You Don’t Have To Be Crazy…

It being election time here in the UK, the TV is full of party-political broadcasts. The latest fashion is for celebrity endorsements. David Cameron has apparently being hitting the campaign trail with a pop star in tow (or possibly the other way around). Meanwhile Labour has put out a broadcast staring Eddie Izzard.

Why, out of all the other things going on in the election, do I find this worthy of mention? Well, because Mr. Izzard is a well-known transvestite. It is quite remarkable that Labour should choose him as a front man. But in America, if the American Psychiatric Association gets its way, Eddie would be of much less use to politicians, because he’d be certifiably crazy. That’s because the APA wants to stigmatize every man who occasionally wears what they deem to be gender-inappropriate clothing as a lunatic. It doesn’t matter how otherwise sane and stable the man is, the mere fact that he sometimes wears “women’s clothes” is, in the APA’s eyes, enough to mark him out as suffering from a mental illness that will require treatment.

The idiocy of the proposal becomes even more obvious when you note that the reverse does not apply. According to the APA, a man who tries to look like a woman is mad, but a woman who tries to look like a man is perfectly sane. This tells you everything you need to know about the motivation behind the new “diagnosis”.

So, US readers, pop over here, read a bit more, and then sign the petition. You don’t have to be crazy to do so.

Another US Immigration Story

The eagle-eyed Arnold Akien sent me a link to this story about Indian IT workers with valid H1-B and L-1 visas being denied entry by the CBP. In theory such visas only entitle you to work for a single employer in the USA, but if you are a consultant you will inevitably work for clients on behalf of your employer. That’s the way consultancy works. The CBP appears to have got it into its head that this is a violation of the terms of the visas, and once again are denying entry to legitimate visa holders.

The sad thing is that a lot of this work can probably be done remotely, so in attempting to defend US jobs the CBP is probably only sending them offshore, at a significant cost to the US economy.

A Parallel Experience

This morning friends in New Zealand forwarded me a link to this sorry tale of an experience with US Customs & Border Patrol.

Obviously bekitty had a much worse time of it than I did. As I have said, the CBP officers that I dealt with were very sympathetic. I was very lucky. However, strip away the abuse that gets handed out to suspected illegal immigrants in Los Angeles and you are left with a fairly similar story. Except that bekitty had a perfectly legitimate visa.

This is the sort of problem I am facing. Even if you have a visa, CBP can and will make life difficult for you if you come and go too often. They can and do deny people entry because they suspect them of traveling for purposes other than those stated on their visa. And the key word there is “suspect”. If they suspect you, no matter how wrong they may be, you are guilty until such time as you can go back to your own country and spend a lot of money on lawyers to prove your innocence.

I also note that the visa descriptions are drawn so tightly that it is pretty much impossible to avoid violating their terms if you travel regularly and for more than a few days at a time.

Hopefully this will help explain why I am taking things slowly and carefully. I don’t want to waste any more money on lawyers or plane fares until I’m pretty certain that I will be allowed to travel.

Border Issues

As many of you will already know, Peter Watts had his day in court yesterday, and has been found guilty. He now faces the possibility of up to two years in prison, although the final sentence could be a lot less (possibly even non-custodial).

Much outrage has already been vented around teh intrawebs, but before you add to it I strongly suggest that you read Peter’s remarkably measured and calm analysis of the case.

There is a tendency, especially amongst those of us who have training in IT or science, to think that laws are something simple and fair; rules by which one can easily be judged guilty or not. That’s often far from the truth, especially when cross-border issues and/or juries are involved. Often laws leave massive room for lawyers to argue a point. Cross-border issues tend to bring out the worst in people. And whether someone is “guilty” or not can often depend very heavily on the views of the jury members (see this article about the Christopher Handley obscenity case for another example).

Peter’s case is, in most ways, much more serious than mine. He has already faced massive legal bills, and could face much worse. Two things, however, we have in common. Both of us have a chance of being on the Hugo ballot in Reno (both through Clarkesworld in different ways) and won’t be able to attend the ceremony if we are. And both of us are caught in a situation where, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case, we are going to be deemed guilty because it is a border issue and people get very irrational over such things.

In such situations, all you can do is go forward as best you can, and make as much lemonade as is possible of the lemons that life has thrown you. Judging from his blog post, Peter is holding up fairly well. I wish him all the best and hope he can stay that way.

Trying to Make Sense of It All

There has, inevitably, been a small amount of speculation around the blogosphere about my travel problems. On the one hand there are the people preaching doom and gloom about how the Evil TSA are Out To Get Us All. On the other there are people muttering darkly that I must have done something Very Bad. We do love our dramas. The reality is much less interesting and also far more complicated. I’m not sure that I understand it myself. But now that I’ve had a chance to decompress I’m going to try to explain what the problem is.

Entry into the USA is controlled by two different government departments: Customs & Border Patrol (CBP), who man the desks at airports, and the State Department, who run embassies and issue visas. These two organizations have different, and sometimes competing, aims.

The CBP generally dislikes the visa waiver scheme, because it means letting people into the country without any proper vetting. Their job is to protect the US from undesirables, and visa waiver makes that hard. State, on the other hand, is constantly besieged by people wanting visas. Anything that they can do to cut down the size of the queue is good, and from that point of view they love visa waiver.

An additional complication is that CBP and State have rather different views of what constitutes “business”. As far as the CBP is concerned, anything that isn’t obviously tourism is “business”. If you are attending a conference, or a board meeting, or doing anything for a charity or non-profit organization, that’s still business, and potentially suspicious. But State is concerned with the economic welfare of the USA, and will only grant a “business” visa if what you are doing obviously involves trade.

Then there is the question of visa categories. There are many of them, and they are all very tightly drawn, so if the purpose of your travel is anything out of the ordinary you may find it very difficult to find a category that fits you.

The final piece of the puzzle concerns the rules for visa waiver. There are certain things that prevent you from using the visa waiver system. Many of you will have had a good laugh at the questions about being convicted of genocide or being a Nazi. But it is also absolutely forbidden to use visa waiver if you have been denied an ordinary visa by State. Because, after all, if you were denied a visa then you must be a potential danger to the country.

So here’s the problem. In late 2008 the CBP says I travel back and fore too often for their comfort, and they want me to get a visa. I talk to a lawyer and in early 2009 I try to get a visa. State says that the sort of travel I am doing is exactly the sort of thing that visa waiver was designed for, and in any case I don’t fit into any of their neat visa categories so they can’t give me one. They tell me that I should carry on using visa waiver. So I follow their advice, and that appears to work. I am let in twice during 2009, once after a lengthy grilling that doesn’t once mention any visa application.

Then, last week, I get hauled in front of CBP officials. My records now say that I have been denied a visa and consequently a) I can’t use visa waiver and b) I have told a lie on that little green form you have to fill in on the aircraft. As far as I’m concerned I haven’t told any lies, I have done exactly what I was told by State. But proving that is likely to be a lengthy and very expensive process. And even if I do manage to clear my name, I have now actually been denied entry, and can no longer use visa waiver. And I can’t apply for a proper visa because there is no visa for the sort of things I do when visiting.

The net result is that I am totally screwed. As I’m sure you can see, much of this is due to the way in which the system is set up. Changing it, however, is an uphill struggle, and any attempt at reforming immigration laws is liable to get the froth-at-the-mouth brigade very excited. I’ve been talking to an immigration lawyer who campaigns for change in the system, and I hope that my story will provide her with useful ammunition. As far as I’m concerned, however, the only things that are likely to get me back into the US are a) if I become very rich, or b) if I manage to start making a living from the science fiction industry. The former requires a lottery win, and given that many of our top writers have to keep their day jobs because they can’t make a living out of writing novels, the latter is almost as unlikely.

More Linkage

Because the world keeps getting more weird, and religious bigots keep shooting themselves in the foot.

– First up a humiliating defeat for right-wing bishops as the House of Lords decides that the Church of England does not have the right to force all religions to hate gays.

– Then we have one of those lovely stories about gay-hating Republican politicians being caught frequenting gay bars. This time it is a California state senator who was a leading proponent of “Proposition H8”.

– Not to be outdone, a Vatican chorister has been sacked for running a gay prostitution ring. Nice to see your boys setting a good example, Mr. Pope.

– Meanwhile South Carolina is compiling a register of people plotting to overthrow the US government. Several amusing Discordians appear to have registered, but no sign of Sarah Palin as yet.

– Back with sanity, Nick Harkaway is plugging a fundraiser anthology helping victims of the Haiti earthquake.

– And finally, one of the cutest things I have read in a long time: Georgia Roberson writes a letter to Dr. Seuss.

Have to Drive

America has ground to a halt for the very long holiday weekend that is Thanksgiving. As this is the time of year to get together with one’s family, travel is famously a nightmare.

Kevin and I planned to get on the road around midday and actually managed it about 12:30. Amazingly the roads were clear all through Niles Canyon and up 680 as far as the dreaded Cordelia Junction where we stopped to stretch our legs on the grounds that the van wouldn’t be going that much slower in a car park than on the road.

Fortunately the snarls don’t last too long. Today’s were perhaps a little longer than usual due to a couple of accidents around Fairfield. It took us an hour to get to Cordelia and another hour, including leg stretch, to get to Vacaville where we stopped for lunch.

North of Vacaville the roads were fairly clear and we were able to roar along and turn off the traffic news, instead opting to treat the good Christian folk of the Sacramento Valley to the dulcet tones of Miss Amanda Palmer. We did not get arrested, though the idiot in the SUV who was doing around 90 did get pulled over by a passing highway patrolman. As he was passing us at the time he attracted the attention of the officer I can conclude that the CHP is more concerned about speeding than my singing. This was no consolation to Kevin.

Talking of singing, you know you are still congested from teh hamthrax when you try to breath deeply. -sigh-

Anyway, we are now safely in Yuba City and tomorrow will make the short trip up to Sutter to have Thanksgiving lunch with Kevin’s family. I was pleased to have the hotel reception guy ask us if we really needed our room serviced tomorrow because they didn’t want to keep the maids at work too long. Here’s hoping for a nice, quiet weekend.

The Tim Tams Have Landed

Heads up, America, the world’s best chocolate biscuit is now available at a grocery store near you!

Yes folks, Pepperidge Farm has done a deal to import Tim Tams from Australia. (And I do mean import – it says “Product of Australia” on the wrapper, which I don’t think it would say if they were made locally.) Our local Safeway has both the standard and caramel flavors. Apparently they did a trial last winter, but the biscuits were exclusive to Target. According to this report, this winter the standard and caramel flavors will be available widely and Target will have an exclusive on the dark chocolate variety.

Stock up while you can, people. They will only be available through March.

By the way, this report suggests that there are differences between the US and Australian versions. That’s by no means impossible – Arnott may have had to change the recipe to comply with US food laws, or Pepperidge management’s ideas of what Americans like. I’m not sure I have any actual Australian-bought Tim Tams, but I do have a packer of the “Arnott’s Original” variety that World Market has been importing for some time. I will do a tasting and report back.

A Note on Visas

Whenever I mention the difficulties I have getting into the USA some of my American friends make a great show of apologizing for the awfulness of their country. That’s very kind of them, but in all honesty I should point out that most wealthy countries are pretty bad. As evidence if this I present an article from today’s Guardian from which I learn that thousands of foreign students who have been awarded places at UK universities are unable to start their courses because they can’t get visas.

In this particular case the problem appears to be not xenophobia — the kids in question are entitled to visas even under the new, tougher regulations — but our government’s habit of creating massive new regulatory systems without having any idea how those systems will be administered or funded. However, that’s no consolation to the poor kids missing out on their college courses.

A Brief Message to US Readers

Remember those polls you used to see occasionally back in the Dubya days where people outside the USA were saying that America was a greater threat to world peace than Iran or North Korea and any other bunch of crazy saber rattlers? OK, now do you understand why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize?

So no, he hasn’t achieved a lot internationally since he got elected. But he got elected.

Of course you are still welcome to believe that giving someone the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the world from Sarah Palin is jumping the shark, but now at least you can stop asking WHY???

We’re All Going To Die x 144

Curiously timed to coincide with Worldcon, Slate magazine is running a week-long feature entitled “How Is America Going To End?” This exercise in futurology plans get all sorts of clever (and perhaps a few not-so-clever) people to predict the form that America’s demise will take.

In addition you can play along yourself, via the Choose Your Own Apocalypse game. This provides 144 imaginative sources of terminal decline, ranging from the mildly plausible to the downright whacko. Slate‘s writers have done a pretty good job. Here are some examples of the sorts of apocalyptic disasters they predict:

  • The Rapture happens;
  • The Mayans were right about 2012;
  • Alien invasion;
  • Asteroid strike;
  • Gray goo;
  • Robot overlords; and
  • Invasion from Canada

But I am sure we can do better. There is, for example, no explicit mention of tentacled beings from beyond the stars; of the Humboldt Squid inventing machine guns; of re-animated dinosaurs; of sex change drugs in the water; or of Americans becoming addicted to yaoi. Besides, we all know that there cannot be only 144 causes of apocalypse. There have to be 666.

Your mission (Jim, should you choose to accept it), is to come up with lots of crazy new ideas. Let’s see how creative we can be.

(Hat tip to Kelley Eskridge who pointed me at the Slate article.)

The Absurdity of American Marriage

Despite what many people outside the USA believe, it is by no means a single country with a single set of laws and a single set of cultural attitudes. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but sometimes the differences in laws between states, or even between parts of the same state, can cause an awful lot of confusion. Jenny Boylan has an article in the NY Times talking about how the current mishmash of legislation regarding gender changes and same-sex marriage affects trans people. Here she quotes a lawyer from one case that came to trial:

Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.

It really is a mess. Hopefully the USA will eventually get things sorted out at a federal level.

America Under Attack

Dear American readers, I am sorry to have to inform you that your very way of life is under threat. Foreign forces are attempting to undermine all that is good and wholesome about the American way of life. No, this is not another warning about reds under the bed, about the gay agenda, or about terrorism. The threat is much worse than that:

Conservative suburban families, the backbone of America, have turned to soccer in droves.

Alex Massie has the sorry details. Please do not be alarmed, people of America. Rest assure that your government is doing all that it can to protect you from this hideous foreign threat.

How Others See Us

Heads Up, Bay Area, the UK is talking about you. It may come as something of a surprise to the Liberal and Progressive population of the Bay Area, but apparently David Cameron and his pals think that they are an ideal template to follow for returning the Conservative Party to power. Doubtless it is a bit of a surprise to the Huntin’, Shootin’ ‘n’ Fishin’ wing of the Conservatives as well.

But there is more. Alex Massie weighs in and points out that the Bay Area might be too elitist to be safely copied by Conservatives:

Equally, if you were to pick a place to reinforce the notion that the party leadership is so wealthy and comfortably off that it struggles to appreciate the concerns of the Average Joe then, yup, San Francisco and the Bay Area might be the place you’d choose.

I’ve quoted a little selectively there, but the general impression that Alex gives is that Bay Area folks are wildly out of touch with the views of average Americans. Of course that may be one of the reasons I like the Bay Area so much. But, as Alex sagely gets around to pointing out, the real reason for not copying California is the total mess that its government has fallen into. Really, Britain has enough economic problems without being unable to pass a budget.

Investing in Talent

Kevin was ruminating a while back about anti-intellectualism in America. That sort of thing is hard to quantify, but I think I may have found some hard data in a recent report by the Mathematical Association of America. Here are some highlights from the coverage:

The pipeline for nurturing top math talent in the U.S. is badly broken beginning at the middle school level. Eighty percent of female and 60 percent of male faculty hired in recent years by the very top U.S. research university mathematics departments were born in other countries.

Innate math aptitude is probably fairly evenly distributed throughout the world, regardless of race or gender. The huge differences observed in achievement levels are most likely due to socio-cultural attributes specific to each country.

Throughout middle and high school, social stigma and lack of appropriately challenging educational opportunities for the mathematically precocious becomes a hard reality in most American schools. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, often camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.

Doesn’t sound good, does it.

A Mad, Mad World

I’ve been refraining from commenting further on the current economic meltdown because I don’t know enough about the actual issues to know whether what the US Treasury is doing will fix them or not, and I have no desire to add to the mass of uninformed comment already out there. On the other hand, I’m not exactly how well informed the Treasury folks are either. Most of you probably don’t read Forbes.com, so you won’t have seen this:

In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

“It’s not based on any particular data point,” a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com Tuesday. “We just wanted to choose a really large number.”

Never mind, John McCain is apparently off to Washington to sort things out, presumably with a six gun and some well-aimed fisticuffs. I gather that the elitist intellectuals are upset (The Economist described it as “ridiculous”), but the rest of the electorate thinks it is a great idea because who cares about boring old debates anyway, right? On the other hand, it has given Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber a chance to resurrect a famous moment from my favorite TV quiz.

The Speech

Broadcast from the top of the TransAmerica Pyramid

Hear me, my X-Men. This message is reaching every known mutant in the world. Good, bad, friend, foe… whoever you are. We want every mutant left to know this: the X-Men are very much alive. And San Francisco is now a mutant sanctuary. Any of you – and your families or loved ones – are invited to join us here and know safety and protection our kind has never known.

Scott Summers

And it makes perfect sense. There is no city in the world that would fit the role better, I think.