Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in Canada

This is my first Christmas since moving back to Canada from the United States, although for most of the six years I lived in the US we still came back to Canada for Christmas. Going back and forth between the two countries, I can easily see the differences.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, one big difference in the United States is that it seems people are afraid to wish each other a "Merry Christmas" out of fear of offending those who may not celebrate Christmas. So, they say "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" or other holiday-neutral sorts of things. That is certainly not a concern in Canada: according to a recent poll, fully 94% of Canadians celebrate Christmas, and so people here generally say "Merry Christmas" with impunity.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the number of non-Christians in Canada who have adopted some form of family Christmas traditions. Through all this, Christmas in Canada has evolved from a celebration of Christ's birthday into a religion-neutral family holiday that everyone seems to like. People put up lights and decorations on their houses, put up Christmas trees, exchange gifts, wish each other Merry Christmas, have Christmas parties, and don't worry about offending each other.

On our own block and in our own neighborhood we see this: an Indian Hindu family putting up brilliant lights on their house, a Chinese family coming over to exchange gifts, hijab-clad Muslim women rushing to finish buying last minute Christmas gifts at the mall, etc.

Some may argue that the religious meaning behind Christmas has become distorted, but the benefit is that the holiday has been disseminated to a broader audience. Given that more Canadians celebrate Christmas than celebrate Canada Day (our national holiday), Christmas is truly a national holiday for us, and one that unites us as Canadians.

For all of you, in Canada our outside, Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Drivers License Stupidity

Over the past few years, I have really marveled at how strange and convoluted the US policy is towards drivers licenses.

Prior to 9/11, in many states pretty much anyone could get a drivers license. You just go to your local department of motor vehicles office, show them proof of who you are (birth certificate, passport, etc.), they make you do a test to see whether you know how to drive a car, and they give you a license. Then, after 9/11, this got much more strict.

In New York, where I lived prior to returning to Canada, the laws were particularly dumb. To get a drivers license, you needed to show your social security card. This was fine and dandy, except that, as I wrote last year, the SSA does not issue social security cards to people not allowed to work in the US, including dependents (wife, children, etc.) of people who are legally allowed to work. If you did not have a social security card, you needed to go to the Social Security Administration and get a letter telling you that you aren't allowed to have one, along with proof of status in the country. Then, under the REAL ID act of 2005, New York had to tighten the policy even more so that people had to show proof of legal status in the country, and the expiry date of the passport would be set to expire on the same date as the person's status.

The issue this presented to my own family was for my wife. As I was in the United States legally on a work authorization, I was legally allowed to work, and when I went for my own drivers license I had a social security card to show the DMV. My wife, however, did not have a social security card, and had to go through a ridiculously convoluted process:
  • Go to the Social Security Administration, and fill out an application for a social security card, wait the hour or so in line and get rejected for a social security card (as she was not authorized to work in the US).
  • When she was rejected for the social security card, she had to ask the person at the counter for a letter saying she was rejected. Of course the person behind the counter has no idea why she was asking for this and so did not want to give her anything. My wife had to go through this process three times before she got the letter, finally bringing with her a copy of the page from the DMV saying she needed it.
  • Apply for the drivers license, bringing a copy of her passport, the I-94 form saying she was legally allowed to be in the country, and the letter from the SSA.
When my wife finished this, she got a drivers license, embossed in big red letters "TEMPORARY VISITOR: STATUS EXPIRES XXX" - an embarrasing "Scarlet Letter" drivers license that caused raised eyebrows every time she needed to show ID to buy a drink in a restaurant. It is good for us she got her drivers license before they introduced the requirement that it would expire every time her status expired - otherwise, she would have had to go through this convoluted mess once a year.

The basis of all of these efforts, the REAL ID act, etc. was the fact that the 9/11 terrorists used US-issued drivers licenses to board the airplanes they later flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

What people seem to have forgotten in all of this is that the primary purpose of a drivers license is not a form of ID, and not something to board an airplane with, it is a license to operate a motor vehicle. These same people also forget that foreign ID (foreign passports, drivers licenses, etc.) can also be used to board an airplane, and if the goal of restricting drivers licenses was to prevent something like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it would not have worked.

In many parts of the United States, it is very difficult to get around without a car, and people need to have one to be able to go to work, take the children to school, go to the grocery store or the mall, etc. It is generally possible to drive in the US with a foreign drivers license, however it is not possible to register a car in your name, and is generally not possible to get insurance.

In the United States, there is a vast number of illegal immigrants who do not have legal "visitor" status and cannot legally get any form of drivers license. Does this mean they will not drive a car? No, they are already here illegally, doing one more illegal thing will not hurt. So they will drive a car, either under a fake drivers license, someone else's license, or no license at all, and hope that nobody pulls them over for a speeding ticket.

This, in turn, puts a burden on the rest of the people in the United States - if these people cannot get insurance, and they get in an accident, the victim of the accident cannot get compensated.

Earlier this year, Elliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, proposed a solution for this problem - allowing the DMV to issue drivers licenses to illegal/undocumented immigrants. These drivers licenses would allow the bearer to drive a car, but would bear a note that they do not comply with the REAL ID Act. Spitzer's plan was ripped apart by many people, including those from his own party, resulting in him abandoning it. Personally I found these events saddening. Spitzer, by proposing this plan, demonstrated that he is one of the few politicians who truly understands the underlying issues around drivers licenses and immigration, and the response was for Spitzer to be pilloried in the press and Internet, and for his popularity to plummet. With the type of ignorance that was shown in this New York drivers license debate, I really question whether we will ever see a resolution to the problems related to immigration in the United States in our lifetime.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Guantanamo's First Trial: Omar Khadr

Earlier today, a US military judge in Guantanamo Bay ordered that the trial for Omar Khadr, the Canadian imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, would resume on November 8.

Khadr is charged with murder, for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed US Army Sgt. Christopher Speer.

One thing I have noticed is that most of the news media have not done a good job at analyzing Khadr’s defense and his current legal status. If they did, I think many people would be quite surprised.

So far, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay have been surprising in terms of their transparency. Khadr’s military attorney, Lt. Cmdr Bill Kuebler has evidently been taking his role as Khadr’s lawyer very seriously. He has been very vocal, publicly lashing out at the judicial system setup to try his client and the other defendants, and being a very public advocate of his client’s defense. Kuebler has even traveled to Canada to speak to politicians and the press, to lobby Canadian politicians to "step up" for his client, and drum up support on behalf of his client. It is actually quite remarkable to see a military officer traveling to a foreign country to speak out against his own government. But, if this is the freedom Kuebler is accorded in defending his client, it speaks well for the fairness and transparency of the system he is operating in.

The military judge, Col Peter Brownback, has also shown himself to be a very level-headed judge, unafraid of stirring up controversy with his rulings. Col. Brownback was the same judge who dismissed the case against Khadr, ruling that the government had not determined him to be an “unlawful enemy combatant”, only an “enemy combatant”.

It is obvious from following the trial thus far that the military justice system is not acting as the rubber-stamp Kangaroo court that some members of the Bush administration perhaps hoped it would be. On the contrary, I would argue that Khadr has a better chance of getting a fair trial than he would in a civilian court in the United States itself.

Is Khadr an Enemy Combatant or an Unlawful Enemy Combatant?

Khadr’s defense is technical – nobody disputes the fact that he killed Sgt. Speer. The question is whether or not that killing could be considered murder.

The lynchpin in this case is whether or not Khadr is an “enemy combatant” or an “unlawful enemy combatant”. This is a very important consideration: in a war, soldiers kill each other, that in itself does not make them murderers. So long as the soldiers fight under the “laws of war” (i.e.: the Geneva convention), their actions are not considered murder.

Khadr was in Afghanistan, fighting for the Taliban (the government of Afgahnistan at the time) against a foreign invader. This makes Khadr an enemy combatant, but not an unlawful combatant. In fact, the only thing that has been alleged that makes Khadr an unlawful combatant is the fact he was not wearing a uniform when he was fighting the US Army.

I would expect Khadr’s lawyer to make a very big deal over this element in the case – because if Khadr is not an unlawful enemy combatant, then he is not guilty of murder.

What about a jury of his peers?

In the United States, cases of murder are tried in front of a jury of the defendant’s “peers”. This is fine and dandy, but in the case of Khadr, he really doesn’t have too many peers in the United States. Your typical American cannot relate to Khadr, and so putting together a jury that is not biased against him in some shape or form is unlikely.

Even if you do put together an unbiased jury, the prosecution could influence the jury against Khadr with talk of al-Qaeda, 9/11, showing pictures of Sgt. Speer’s dead body, etc. After the prosecution is done making their case in front of an American jury, the defense would have a real uphill battle.

One benefit to a military trial is that Khadr will be tried in front of a military tribunal – a team of legal experts in uniform, who are not only experts in military law (the Geneva convention, etc.).; they are also soldiers who are unlikely to be swayed by grisly photos, etc. and are thus less likely to allow this type of evidence to distract them from the defendant’s legal arguments.

Given the technical nature of Khadr’s defense (is he an “unlawful enemy combatant” or just an “enemy combatant”), a military tribunal is likely to be more objective.

What about the judge?

The judge in Khadr’s case, Col. Brownback, has demonstrated that he is not afraid to rule in favor of the defendant, no matter what the political impact of his ruling. In June, Brownback delivered a major setback to the government by throwing the case out of court – ruling that his court did not have the authority to try Khadr because Khadr had not been ruled an “unlawful enemy combatant”.

Brownback’s ruling was appealed by the government, but the appeals court did not rule that Khadr was an “enemy combatant” – instead they ruled that Col. Brownback’s court has the legal authority to determine whether Khadr is a legal combatant or not. Then, they sent the case back to Col Brownback.

By my estimation, this does not look good for the government’s case. Col. Brownback obviously takes his role very seriously, and will likely make a very objective assessment of Khadr’s status. Given Brownback’s prior history in the case, I’m sure many people in the government are not happy with having him as the presiding judge for the trial.

Double jeaopardy

One element of US law (from the fifth amendment to the Constitution) is the concept of double-jeopardy: a defendant can only be tried for the same crime once. Once a court rules that the defendant is not guilty, the government’s case is over - they cannot appeal, they cannot refile in another jurisdiction, etc.

In the case of Khadr, the only reason they are able to proceed to trial at this point is because Col. Brownback previously dismissed it on a technicality: ruling he did not have authority to try the case. If the case had actually gone to trial and Khadr had been found not guilty because he was determined as not being an enemy combatant (and therefore his actions were not murder), the government would not be able to refile the case later or appeal the ruling.


The timing of Col. Brownback’s ruling is very beneficial to the defense: they can essentially have their cake and eat it too. They are appealing the whole military tribunal process (that it is unfair, etc.) but at the same time are proceeding to trial while their appeal is ongoing.

If the military tribunal finds Khadr not guilty, the government cannot refile or appeal the case and the defense can just drop their appeal. However, if they find him guilty, the defense can continue to pursue their appeal, and if the appeals court rules that the military tribunal process was invalid, they will get a new trial anyway in a civilian court.


If I were representing Omar Khadr, I would be very happy with the current state of affairs as far as his legal defense. Khadr is likely to have a more fair trial in front of a military tribunal than a civilian court at this point, but even if the military tribunal finds him guilty, he still has a number of appeal routes.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Border Scaremongering

This past Thursday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the United States delivered a report to Congress titled "Security Vulnerabilities at Unmanned and Unmonitored US Border Locations". In its report, the GAO wrote how "in four states along the US-Canada Border, we found state roads that were very close to the border that CPB did not seem to monitor." To further emphasize its point, the GAO investigator took a red duffel bag containing containers marked "radioactive" and supposed bomb parts and walked across the border.

Gregory Kutz, the GAO managing director for special investigations told the Senate Finance Committee that, "Our work clearly shows substantial vulnerabilities in the northern border to terrorists or criminals entering the U.S. undetected."

Predictably, some US Senators went on a diatribe about the security of the Canadian border. Senator Charles Schumer said, "We cannot skimp on resources. We cannot spend more than $200 billion on the war in Iraq and then skimp on resources here. You can't play offense and not play defense."

As a Canadian, I frequently wonder why so many Americans are fixated with security of our shared border. Some Americans seem to view Canada as a safe haven for terrorists, and a virtual shopping mall for buying explosives and weapons. With all of the scaremongering in this report, you would think that someone could go to the local grocery store in Canada and pick up a few pounds of radioactive material to make a dirty bomb, or that when we order a hamburger at our local McDonald's, they ask us, "would you like some C4 with that?"

What people seem to forget is that this type of radioactive or explosive material in Canada is just as regulated and hard to come by as it is in the United States, and weapons are considerably more regulated than in the US. We can't just go buy this stuff very easily. People also seem to forget that Canada does not have any borders except the one with the United States - Canada does not have another border that terrorists can somehow sneak across, and getting into Canada by air is just as difficult as it is getting into the United States: most foreigners need a visa, and visa applications to Canada are screened just as thoroughly as the US screens theirs.

A foreign terrorist would be stupid to try coming through Canada, since they are doubling their chances of getting caught: they can get caught coming into Canada, they can get caught while they are here in Canada, and they can get caught while going from Canada to the United States. The 9/11 terrorists knew this - contrary to what some people believe, they did not go through Canada, they flew directly into the US and stayed in Florida while they were plotting their nefarious acts.

Canada is not a haven for terrorists. Canada is quite the opposite, as we proved last summer. And, given the extremely high cost of securing 4,000 miles of sparsely inhabited border, and that there is not a major problem with people sneaking across it (unlike the US's southern border), is spending all this money to secure the border with Canada a good investment? I think not.

To Charles Schumer's point about spending $200 billion in Iraq and scrimping at home, I would argue that this is exactly the correct thing to do. When considering a project, it is important to look at it in terms of a return on investment. You do not have enough budget to do all the projects you want to do, and so you look at where the money you invest can yield the best benefit for the American people. And, where would this money be best spent: spending tens of billions of dollars securing 4,000 miles of border and solving an imaginary problem, or spending this same money to solve a real problem - like providing healthcare to the millions of Americans who have no insurance, or buying better equipment for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer is obvious.

I am back

After a bit of a hiatus from blogging, I am now back. For those of my old readers who kept coming back now and then, thank you for your patience.

I am looking at Haloscan and notice a lot of old comments that I hadn't answered. To the commenters - I do apologize. I'll answer your comments in the next few days.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I'm not dead!

Yes, the last two months I have not posted anything, and the past few I haven't posted as much as I used to.

It's been a lot of work getting used to my new job, moving back to Canada, and all that. In my new job I'm traveling a lot more than I did in my old job, and I hope to get to where I can start writing blog posts on airplanes.

So far this year, I've been to Paris, New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Seattle, Norwalk, and Winnipeg. This week, I am traveling to New York again, then the following week to Bucharest, Romania. Later this year, I will be hitting Chicago, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Cincinnati, and New York again, and also visiting London and Cape Town. Surely I can find enough time on those flights to write some blog posts (I hope... ).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lebanon, the Devil, and Idle Hands

There is an old saying, “the devil makes work for idle hands.” Over the past few days, this saying has been proving itself out yet again in Lebanon.

Over the past three days, the Lebanese army has been fighting with a Palestinian militant group called Fatah al-Islam. According to news reports, the current clashes started when Lebanese security forces raided a building on Sunday to arrest Fatah al-Islam militants accused of robbing a bank in Tripoli. The militants fought back and attacked Lebanese army positions outside the Palestinian refugee camp where they are based, and the Lebanese army responded by striking targets within the refugee camp with tank shells and exchanging fire with Fatah al-Islam militants holed up inside.

Under the terms of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, Lebanon ceded control of the Palestinian refugee camps to what was at the time known as the PLO. Under this agreement, Lebanon’s army is barred from entering the camps.

Reading these news stories calls to mind one very disturbing question: why are Palestinian “refugees” still living in refugee camps in Lebanon when most of these so-called refugees were born there? Palestinian “refugees” migrated to Lebanon in 1948 when the state of Israel was founded.

Most of these Palestinian “refugees” did not flee the area now known as Israel – most have never even seen it, save those people over 60. In fact, the ones who made the decision to flee (those who were adults at the time) would now be over 80 years old today. The vast majority of the Palestinian “refugees” living in Lebanon were born in Lebanon, and many of their parents were born in Lebanon too, and yet because they are descended from actual refugees, they are not accorded the rights of Lebanese citizenship. They cannot vote, and there are many jobs they are barred from holding, and so unemployment and underemployment are rife. To add insult to injury, most of these “refugees” are kept in “refugee camps”, with insufficient size and inadequate infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. With this treatment, is it any wonder that Fatah al-Islam and other criminal gangs can get an easy foothold?

Someone who is born in a country but is not accorded the status of citizenship and the same rights as other citizens is not a refugee, he/she is a second-class citizen, much like blacks were in the southern United States during the “Jim Crow” days of segregation. And, when a group of people is kept in that state for multiple generations, is there any wonder that one is faced with a legion of young, angry men?

Israel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Lebanon should know this, and the Palestinians should know this. Why, then, are Palestinians still living in refugee camps, and why are they still referred to as refugees in Lebanon? If this thinking does not change, these refugee camps will be permanent fixtures.

The true long-term solution to Fatah al-Islam and other criminal groups is to improve people’s economic prospects and integrate them into society. Granting full Lebanese citizenship to all Palestinians who were born in Lebanon would be a good start. Once this is done, the refugee camps can be integrated into the Lebanese environment as normal towns. Productive people are happy people, and unlikely to support groups like Fatah al-Islam.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don Imus - a racist, or just ignorant

Yesterday, the radio talk show host Don Imus got himself into quite a lot of trouble by describing the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed hos”. Al Sharpton (whose radio show Imus appeared on after the incident) demanded that he be fired, many others were similarly outraged, and NBC ended up suspending him for two weeks.

Here is the transcript of the offending portion:

IMUS: So, I watched the basketball game last night between -- a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women's final.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, Tennessee won last night -- seventh championship for Pat Summitt, I-Man. They beat Rutgers by 13 points.

IMUS: That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and --

McGUIRK: Some hard-core hos.

IMUS: That's some nappy-headed hos there. I'm gonna tell you that now, man, that's some -- woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like -- kinda like -- I don't know.

McGUIRK: A Spike Lee thing.

IMUS: Yeah.

McGUIRK: The Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes -- that movie that he had.

IMUS: Yeah, it was a tough --

McCORD: Do The Right Thing.

McGUIRK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

IMUS: I don't know if I'd have wanted to beat Rutgers or not, but they did, right?

ROSENBERG: It was a tough watch. The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors.

IMUS: Well, I guess, yeah.

RUFFINO: Only tougher.

McGUIRK: The Grizzlies would be more appropriate.

I asked my wife yesterday about this incident (she herself is black) and her point was very interesting: yes, the words Don Imus used were offensive, but they are no more offensive than when rappers use the same words. Why should Don Imus be held to such a high degree of scrutiny just because he is white and made the mistake of using some of the same words he’s heard rappers using on the radio?

I would take this a step further – I have some strong doubts that Imus even knew the correct meaning of the words he used when he used them. Did he even know that “ho” is a shortened form of “whore”? Imus and McGuirk seemed to use the word to refer to a tough woman, and not in any kind of sexual context, which suggests to me they didn't even know the real meaning. Should we blame Imus or McGuirk, or should we blame the media society from which they learned that word?

In most parts of society in the United States, it is not acceptable to wantonly class a bunch of random women as “whores”. If you listen to other genres of music (rock, pop, country, etc.) you won’t hear this. And yet, if you listen to rap or hip-hop, you hear the word “ho” used all the time. And, the rappers who refer to women as “hos” know exactly what the words means.

Is it not hypocritical to dance and sing along to some tune referring to women as “hos”, and then be harshly critical of Don Imus for using the same word?

Looking back at what Don Imus said, if we change the words around to something most white Americans would understand, Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a bunch of messy-haired whores – a very malicious thing to say about someone. The big question is, did he say this on purpose, or did he just grab onto a few words he’s heard on the radio; words for which he did not fully appreciate the meaning? If he did the latter, he is guilty of being ignorant and foolish, but not much else.

Yes, it is right to be indignant at Don Imus’ poor choice of words. But, we should be at least as indignant when we hear rappers and other musicians using the same words.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Y2K Deja-Vu

Computer specialists rushing to patch systems and dire warnings about problems with computer scheduling. Did I just wake up in 1999 again?

Nope. This isn't Y2K, this is Y2K7. The year, the law rolling back the start date for daylight savings time kicked in.

I wrote about this law back when it was first passed in 2005. As I wrote then, the US Congress seems to have rushed this bill through, without giving any thought to the repercussions to the computer industry.

Over the past month, my staff at work have been busily patching every PC, laptop, server, network switch, phone system, firewall, VPN gateway, and everything else we own. We have spent weeks dealing with this problem, and I'm sure if you look around at many other companies, you will find a similar pattern. And all this nonsense just because some congressmen thought it would be nice for kids to be able to do their Hallowe'en trick-or-treating in daylight.

Shame on them!

Friday, March 09, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

Sorry for the delay in blogging. Over the past month, I completed my move back to the Toronto area. It's been stressful, but now that I'm settled in, I really think it was worth it.

Guess I should edit my blogger profile.... ;)

Some small things I am enjoying about Canada that I missed while I was in the US:

Tim Hortons: Tim Hortons makes some of the best coffee and best donuts out there.

Poutine: A French Canadian dish of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. This dish is very popular in Canada, but for some strange reason, I've never seen it south of the Canada/US border.

Chocolate: There are a number of chocolate bars in Canada you can't get in the US: Coffee Crisp, Aero, Caramilk, etc. Chocolate in Canada I find much nicer than the chocolate in the US. In the US, the chocolate is coated with wax to make it look better, but I find it has less taste. Canadian chocolate seems more flavorful.

The State of Public Facilities: Subway trains, buses, commuter trains, airports, etc. in Canada tend to be about the same level of decor and cleanliness you'd expect in the lobby of an "A" office building in Manhattan.

Of course, I'm sure I'm going to find some things to miss about New York over the next few months, and if you ask me in five or six months, I'll probably be able to rattle off a long list of things I miss about the Big Apple.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

New job

Sorry I've been so long to post. I started my new job just under three weeks ago and have been busy traveling since. In the past three weeks, I have not worked in one office for more than three days in a row, and have been traveling extensively. And, I'm preparing for my move back to Canada later in February.

I will start posting a bit more regularly once things calm down.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


These two guys deserve medals. And, if I were President Bush, I would be flying them to Washington to present them personally:

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Two civilians thwarted an attempted terrorist attack Tuesday when a vehicle loaded with explosives attempted to crash through the front gate of a U.S. base in the Afghan capital, according to the U.S. military.

The two men, an interpreter and a security guard, dragged the apparent suicide bomber from the vehicle before he could detonate explosives, said Col. Tom Collins, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"I think it's a pretty amazing and heroic event," Collins said.

He said that at about 9 a.m. Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET Monday) a driver crashed his vehicle into Camp Phoenix, the base where the Afghan National Army and police are trained. The driver reached for what appeared to be a cord to detonate a bomb, he said.

"Amazingly, a couple of Afghans who just happened to be on the scene there realized what was happening," Collins said.

"Anyone's inclination would have been to run away but these guys are genuine heroes," Collins said.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

New Job

This is a busy week for me. I am wrapping things up at my old job. My last day at my current job is tomorrow (Friday) here in New York, and I report for work at my new job on Monday in Toronto. I will be spending two days in Toronto, then three days in Winnipeg, then I will be back in New York next week.

I expect I will be able to spend more time on my blog after I start my new job: one of my favorite times to write blog posts is from an airplane, and I will be spending lots of time traveling on airplanes in my new job.

To all my regular readers, thanks for your patience, you'll hear a lot more from me soon.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Saddam Execution Farce: Guard Arrested

Earlier today, news reports from Iraq indicated that Iraqi authorities have arrested a guard over the release of an unauthorized cellphone video of Saddam's execution.

Frankly, I find this very disappointing. In my opinion, whoever took this video and released it is a hero, not a villain. He risked his own safety to show the world what really happened in that execution chamber. Iraq's government should be going after the idiots who were chanting "Muqtada, Muqdada, Muqdada!", not the person who took the video.

Some people need to get their priorities straight....

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.