'd never see this sign in Iraq. Apparently, when you translate it into Arabic, it means something quite different: still threatening, but to the point of being funny.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Sorry for the delays in posting - it has been an insanely busy few days at work.

Tomorrow evening, I'll be meeting a fellow blogger over dinner at a restaurant in downtown New York City: someone who is visiting from far away (and if you know what other blogs I frequent, you may be able to guess who I am referring to). Should be a lot of fun, I hope.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Bombing al-Jazeera

Update: December 3

The debate is still brewing in the comments section of this post, so I'm going to bring it back up to the top. Open discussion is always a good thing. Keep it up!

I just put up a new post a few minutes ago, scroll down to see it, or just click here.

Update: November 27

Earlier today, I stopped by that same "Don't Bomb Us" blog and saw a rather disturbing comment chain. While I am not completely surprised to see all of this, I am rather disappointed.

I realize the blog authors of "Don't Bomb Us" may take down some of these offensive comments, so I am going to reprint a few of them here.

Anonymous said...
You are a bunch of sorry motherfuckers - if only the US had the guts to bomb you fucking terrorist sympathisers back into your caves where you belowg.
What a lovely sentiment.... so eloquent.

Anonymous said...
You people should have been bombed out of existence a long time ago.
And happy Thanksgiving to you too....

Anonymous said...
It really is too bad that al jizz didn't get the crap bombed out of its offices around the world, the satellite that helps you broadcast your signal should be blown out of space as well...

THE MOUTHPIECE OF THE ENEMY should be treated like the enemy...

P.S. Allah & mohammad are frowning upon you, especially since you have to pay the INFIDELS for technology...Satan worshipping heathens that you are...I scoff at you...
P.S.S. Your word verification even sounds like the goats you mount...
Hmm... accusing the al-Jazeera staff of having sex with goats and worshipping Satan. What a gem!

modifiedcontent said...
You are hypocrites. You have been celebrating the bombings, beheadings and maimings by your al quaeda friends for years now. Bombing al jazeera is an excellent idea.

Yes, let's talk about freedom of speech shall we. Let's talk about Theo van Gogh. Let's talk about Pim Fortuyn. Let's talk about Ayaan Hirsi Ai.

I want islam (cough, spit) out of my life now. I want islam out of our countries in the western world. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, atheists, etc. have the right to live in peace without being terrorized by your sick blood cult.

Please bomb al jazeera now!
I assume you'd like to nuke Mecca and Medina, and perhaps blow up the al-Aqsa Mosque while you're at it....

Anonymous said...
I hope Uncle Sam make up his mind and you all go to Allah and get your 72 old dirty whores.
Another commenter enjoying the Thanksgiving spirit... must have just come back from a shopping mall to be in a mood like that.

Anonymous said...
"Telling the truth is hard. Not telling it is even harder."

Well, you should know.

If anyone has experience at not telling the truth, it's Al Jihadzeera, the voice of Islamofascism.

Bomb now! Then send in troops to shoot the corpses to make sure.
Another holiday reveler....

twin_daddy said...
The real tragedy is that you haven't had a daisy cutter dropped on your sorry asses already. You people are the official mouthpiece for the enemy, the islamo-fascist. I will just have to continue to have faith and pray ever shabbot and at every minyan that your coordinates are locked into a precise, laser-guided bomb, earmarked for your propaganda cess pool.

On a more serious note, as a Christian living in the United States, I sometimes feel a sense of shame when I read comments like these, much like the sense of shame many of my Muslim friends feel seeing terrorist atrocities or ignorant statements done in the name of Islam.

Comments like this are an excellent case-in-point as to why it is important for alternate viewpoints such as al-Jazeera's to be published, and why al-Jazeera's English-language website, and their upcoming "al-Jazeera International" English-language news channel are important.

By the same token, it is equally as important for viewers in the Arab world to be exposed to the news and opinions we see here (CNN, Fox News, BBC, etc.), in their own native language of Arabic. It is only when people are exposed to multiple viewpoints that they are able to critically analyze them.

Original Post: November 26

Over the past few days, there's been a bit of a controversy in the news about a leaked British memo, a transcript of a discussion between George Bush and Tony Blair, where Blair purportedly talked Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

Personally, I think this whole issue is a tempest in a teapot. I can't imagine Bush would seriously suggest bombing al-Jazeera, but I can see him making a joke about it. Bush is known for his sense of humor, and this wouldn't be the first time a joke has backfired on him.

In any case, al-Jazeera isn't taking it as a joke. Their managing director flew to London demanding to meet with British officials for an explanation, and a group of al-Jazeera staffers started a blog called Don't Bomb Us.

I've been having an interesting debate in the comments section of one of the posts on that blog, where some folks have been arguing that bombing al-Jazeera would have been a good idea. Click here to see that discussion.

Prayer Rooms at McGill University

Earlier today, I saw an interesting post on Safiyyah's blog about a simmering dispute at McGill University in Montreal, which was also mentioned in the Globe and Mail newspaper (which my comment was published on). Until recently, the university provided a prayer room for Muslim students there. But, last spring, they took back the room and converted it into an archeology lab. Over the past few months, the Muslim students at McGill have been quietly protesting the decision, and just recently filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission over the decision.

There has been a fair amount of discussion over the past few weeks about this decision, much of which seems to be steeped in ignorance.

To understand the McGill Muslim students' position, it is necessary to understand a bit about their religion and how they pray. Unlike adherents to most religions, Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and at very specific times (three of which are during normal business hours). When they pray, it is not in sitting or kneeling in a pew like we do in Christianity, it is kneeling on a prayer mat on the floor. If you ask Muslims to use a "multifaith chapel" like you have on some university campuses, it is difficult, since this type of facility is usually setup with pews or chairs, and for Islamic prayer, it is necessary to be on the floor.

From a business perspective, it is also important to realize that three of the prayers are during business hours, and if you have Muslim staff working for you, they will disappear for a few minutes at each prayer cycle. The prayers themselves only take 5 minutes, but if they have to travel some distance, they may be gone for longer than that.

A few years ago, I was running a technology project that had several Muslims on it. These were really good people, and very hard workers, but I noticed a few times a day they'd all disappear for about half an hour. From a management perspective, I wasn't overly concerned, since they weren't gone too long, but one time when I was out for lunch with one of the guys, I asked him what was going on, and was very surprised to learn the group of them were having to walk a couple of blocks out in the sun, rain, or snow to go to a mosque to pray three times a day. After that discovery, I arranged with the client to convert an old cloak room across the hall from their work area into a prayer room, and the results were immediate. The prayer breaks, which were 20 minutes, were shortened to 5 minutes, and these guys, who were already productive, became more productive and happier. And, my client's own Muslim staff heard what we were doing and started coming down to use the prayer room, and it turned out to be a big success.

Muslims don't need a whole lot when it comes to a prayer facility: just a quiet and empty room with enough space on the floor to spread their prayer mats. Nothing fancy. It really doesn't take a lot to allocate a room like this, but the productivity benefits are obvious.

Asking for an empty room is not asking for a whole lot, and I really do not understand McGill's position here. To me, it sounds like a decision that was made by a very short-sighted administrator with absolutely no concept of how important such a prayer room can be. Given the low cost of a prayer room, and McGill's position as an internationally aclaimed university, this decision seems completely asinine to me.

Technical problems

Some people may have noticed my DNS domain isn't working. I've got a call into Network Solutions and am just waiting for them to fix it, but you can still get to my blog through in the meantime.


Problem solved!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Nukes and Terrorists

A couple of weeks ago, there was some news coverage here in New York about some radioactive material that had gone missing at JFK Airport. Of course, the news article went on to talk about how this material could have been used to make a so-called "dirty bomb".

A few months back, I wrote a post about dirty bombs, and how ineffective one would actually be. While a dirty bomb might scare people, and may make a few people sick, it would likely not kill anyone, and most of its contamination would be washed away in the first good rain. Pound for pound, a chemical weapon would be much more effective, and much easier for a terrorist to get his hands on or make.

So why is the press making such a big deal about dirty bombs? Perhaps a sensationalist ploy, playing on people's fears in an attempt to sell more newspapers?

One of the real problems with making this big fuss about dirty bombs is I think we are understating the risk of a terrorist making a real nuke. As I wrote in another post, making a real atomic bomb is not that hard - the only hard part is getting your hands on the main ingredient: either enriched uranium or plutonium. And, you can't exactly go buy these items at the store.... or can you?

Enriched uranium or plutonium can be easily diverted from a rogue nation's "peaceful nuclear energy" program. Most nuclear reactors need enriched uranium to operate, and as I wrote earlier, it is very expensive and difficult to make enriched uranium. But, if you're making it anyway for use in your country's "peaceful nuclear energy" program, it's not that hard to divert a few pounds for a less peaceful purpose. Likewise, you can get plutonium by "reprocessing" the used nuclear fuel rods, the so-called "nuclear waste" from a power plant.

Just how easy is it to buy uranium or plutonium? If you try to buy it in Western countries like the US or Canada, you'll find yourself in jail. But what about developing countries? North Korea has a nuclear program, a whole lot of starving people, and too much pride to accept charity. Not a good combination. If someone approached North Korea and offered to buy plutonium or enriched uranium, do you think they'd sell it?

And what about Iran? Iran has a nuclear program, and a number of ideological extremists in places of power. If someone asked Iran for enriched uranium or plutonium to attack its declared enemies (Israel or America) with, they might even give it away.

Maybe al-Qaeda already has the ingredients for a nuclear weapon and is just waiting for the opportunity to use it..... a chilling thought indeed.

This whole topic is very scary.