Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam Execution Farce

A little more than 24 hours ago, Saddam Hussein was executed in Iraq, the result of his death sentence he received as a result of the Dujail incident. Throughout the trial, some Sunnis in Iraq felt suspicious of the whole judicial process, thinking it a sham; a kangaroo trial leading to the foregone conclusion of a death sentence. And, while the judges and court officials put out a great effort to allay these suspicions, these efforts were largely undone by the spitefulness and general lack of professionalism that surrounded Saddam's execution.

The timing of the execution seemed preplanned to spite the Sunni population in Iraq. Eid al-Adha (the feast of the sacrifice) is one of two major feasts in the Muslim calendar. Sunnis celebrate Eid al-Adha this year starting December 30, while Shias celebrate it one day later. Thus, Saddam's execution was held on the first day of the Sunnis' Eid.

A court official was asked by a news reporter why they chose to execute Saddam on the first day of Eid - he responded that Eid in Iraq starts on Sunday, despite the fact that for the Sunnis it started on Saturday.

Another element of the execution that was wrong was the taunting of Saddam Hussein by the executioners in the moments before his execution. This video was captured by a small video camera (likely a cellphone) by a witness to the execution, and it is plainly obvious why the video the Iraqi government released earlier in the day stopped prior to the trapdoor being opened.

After Saddam is put on the trapdoor and the noose is placed over his neck, he begins to quietly pray. His prayers are drowned out by one of the executioners and some members of the crowd shouting, "Muqtada, Muqdada, Muqtada!"

Saddam retorted from the gallows: "Muqtada? Is this how you show your bravery as men? Is this the bravery of Arabs?"

Members of the crowd drowned out Saddam with calls of, "Straight to hell!", and "Long live Mohammed Baqir Sadr!"

Finally, someone (perhaps one of the executioners) calls out to the crowd, "Please, I am begging you not to, the man is being executed."

At this point the trapdoor opens, Saddam drops, and the crowd erupts in cheers.

There are two things I find profoundly disturbing about this video. Firstly, is completely unprofessional for an executioner or witnesses to an execution to taunt the condemned man, drowning out his prayers with vicious taunts. The condemned man is set to die - why does it need to be made cruel? Did these men taunt Saddam using the name of Sadr on purpose, knowing their taunts would be captured on video?

In addition to the taunts, it is completely inappropriate for the crowd at the execution to be dancing and rejoicing. No matter how much one may dislike a man or his crimes, it is never right to rejoice over his death.

The barbarity of Saddam's execution, the video of it quickly released to Iraqi television, and the execution timed to coincide with the start of a holy day for Sunni Muslims but not for Shias - all of these things seem to be a carefully crafted message from members of the Shia dominated government to the Sunni minority: we don't care what you think, we are running things now, and we will do whatever we want without regard to you. And, in conducting the execution in this spiteful way, the execution team has damaged and undermined some of the credibility the court worked hard to build up, and Iraq has taken a further step towards fractionalism, and sectarian alienation.

A sad day for Iraq, for America, and for the world.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Happy Eid!

I'd like to wish a happy and blessed Eid al-Adha (feast of the sacrifice) to all my Muslim friends around the world.

It is unusual this year - all three of the major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are celebrating holidays within a week of each other: last week was Channukah, Christmas was a few days ago, and Eid al-Adha starts today.

What is interesting about Eid al-Adha is that it celebrates a powerful lesson that is common to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism: the day the prophet Abraham was called upon to give his son Isaac as a burnt offering to God. In the end, God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead, but not before Abraham had made preparations and was ready to sacrifice his son. In Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, this story of Abraham provides the ultimate example of dedication and sacrifice. While all three of these monotheistic religions acknowledge Abraham's sacrifice as a powerful lesson, Islam is the only one that sets aside a holiday for it.

Eid Mubarak to all my friends around the world who celebrate it.

Saddam Executed

Earlier today, Saddam Hussein was handed over from US custody to the Iraqi government and hanged. What will this mean for the situation on the ground in Iraq?

Absolutely nothing....

Saddam ceased to be relevant to the war on the ground the day he was driven out of power by invading US forces. When he was captured hiding in a spider-hole, he had as much to fear from being captured by many of his own countrymen as by the American forces. Since Saddam's capture, anyone with half a brain should have anticipated today's execution as the eventual outcome of the legal process Saddam was facing: even if Saddam was acquitted of one charge, or given a lenient punishment in another, there were so many charges facing Saddam that at least one was likely to result in a death sentence - and all it needed was one death sentence to have him hanged.

The Dujail killings, which Saddam was convicted and sentenced to die for, were not chosen because they were Saddam's worst crime - they were chosen because they were the easiest to prove: written execution orders bearing Saddam's own signature are hard to deny.

Many Iraqis loathed Saddam - even the Sunnis the American news media often paint as his supporters. I know more than one Iraqi Sunni who used to join the crowd in the streets shouting with the crowd, "With our spirit, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Saddam," while secretly hating Saddam all the while. Just because a show-dog will jump through a flaming hoop on command doesn't mean the dog likes doing it.

Saddam will undoubtely have some Iraqis mourning for him, and a few insurgent groups may launch attacks to coincide with Saddam's execution. But, will these attacks be any worse than the horrid situation Iraq is already embroiled in? Not likely.

Unfortunately, Saddam's death is not likely to make things any better in Iraq either - he ceased to be relevant there long ago.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Iran Sanctions: Tickling an Alligator

Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a set of sanctions against the government of Iran and a handful of Iranian companies and key individuals who are allegedly involved with Iran's nuclear enrichment program or their missile program.

Unfortunately, in order to get the buy-in from China and Russia, it seems the sanctions have been so watered down as to be completely ineffective.
  • They prohibit the sale of nuclear technology to Iran, except where that technology is for use in light-water reactors.
  • They sanction 10 Iranian companies, and 12 specific individuals employed by those companies, freezing their international funds, exempting contracts that were already signed when the sanctions were put into effect.

The exception for light-water reactors is a key item of note: it basically means that countries can still freely sell nuclear technology to Iran, so long as that technology is for light-water reactors. Another key item is the exemption for pre-existing contracts: this means that the Bushehr reactor that Russia is currently constructing for Iran can still go ahead without any glitches or delays.

Beyond these minor nuisance-sanctions, there is no real penalty against Iran for defying the world community on its nuclear technology.

Dealing with Iran is like dealing with an alligator: you need to either deal with it forcefully or leave it the hell alone. The toothless sanctions passed by the UN are rather like tickling the alligator - they may annoy it, but do nothing to stop it from wreaking havoc.

Worse yet, Iranian leaders may feel emboldened by last week's UN vote - after all, they scored a major victory. While the US was able to push through "sanctions" against Iran, they were so watered down by the time the negotiations with other security council members were done that they do not resemble sanctions in any conventional sense of the word.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! I am currently in Canada enjoying the holiday with my parents and my own family.

To all my readers, I wish you all a joyous Christmas holiday along with your families.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Grass and Fences

As I am preparing to move back to the Toronto area, I have been amazed at the kinds of remarks I've gotten from some of my American colleagues here in New York. Many of them seem a bit jealous: any of them who have visited Toronto said it is a wonderful city, and a few said they would love to live there. Some common things the Americans like about Toronto is the cleanliness of the place, the beautiful architecture, the low crime rate, the healthcare system, and the cost of housing. One senior executive I talked to said I was very lucky, and he "would move to Toronto in a second" if he had the opportunity.

The ironic thing is the sentiments of my American colleagues here sound so much like the jealous feelings my Canadian friends seem to have had towards me when I'd come up and visit. They'd look at me living in New York and think of all the bright lights in Times Square, and all the lifestyle here. Oddly enough, six years ago, before I moved to the United States, I was like that too - enough so that I packed up and moved.

There is an old saying: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. This is particularly true when this fence is the Canada/US border. In looking at other countries, we always seem to look at society there through rose-colored glasses while looking more harshly at our own.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Trying to Banish Christmas

A few days ago, a Toronto judge ordered a Christmas tree moved out of the courthouse lobby and into a less-frequented corridor, out of fear the tree would offend non-Christians.

What made me feel a real sense of pride in being a Canadian is the universal backlash that greeted this judge's decision, especially by the non-Christians she was trying not to offend. The president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Farzana Hassan, gave perhaps the juiciest quote: "This is stupidity and takes political correctness to new heights. We should ban political correctness, not the Christmas tree."

Manuel Prutschi, the executive vice president of the Canadian Jewish Congress had a similar quote: "The presence of the Christmas tree is a symbol for a lot of people — believing Christians and perhaps non-believers — of a joyous holiday, and we respect that and acknowledge that."

As of a few minutes ago, the Globe and Mail article on the subject had gathered 132 comments, almost all of them lashing out at the judge's decision.

One thing I like about Canada is the unity we seem to find around Christmas time. Many immigrants like the way Christmas is celebrated in Canada, and adopt this holiday, even if it is not part of their own traditions. A large number of Canadians (including many non-Christians) put up Christmas trees and exchange gifts on December 25, even if they do not celebrate the religious aspects of the holiday. One of the Globe and Mail comments that seems to echo this sentiment the best:

Hamid Azari from Canada writes: This is sheer non-sense? Why can't I share and participate in the happiness of my neighbour, my friends and my fellow country man. Why would the happiness of my country man alienate me? Aren't there enough issues and divisions in this world in the name of religion etc. etc. that you are making an issue out a non-issue? As a born muslim, I beg you not to protect me in my name in this fashion. This is the height of absurdity. Enough of divisions. Enough is enough.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Moving back to Canada

I have some big news that has been in the works for a few months now: I am taking a new job with a different company, and moving back to Canada. This new job is a major step up in my career: I am going from an Associate Director at a small New York based company to Vice President at a large multinational company.

In my new role, I will be based in Toronto, but I will be responsible for all of North America, and about three quarters of the people working for me will be here in the United States. So, I will be back here a lot, and will probably spend at least one week per month here in New York.

One thing that is both flattering and nerve-wracking at the same time: I am very young to have this level of job. I remember when I came to my current role, I was the second youngest person in my whole department, and yet I was the boss, and I was the youngest director in the history of the company. In my new role, this effect will be even more pronounced: as a Vice President, I will have two to three levels of management below me. I expect I will be 10 years younger than most/all of my direct reports (directors) and younger than most of their direct reports (managers) too. Their first interaction with me will likely be over the phone, but when they first meet me, I wonder how many will ask themselves, "who the hell is this kid?" I expect some people will try to dismiss me because of my age, and some may even try to test my authority. As a younger manager, it is not merely sufficient to be as good at what I do, I need to excel in order for people to overlook my age and respect me.

I will be going to Canada for Christmas holidays soon, which have now turned into a big househunting trip. I am both excited and nervous about the coming few weeks.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Only in New Orleans: scandal-tainted congressman re-elected

Earlier today, I saw some news that I had trouble believing: congressman William Jefferson was re-elected to office.

This is the same guy who the FBI arrested a few months ago after finding $90,000 in cash hidden away in his freezer, a day after a company admitted paying him a $100,000 bribe.

Looking a bit into the story, the same white versus black nastiness that has pervaded New Orleans for decades seems to have reared its ugly head again. As the Washington Post explains:

Jefferson, 59, drew widespread support among blacks who are skeptical of the federal government's motives in its investigation of him. He repeatedly suggested the probe is groundless because he has yet to be indicted more than a year after the FBI raided his home in New Orleans.
Carter, 37, raised nearly five times as much money as Jefferson, but she was largely outflanked in the endorsement game. Jefferson picked up the backing of Mayor Ray Nagin and other prominent black politicians.

What is peculiar here is that Karen Carter herself is black, and despite this fact, Jefferson was able to portray Karen Carter as a "pawn of the white establishment" (as her father Ken Carter described), and through this scaremongering was able to get an overwhelming majority of the black votes in New Orleans.

I have written about New Orleans in the past, and only in this screwed-up racist cesspool of a city can I imagine this type of thing happening: a politician, who was caught red-handed with a $90,000 bribe stashed away in his freezer, getting re-elected, simply because of racial politics. No matter what Jefferson's political qualifications, no matter what his platform, no matter what color his skin is, the least thing one can demand from a politician is honesty. And, a man like Jefferson, who has proven himself so dishonest, should never be elected to political office.

As someone tainted by strong accusations of corruption, William Jefferson is a pariah in Washington, and any initiative he may propose will be inherently suspect. With much work to be done still to clean up from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans needs a strong advocate in congress. With this scandal hanging over his head, William Jefferson will never fit this role again.

New Orleans residents did not cause Hurricane Katrina, and they did not cause the destruction that it wrought. But, they did have a choice in who to elect to office, and by re-electing William Jefferson, the residents of New Orleans failed to look out for their own interests. If New Orleans does not receive adequate government support after making such a stupid error, it will be their own undoing. By re-electing Jefferson, New Orleans dug its own hole.

Social Security Stupidity

The US government is made up of a collection of various departments, and sometimes these departments make policies that are incompatible with the policies of other government departments. A very good example of this can be found in the Social Security Administration, and their refusal to grant social security numbers to people who are legally in this country but not allowed to work.

When someone comes to the United States on a temporary work visa (H1B, TN, etc.), that person is legally allowed to work here, however that person's dependents (spouse, children) are not. The Social Security Administration's (SSA's) policy is to give a social security number only to someone who is permitted to work here. And so, the recipient of the work visa is granted a social security number, but his dependents are not.

This creates problems with a number of other government departments, most notably the IRS. To claim a tax deduction for a dependent on your tax return here, you need to enter that person's social security number on the return. Because a visitor can't get a SS # for his dependents, the IRS allows you to apply for something called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for your dependents. An ITIN is the same format as a social security number, but it can only be used on your tax return, not for anything else. Thus, because of the SSA's refusal to give social security numbers to these people, the IRS has to manage a parallel program to give cards and numbers just so people can complete their tax returns.

The next problem this creates is with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in many states. In several states, you need a social security number to get a drivers' license. Depending on where a visitor and his dependents are from, this can create a classic "catch 22" for the visitor's spouse:
  • Depending on where it is from, you may be able to continue driving with your foreign drivers license, but you may be considered in violation of state law if you haven't converted this over to a state license if you're living in the state.
  • You can't get insurance on your car under your foreign license - you need to get your state license first.
  • You can't get your state drivers' license without a social security card.
  • You can't get a social security card because you're not legally allowed to work here (although you are legally allowed to live here, accompanying your spouse who is legally allowed to work).

Getting a drivers license when you are on a temporary visa is straightforward. Getting one when you are a dependent is not. I know one woman who came to the US on a K-1 (fiancee) visa to marry her husband, and could not get a drivers license for two years because of this situation: she wasn't allowed to work until her green card got further along, she was not allowed to get a SS# until she was allowed to work, and she couldn't get her drivers license without the SS#.

Another problem is that almost everything you do here in the US requires a social security number, as your credit report is tied to it. If you don't have a SS#, you can't open a bank account, can't get a credit card in your name, etc. So, while the primary visitor is allowed to work and do all this, his spouse is essentially stuck.

There are several reasons why this intransigence on the part of the Social Security Administration is incredibly selfish and stupid:

  • Because of it, the IRS is forced to run the ITIN program - a parallel program whose sole purpose is to give cards and numbers to people who the SSA refuses to give them to. The cost of the IRS having to run the ITIN program is far greater than it would cost for the SSA to simply give social security numbers to these people.
  • There is no security benefit to not giving social security numbers to visitors who are legally here. In fact, having a unique number to identify visitors would strengthen security.
  • Denying the spouses of visitors the ability to obtain a drivers license or credit puts an undue burden on many of these people.

A simple solution to this situation would be a change in policy at the Social Security Administration: to grant a social security number to anyone who is here in the US on a legal dependent status (H4, TD, etc.), and/or who needs to be claimed as a dependent on a US tax return. Implementing this policy would allow the IRS to shut down the ITIN program, and would result in significant cost savings, improved security, and streamlined processes.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cloak and Dagger in London

Over the past month, I have been following the news from London, about the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. After more than three weeks of convalescence in a hospital, Litvinenko passed away on November 22, and the autopsy after his death identified a very unusual radioactive poison in his system: Polonium 210.

In the time since, the news media has not done a very good job of explaining to the public what this stuff called polonium is, and how it would have killed Litvinenko, and why this substance was so hard for British doctors to detect until after Litvinenko's death. So, I will take some liberty here.

Polonium is a naturally occurring radioactive substance. As natural uranium decays, one of the substances that is produced is polonium. Thus, it can be found in very small concentrations in natural uranium (which is how Marie and Pierre Curie first isolated it in 1898).

There are four types of radiation that can come from a radioactive substance: alpha radiation (two protons and two neutron together), beta radiation (tiny electrons or positrons), gamma radiation (high-energy photons), and neutron radiation (neutrons).

While this technical jargon may not make a lot of sense to many people, the important thing to note is that alpha particles are huge compared to the others. This means two things: alpha particles can't go very far (they can't even penetrate a piece of paper), but they do a lot of damage when they hit something. A guy on a bicycle can navigate through smaller spaces than a bus, but which would you rather be hit with if you're walking across the street?

What this means is that a radioactive substance that is an alpha emitter is not dangerous outside the body, as the alpha rays it emits cannot penetrate more than a couple of inches of air, and if you touch it, the alpha radiation cannot penetrate through the outer layer of your skin. But, if you ingest or breathe in the alpha emitter, that is another story, as the alpha particles will be emitted inside your body, and can do a huge amount of damage. But, the alpha particles cannot be detected outside the body.

Polonium is an alpha emitter. But, what makes it special is that it doesn't emit a gamma ray at the same time as it emits an alpha particle, which makes it really hard to detect. Gamma rays are easy to detect, but alpha rays, because they don't go very far, are not. This is why Litvinenko was sickened with symptoms of radiation poisoning, and yet no radiation was detectable from outside his body. The polonium, from within his body, did all the damage.

Another key consideration with polonium is it is very difficult and costly to obtain. It is not something you can buy off the shelf at your local hardware store. It must either be purified from uranium (a costly and time consuming process) or produced in a nuclear reactor. This does tend to suggest that someone such as a government entity may have been behind Litvinenko's poisoning, as it would be exceedingly difficult for anyone else to obtain sufficient quantities of this substance. It seems likely that the main reason for this particular poison being chosen was because of the difficulty with detecting it.

It also seems likely that whoever selected polonium as the poison of choice was hoping that it would kill Litvinenko quickly, and be prohibitively difficult to detect. In that situation, doctors would have been in a quandary to explain how a healthy man can suddenly die like that, and the death would have been chalked up to a mysterious death, and not a murder, and certainly not a state-authorized assassination. But, this did not happen. The dose of polonium administered to Litvinenko was too low to kill him quickly (perhaps a crucial error on the murderer/assassin's part). Instead, it left Litvinenko in a hospital bed with characteristic symptoms of radiation poisoning, conscious enough to talk to investigators and to write a deathbed letter accusing Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder. The fact Litvinenko's symptoms were so characteristic of radiation poisoning led to tests being conducted during his autopsy to identify the radioactive substance. And, the fact polonium is so rare in nature and difficult to obtain points a finger towards a state sanctioned assassination.

If this was really an assassination with polonium, I expect it will be the last we will ever see. The assassin/murderer would have been better off killing Litvinenko with arsenic or ricin or one of these other easier to obtain poisons. Yes, it would be more detectable, but once the poison is detected, it would have been easier for Russia to deny having anything to do with the murder. With it being done with polonium, however, the cloud of suspicion around Russia is much thicker, since they are one of the few countries that has the ability to produce it.