Sunday, April 30, 2006

"A Day without an (illegal) Immigrant"

"A Day without an Immigrant" - this is the name for a massive protest/boycott/general strike that is scheduled tomorrow (May 1), where organizers are hoping for millions of immigrant workers to stay away from work, in protest against proposed US legislation to crack down on illegal immigration.

As a foreign worker myself, I am decidedly unimpressed by all this, as I'm sure many in my situation are also. As I recently wrote about the proposed legislation, the only people who the US is cracking down on are illegal immigrants - people who broke the law by evading US legal authorities and circumventing US border controls to enter the country without permission. And so, most of the people behind this protest are either illegal immigrants themselves, or their supporters. Let me make this clear: legal immigrants generally don't mind the US getting its border under control, it's only illegals who have something to be concerned with.

Let's pause for a moment and consider just how stupid this whole protest is. If you are doing something illegal, is it really wise to go out in a public protest and draw attention to yourself? Can you imagine a group of drug dealers holding a street protest against a crackdown on drug smuggling? Or, how about a group of pedophiles holding a protest against a crackdown on kiddie porn? Of course not! However, in the case of the illegal immigrants, they seem to sense that the Department of Homeland Security lacks the spine and/or political will to do what common sense suggests here...

Like coming up with a new name for this protest: The Great American Round-Up. You start by sending out the National Guard and Homeland Security officers to the parade sites to round up as many protesters as they can catch. Then, you check each person's legal status in the US, and deport the ones who don't belong. After the rest of the protesters figure out what's going on, most will scatter in panic and *poof*, no more protest. Then, as the next stage in the "Great American Round-Up", you set up an anonymous tip line, for coworkers and employers to report people who did not show up for work on Monday, prompting checks on each person's legal status.

Wishful thinking, unfortunately... I'm sure the protesters are correct that Department of Homeland Security lacks the spine for an operation like this.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Iraq's Mail System

Neither snow nor rain
Nor heat nor gloom of night
Stays these couriers
From the swift completion
Of their appointed rounds.
Herotodus (484 BC - 430 BC)

And in the case of Iraq: nor terrorists, nor car bombs, nor kidnappings, nor murders, nor carjackings....

One thing that has suprised me, and which many people do not realize, is that despite all of the violence and discord in Iraq, the postal system there is fully functional, and quite reliable. Sitting here in the United States, you can drop a letter in the mail, or take a parcel to the post office, addressed to an ordinary person in Iraq, and a couple of weeks later that person will get it. Now, I'm not talking about sending mail to US soldiers - the military has its own mail delivery system, so you'd expect those to get through. I'm talking about mail to ordinary civilians.

Over the past year, I've sent a few small packages to Iraq, and all got through in about two weeks. Back in March, I mailed a 6 pound box to some friends in Mosul, and they got it just three weeks later, intact and undamaged. It is amazing to think about the challenges that had to be surmounted to get these items to their destinations.

From what I've been able to figure out, mail to Iraq from the United States is first flown to Bahrain by the US Postal Service, where it is flown into Baghdad by DHL (a subsidiary of the German post office Deutsche Post). In Baghdad, the mail destined to US soldiers is separated off from the mail going to Iraqi civilians, and the civilian mail is handed to the Iraqi postal system.

Two weeks ago, the Times of London published an article about the Iraqi postal system and the dedicated employees who work there. Well worth the read.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Blaming the victim: Duke rape case

Over the past couple of weeks, the news headlines here in the United States have paid a lot of attention to a rape case at Duke University. The story behind this case seems to be straight from a John Grisham novel: a group of white students, all members of the lacrosse team at an Ivy League university, and most from well-to-do backgrounds, hire a couple of local black strippers for a party, and allegedly lure one of them into a bathroom and brutally gang-rape her.

Despite the heavy news coverage of the incident, the news articles have been decidedly vague on what actually happened. Perhaps the best source of information is the Probable Cause section of the search warrant that was used to search one Duke lacrosse player's dorm room. According to the search warrant, the victim and a coworker were both hired as strippers for a private party. Shortly after they started performing, the guys got "excited and aggressive", and one guy picked up a broom handle and told the women, "I'm going to shove this up you." After that, both women ran out and were about to drive off, when one guy came out, apologized, and asked them to stay. After they both went inside, a couple of the guys allegedly pulled the victim into the bathroom, locked the door, and gang-raped her for over half an hour.

Since the case has become public, several blogs and news outlets have jumped on the story, and some have lashed out at the accuser, revealing her full name, and a few embarrassing details from her past, and tried to make her look like a money-grubbing liar trying to milk a few college students out of their tuition money.

It is all too easy to dismiss the victim in this case. After all, she is a stripper, a divorced mother with two children, and someone with multiple prior criminal convictions. One might argue that the victim deserved it because she is working as a stripper. Or, perhaps one might argue that she seduced the boys in an attempt to get money from them, Or that she must be lying because, well, someone with her background who works as a stripper must be immoral and can't be trusted.

But, in all the news coverage about the victim, one point stood out: she is a full time college student herself.

Let's try to put this together a bit: a young woman who perhaps got pregnant a bit too early, got into a bad marriage, and after having two kids, the marriage fell apart. Alone, a single mother with two kids to support, she tries to make the best for herself and her children. And, while stripping may not be a very desirable job, it is one of the few jobs a woman in her position could do that would bring in enough money to pay her college tuition and feed her young family, and for which the working hours do not interfere with her class schedule.

If you dig a bit further, and pull up the victim's criminal record, you will see that all four of her criminal convictions were from a single night, where she had too much to drink and took her client's car out for a drunken joy-ride. The judge evidently didn't think this was a major crime: he only put her on probation and ordered to take a DWI course - one of the most lenient sentences he could have imposed. If you take this in context, this one night of misadventure is not a major impugnment of the victim's character.

Another thing that really disturbs me about this case is the degree of premediation that seems to have existed. Why did a group of white college students specifically select two black strippers for their party? They could have just as easily selected white or latina women. Did they hire these women from the start with the goal of humilating and degrading them?

An even more disturbing thought: why did they find no DNA evidence in the rape kit, even though the victim showed physical trauma and signs of rape? I think back to the guy holding the broom stick and threatening to "shove this up" the victim, and shudder at the possibilities here. It would certainly explain the lack of DNA evidence....

Perhaps the lacrosse players' own words best describe their mindset. The day after the alleged rapes, one of the lacrosse players (Ryan McFayden) allegedly sent this disgusting email, which was later forwarded to the police:

To whom it may concern

tomorrow night, after tonights show, ive decided to have some strippers over to edens 2c. all are welcome.. however there will be no nudity. i plan on killing the bitches as soon as the walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke issue spandex.. all besides arch and tack please respond

*shudder*.... And the author of this email is supposed to be a student at an Ivy League college? A future leader of the American business world? Lord help us....

As a white man myself who is proudly married to a beautiful black woman, I am completely disgusted with this case. Beyond my disgust, I am disappointed with the kneejerk reaction of some journalists and bloggers, who I think have been far too quick to lay the blame at the feet of the victim. Let's let the court system and the jury do their job - if the students are guilty, lock 'em up, and if not, let them go.

Update (April 25)

Well, it seems the victim isn't the only one with a prior criminal history:

Finnerty and two former lacrosse teammates from Chaminade High School in New York are charged in the assault case. Jeffrey O. Bloxsom, 27, told police that the trio attacked him without provocation after calling him gay, court records say. Bloxsom, a Fairfax, Va., real estate agent, suffered a cut lip and bruised chin.

On March 23, the day 46 Duke lacrosse players were ordered to provide DNA samples in the rape investigation, Finnerty appeared in Superior Court in Washington on the assault charge. He received a deal in which the charge would be dismissed if he performed 25 hours of community service and was not arrested for six months.
Source: The News & Observer

Finnerty's assault charge was dropped as part of a pre-trial intervention program, which allows the perpetrator to avoid the stigma of having a criminal record. The judge ruled today, though, that Finnerty's arrest in this case violated the terms of the pre-trial intervention, and his assault charge is now back on for trial in July.

Another question is whether this recent history of violent criminal activity will cause Finnerty any problems in the Durham rape case. I suspect it may...

Update 2 (April 25)

The News & Observer has published an excellent profile on the victim. An excerpt:

On March 24, when The News & Observer reported that 46 lacrosse players had been ordered to submit DNA, the woman spent the morning inside her parents' home as her two young children explored the yard.
As she stepped off the screened-in porch, a gym bag slung over one shoulder, she was met by a reporter. Upon learning that reports of her allegations had surfaced in the newspaper, she put a hand over her mouth and gasped. Tears welled in her eyes.
She reported the incident, she said, because many men don't believe forcing a woman to have sex is a "big deal." She pulled her 7-year-old son toward her on the sidewalk.
"I'm just trying to get on with my life," she said softly.
Since then, she has not spoken publicly.

Click here to read the rest.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Ottawa Trip

Sorry for the delay in blogging: I was in Ottawa, Canada for Easter weekend. Here are some pictures I took with my camera there on Sunday.

This picture is of the center block of the Canadian parliament buildings. The area around the parliament buildings is called Parliament Hill, and the center block is the main building where both the House of Commons and Senate chambers are, as well as the offices for the prime minister, and other important leaders.

This is the East Block of the parliament buildings, which is used for offices for members of parliament. There is also a West Block, which looks almost identical.

This picture is the Museum of Civilization, as seen from Parliament Hill. The Museum is just on the other side of the Ottawa River, in Hull, Quebec - a beautiful building.

This building is the National Art Gallery, as seen from Parliament Hill.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter to all of my readers, I hope you all have a safe and enjoyable holiday today with your families.

On the lighter side...

Seeing as today is Easter, I thought I'd toss in something a bit funny, courtesy of some bonehead working at my local grocery store in New York a few weeks ago.

Can anyone spot what's wrong with this picture?

Let's have a closer look. We have "Al Safa Halal - The Name you can Trust" on the outside of the cooler. Let's have a closer look at what's inside the cooler...

Ham. Hmm... what an interesting marketing concept these Al-Safa guys have... halal ham. I wonder what they'll come up with next.... halal bacon, or maybe halal beer, or maybe they can even tap the Jewish market and start selling kosher lard or perhaps kosher cheeseburgers.

Of course, if the folks at al-Safa knew the name of my grocery store, I expect they'd try to add a few more dishes to their menu, perhaps "flame broiled store manager", or possibly "deep fired stockboy."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The GED Fallacy

This week's edition of Time Magazine ran an interesting article on its cover titled Dropout Nation, in which Time lifts the lid a bit on the dropout rate in the United States. According to the article, many juristictions in the United States have been covering up high dropout rates through creative reporting mechanisms, where a student who drops out of school but answers that he/she plans to take the General Educational Development (GED) tests are not counted in the statistics as dropouts. However, according to the Time article, when you add in those who leave saying they will take the GED, the overall dropout rate across the country is more than 30%.

Given the high education rate in the United States, coupled with the fact that most low-end jobs are either being shipped overseas or being done by low-paid illegal immigrants, dropping out of high school in 2006 in this country is economic suicide: a ticket to a lifetime of backbreaking hard work, low pay, and living paycheck to paycheck - or worse. Why would someone willingly put themselves in this situation?

...unless that person thinks he/she has an easy way out. Something like the GED.

For those unfamiliar with the GED, it is a series of five exams that evaluate a candidate's skills in Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science. If a candidate passes the exams, he/she is given a diploma that is supposed to be the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Of course, one major problem with the GED is that concept of equality. A GED is not a high school diploma. Some people may treat it as one, but others may not.

As a hiring manager myself, I have screened over a thousand resumes and interviewed over a hundred candidates over the last several years, and I know what to look for. When people write a resume, they tend to embellish on the good stuff and leave out the bad stuff, so as a manager, I try to read between the lines, to look for things that suggest trouble. And for me, seeing a GED on someone's resume or job application is a huge red flag.

Why, you might ask. Here is the logic: a GED is something you get when you fail to finish high school the normal way. Perhaps the candidate was unmotivated and didn't push himself. Or, perhaps he was rebellious, had a poor sense of self-discipline and failed to succeed in school. Or, worse yet, perhaps he was a troublemaker and got expelled from school. In any case, all of these traits that can make a person fail to adapt to the structured environment at high school are just as likely to make a person fail to adapt to the even more structured environment in most companies. For me, if I see a GED on a resume, I am quite likely to toss the resume into my trash can unless I see some other redeeming qualities, and even then, the candidate can expect a grilling in the interview over why he/she did not finish high school the normal way.

Likewise, just as the GED does not adequately set a person up for improving his/her work prospects, it does not set that person up for success in college/university either. According to this report published a few years ago on the topic, 95% of GED recipients who go on to a four-year university program fail to complete it (probably by flunking out), as compared to 25% of those who enter the program with a regular high school diploma.

Given the poor prospects of a GED recipient, does it really make sense that the program continued to be promoted as an equivalent alternate path? Does it really make sense to give teenagers an option: either they can sit in class and do their homework for four years, or they can stop all that, study a bit, go write five tests, and spend their time hanging out with their friends instead? Should that really be a choice?

Personally, I think the GED may have outlived its usefulness. The program was originally created in the 1940s as a way for soldiers returning from World War II who had left before finishing high school to not have to go back to high school in their twenties. However, in today's society, the same situation that created the GED no longer exists, and the fact that we leave it on the table as an option only encourages some frustrated teenagers to look at it as a valid option.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Propaganda Blow-Back

This morning, the Washington Post ran an article on its front page that left me fuming. In this article, titled "Military Plays up Role of Zarqawi," the Post cites "internal military documents," and "officers familiar with the program," alleging that the United States has launched a propaganda campaign to "play up" the role of Zarqawi in the Iraqi insurgency, in order to turn Iraqis opinions against the insurgents by "playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners."

To quote the Post article:

For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi's role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the "U.S. Home Audience" as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign.

The US Home Audience?! Wait, that's a little differnet. Isn't propaganda supposed to be the stuff of George Orwell, that rampant disinformation that repressive countries feed their unsuspecting public? The stuff that caused us to be thankful we grew up in a free country so as not to be subject to it? What the hell is a propaganda campaign doing being devised with the US Home Audience as one of its broader targets?!

The Post describes this propaganda campaign as including, "leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist."

Leaflets, hmm.... Those who have been reading Iraqi blogs for a while may remember this leaflet, showing a burning house and reading, "They didn't think that we saw them, but those who work with al-Zarqawi are being watched. If you helped al-Zarqawi or his people, your house will be like this one."

I'm sure whoever dropped this on my friend Najma's roof in Mosul over a year ago did not imagine a copy of it being photographed and put up on a blog where people here in America can read a translation of what's written on it. It is infuriating to think that, if the Post article is correct, this leaflet and others like it may have been geared to overinflate Zarqawi; to play up his role and turn ordinary Iraqis against the insurgency, and in the process, to deceive all of us.

What is more infuriating is to think back to all of the news we have read over the past three years, and to wonder how much it was truth and how much was distortions and outright lies.

It is easy to understand why some American authorities might want to pump up Zarqawi's image - Zarqawi is one of the easiest terrorists to hate. From his allegiance to al-Qaeda (the same organization that crashed the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11), to his brutal beheadings of hostages (including at least one, Nick Berg, who he allegedly beheaded himself), to his group's brutal bombing of a Palestinian wedding in Jordan, Zarqawi has earned himself a reputation as a monster. Many Americans would be quite willing to support a war against a guy like Zarqawi and his organization, but some Americans would likely be less willing to support a war against a group of home-grown insurgents, who do not have the terrorist connections of Zarqawi.

The trouble is, when you start telling lies, you erode people's confidence in everything you say. Like the boy who cried "wolf", if the American authorities start lying to the American public along with the rest of the world community and gets caught, their credibility is shot. People won't believe them anymore about much of anything and will get their information from other sources.

If the Post article is true, the main question left on the table is how endemic this alleged domestic propaganda campaign is. Is it a systemic problem, or the act of a few overzealous psyops people?

Americans love the United States because of its American values and freedoms, and a domestic propaganda campaign goes so far against those American ideals I don't even know where to start. Five years ago, terrorists attacked America, and if people here allow the country to dilute and warp the values that make the country great in reaction to those attacks, the terrorists have scored a major victory. Likewise, America invaded Iraq three years ago in an attempt to bring these same freedoms there, but a propaganda campaign just sullies them. As I have written before, I am a big believer in liberty and free speech, but just as I love free speech, I hate disinformation. Let's get real, and let's be truthful - both to the Iraqi people, and to ourselves.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Welfare and Illegal Immigration

In the whole debate on illegal immigration here in the United States, one factor has been mentioned time and again: illegal immigrants are often doing dirty, unpleasant, and low-paying jobs that Americans do not want to do. Several areas of the economy, such as slaughterhouses, poultry processing plants, janitorial services, car washes, and certain construction trade depend disproportionately on illegal immigrants to meet their labor needs.

It comes as no surprise to most Americans that the vast majority of illegal immigrants here are from Mexico. I have a number of friends in Mexico, all of whom are well educated and middle class. In fact, many Americans who travel to Mexico are surprised to see the modern freeways and nice cars and learn that many Mexicans live quite well in Mexico. Of course, those Mexicans have no interest in sneaking off across the border and working as a janitor. Typically, the ones we see here are the poor, unskilled, and uneducated ones - the people who could not get a decent job in Mexico.

One major factor that is not discussed much is the welfare system. Here in the United States, we have a generous welfare system. If a person does not have a job (perhaps because he/she does not want one), the government will give that person money, food stamps, subsidized housing, and other benefits. In some cases, someone may earn an equivalent living standard on welfare as he/she would working in one of these dirty unpleasant jobs that are often left to illegals.

By contrast, in Mexico, there are very little in the way of welfare programs. You work, or you and your family go hungry. This is precisely why many poor Mexicans are willing to risk their lives to sneak across the US border to find work, since they are able to find work that pays more than similar work would in Mexico.

As a taxpayer, I don't enjoy the concept of paying people to sit on their butts and do nothing, while businesses are having to resort to hiring illegal workers to do these unpleasant jobs these folks don't want to do. Allowing unskilled immigration is fine, but we should try to make full use out of our own unskilled workforce first before resorting to it.