Thursday, December 31, 2009

DFW Sketch 365: Odin

I saved the best for last! Odin, Gungnir slung across his back, accompanied by Huginn, Muninn, and, of course, trusty Sleipnir.

Phew. Got it in at the last possible minute. See, I told you I could post every day in 2009. Of course, it was all made possible by Blogger's future-posting function.

I hope you enjoyed the DFW sketchbook. If you missed it, be sure to check out The Respectable Animal ABC, or see some fancy desktop wallpapers here or here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

DFW Sketch 360: Centaur

No. 2245

No. 2245
Check out this map to see how out-of-the-way this place is. This is off about 13 miles of DIRT road (not gravel, dirt) with almost no maintenance. It was extremely bumpy, muddy in spots, and completely worth it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

DFW Sketch 358: Satyr

Well, what did you expect from a satyr?

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

I recently read another Nebula and Hugo award winner, which also won the Locus Award, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The book concerns two societies situated on what appear to be binary planets. One is an idealistic anarchist society (or non-authoritarian communist society) over the whole planet, and the other has a mix of societies, though the major society in the plot is capitalist. A member of the anarchist society, a physicist of some note, travels to the capitalist society, and we explore his interactions among those people and the impressions he receives. In alternating chapters, we also explore the anarchist society and the protagonist's upbringing. The book provides a stunningly interesting critique of capitalist, communist, and anarchist societies, while following a believable and extremely well-developed main character. The primary strength of the book is in its alternating chapter structure, which illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the two societies, although it does make tracking the less important characters a bit difficult. And some of the chapters which take place in the anarchist society are very powerful. The book provides a wonderful analysis of human nature in terms of society, morals, and the nature of freedom.

I won't judge the book by sci-fi terms, because it didn't have to be written as a science fiction book except for the fact that there isn't a society like the idealist one in the real world. However, even judged on general terms, the book gets 5 out of 5 stars. The only problem is the chapters are exceedingly long, without breaks. This is a small issue indeed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

DFW Sketch 356: Gorgon

Fort Robinson State Park

Fort Robinson State Park
According to Wikipedia:
Fort Robinson is a former U.S. Army fort and a present-day state park. Located in the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska, it is 2 mi (3.2 km) west of Crawford on U.S. Route 20. . . .
The camp was named Camp Robinson in honor of Lt. Levi H. Robinson, who had been killed by Indians while collecting wood in February. . . .
Fort Robinson played a major role in the Sioux Wars from 1876 to 1890. The Battle of Warbonnet Creek took place nearby in July 1876. Crazy Horse surrendered here on May 6, 1877, and was fatally wounded on September 5 of that year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

DFW Sketch 352: Lamia

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1972)

I recently read Rendezvous With Rama, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, the two most prestigious awards given for speculative fiction. The Wikipedia article gives a good, brief synopsis of the plot:
Set in the 22nd century, the story involves a fifty-kilometer-long cylindrical alien starship that enters Earth's solar system. The story is told from the point of view of a group of human explorers, who intercept the ship in an attempt to unlock its mysteries.
The book is a very good read in terms of hard science fiction, i.e., the plot and the mystery are interesting, the predictions made are plausible, and the characters are of secondary importance. The writing is smooth, without any annoying quirks like you might find in some sci-fi writing, so the dialog and action blend together well and the characters, while mostly flat, are rarely confused with one another (except for a few disposable characters). The tension and sense of wonder are what drive the book, and Sir Arthur Charles Clarke definitely earned his reputation as one of the greats of 20th century science fiction. In addition, the chapters are short and easily digestible, so the book can be read as quickly or as slowly as you like.

This is my first book by Clarke, and I believe his writing is at least on par with, if not superior to, that of Isaac Asimov, one of my all-time favorite authors and the other author usually placed alongside Clarke in short lists.

My only complaint is that the ending should have provided more closure. I didn't think authors set up sequels in the early 1970's (except for planned trilogies and the like), and I certainly didn't think an author would do so and then fail to write the second one until 17 years later. However, this is a small quibble, as it wasn't an awful ending by any means. In all, I give the book 4 out of 5 stars. (To get 5, it would have to be better in terms of fiction generally, e.g., by having more compelling characters, rather than just being great on its own hard sci-fi terms.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

DFW Sketch 348: Starfish

Immigration 101: Citizenship by Birth and Naturalization

I have discussed in this series how people can visit the U.S., how a U.S. national or business can bring someone into the country, how people can come here to flee persecution or just because they're lucky, and how these people become permanent residents. Now, I will discuss how these permanent residents can become citizens. But first, I will discuss why most U.S. citizens are citizens by birth.

Citizenship by Birth

Most U.S. citizens can claim this status by virtue of jus soli, or the fact they were born in the United States. Few countries still follow this principle of law--India abolished it little more than five years ago due to illegal immigrant births inside its borders--but it is generally viewed as enshrined in our 14th Amendment. Some people would like to see us abolish this principle as well, because of illegal immigrants' children. I know I said I wouldn't discuss my opinions in this series, but the rule does serve an important function and reinforce an American value. The function is simplicity: It makes it much easier to prove you're a citizen, instead of having to prove you are a citizen by proving your parents were citizens (and, in turn, you would have to prove their parents were citizens). The value is that America is a place, not a people, i.e., we are not France, filled with French people, or some other place, but instead a mix of people.

The other way to be a citizen by birth is by the principle of jus sanguinis, or citizenship by blood. The way this happens has changed over the years, but in general you are a citizen of the United States if either of your parents was a citizen when you were born. Citizenship through jus soli is permanent, but citizenship through jus sanguinis can be lost if you don't spend some time within the United States by your 21st birthday (there are very specific requirements). This rule prevents us from having a lot of citizens floating out there without any ties to the country, a further extension of the value that America is a place, not a people.

Citizenship by Choice

As a general rule, a person can become a citizen of the U.S. (be "naturalized") if they have been a legal permanent resident for at least five years, have been inside the United States for that time, can speak, read, and write English, can pass a civics and U.S. history test, and have good moral character. They can do this by filing Form N-400. If they are approved, they must swear allegiance to the United States.

Some exceptions do apply. If you are over a certain age and have been a permanent resident long enough (over 50 and here 20 years or over 55 and here 15 years), you can get around the English-language requirement. Spouses of U.S. citizens need only be a permanent resident for 3 years, and military personnel get even looser requirements, especially if they've seen combat (combat allows someone to jump straight from being an illegal immigrant to being a citizen).


I hope this series has helped you to understand the current immigration system, and that it will contribute to an informed debate on the topic.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

DFW Sketch 346: Shark With a Gun

The answer to the question, "What's the only thing scarier than a shark?"

Friday, December 11, 2009

DFW Sketch 345: Pterodactyl

Immigration 101: Nonimmigrant Visas

Up until now, I have been discussing how people can come to the U.S. permanently. Now, I will discuss how people can visit the U.S. for various reasons, such as visiting for pleasure, to go to school, to work, or as an ambassador or foreign head of state, among many others. These visas generally require application to either USCIS or the U.S. Department of State, depending on the visa type. If approved, the immigrant must get the visa from DOS and then apply for admission at a port of entry, where a CBP officer makes the final determination. Most of these visas require the alien to prove they intend to actually leave the U.S. after their stated purpose for the visit is complete, usually by proof they are maintaining a foreign residence--though most illegal aliens are here because they overstayed their welcome on a nonimmigrant visa.

In the following sections, I will discuss some of the more important visas.

B Visas

B visas are available to visitors for pleasure or for business (but not for working). They can be obtained by application to DOS and are good for up to a year. Visitors from certain countries are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, which means they can just show up in the U.S. without applying beforehand. This program reduces the maximum authorized stay to only 90 days, and using it limits your right to fight deportation or to adjust your status.

Student Visas

Student visas (usually an F-1 or J-1 visa, but also sometimes an M-1) are issued to students who want to attend schools in the U.S. (The J visa can be for other purposes as well.) The F-1 is an exception to the general rules, because it is not issued after application to USCIS or DOS, but instead obtained by application to the school the alien wants to attend. In all cases, the alien must prove they have all the financial resources necessary to complete the schooling. The visa is good as long as the student is still attending school and isn't violating their status by doing such things as engaging in unauthorized employment.

With the J visa, the student's education is often paid for by a non-profit organization or the alien's home country, in which case the alien is required to go back to their home country for at least two years to use their education at home. There is a waiver available for this requirement commonly used by doctors, which requires them to practice medicine in an under-served location in the U.S. for a period of three years. This is why many smaller towns and rural areas will get foreign doctors who only stick around for three years.

The F visa has a relatively new and somewhat controversial addition called Optional Practical Training, which allows the alien to work in the United States for up to a year to develop their skills after finishing their education. Critics contend this is a back-door extension of an H-1B visa.

H-1B Visas

The highly-controversial H-1B visa is intended for employers to employ aliens in "specialty occupations" within the U.S. for a period up to three years, which can be extended for another three, although exceptions to the maximum may apply if the employer is in the process of trying to bring the alien in permanently. The Wikipedia article explains some aspects fairly well:
The regulations define a “specialty occupation” as requiring theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge in a field of human endeavor[1] including, but not limited to, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, biotechnology, medicine and health, education, law, accounting, business specialties, theology, and the arts, and requiring the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent as a minimum[2] (with the exception of fashion models, who must be "of distinguished merit and ability".)[3] Likewise, the foreign worker must possess at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent and state licensure, if required to practice in that field.
One of the reasons the H-1B is controversial is that in most cases the employer doesn't have to prove they tried to hire someone in the U.S. before hiring the alien.


This should have given you an overview of three important ways aliens can visit the U.S. I haven't decided what specific issue to look at next, so you'll be surprised.

Monday, December 07, 2009

DFW Sketch 341

Smith Falls I

Smith Falls I
According to the Wikipedia article:
Smith Falls, at 63 feet (19 m), is the highest waterfall in the state of Nebraska. Located 18 miles (29 km) east of Valentine, the falls is part of Smith Falls State Park and is adjacent to the Niobrara National Scenic River. The state park was established by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1992; in 1996, a footbridge was built across the Niobrara River to provide more convenient public access.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

DFW Sketch 340

Immigration 101: Refugee/Asylum Status and Diversity Visas

Previously, I stated that our immigration law doesn't care about who wants to come to the U.S., but instead cares only about who people in the U.S. want to bring here. This is not entirely true. There are two basic ways an alien can come to the U.S. because they want to come here, but they are very limited. These are refugee and asylum, as well as the diversity visa program. The former is intended for humanitarian purposes, and the latter is for the purpose of encouraging diversity in the U.S.


Refugees are people who are persecuted, by their government or an entity the government is unable or unwilling to control, because of their membership in a discrete social group (think religion, race, or homosexuality) or for their political opinion. As long as they can prove these things, the requirements for refugees are much looser than for other types of immigrants--Basically, they just have to prove they aren't a terrorist or haven't supplied "material support" to terrorists (the definition is the issue of much contention). The USCIS Refugee Affairs Division (often called the "refugee corps") conducts interviews of these people to determine which ones are admitted to the U.S. If they are, we pay for their flight, and they get basically all of their immigration benefits for free.


An asylee is a person who meets the definition of a refugee, but is already inside the United States. They can make an application for asylum by filing Form I-589 with USCIS, or by raising the issue in removal proceedings. If they are eligible for asylum, it doesn't matter how they got here: They could be border jumpers, or have gotten in based on fraudulent documents, or any other way, including legally. Asylees also get their immigration benefits without paying any fees.

The Diversity Visa Program

The Diversity Immigrant Visa is a bit of an odd duck in immigration law. Often called the "visa lottery," it is just that: Numbers are assigned randomly to all the applicants, who must be from countries with low rates of immigration into the U.S. If you apply, you just hope your number comes up by the end of the year (only 50,000 can get in on this program each year, though usually not all of the numbers are used up).


Now, you know all of the ways an alien can become a permanent resident of the United States of America: (1) A U.S. relative wants them here, (2) a U.S. business needs them here, (3) they want to come to avoid persecution in their homeland, or (4) they just get lucky.

Next time, I will discuss nonimmigrant visas, or visas for people who are just visiting.

Friday, December 04, 2009

DFW Sketch 338: Stegosaurus

Immigration 101: Getting a Green Card

After getting an approved immigrant petition, an immigrant must then obtain a "green card," or legal permanent resident card. This can be done in one of two ways: (1) consular processing or (2) adjustment of status. In either case, the alien must have an approved immigrant petition and must not be inadmissible. They must also have an immediately available visa, either because they are an "immediate relative" of a U.S. citizen or because their number is available under the visa bulletin. They must also undergo a medical examination and obtain certain vaccinations. In both cases, they can bring their spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age with them.

Consular Processing

If an immigrant is outside the U.S., they will apply for their visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate through the U.S. Department of State. I'm not entirely acquainted with the requirements, but I understand they have to prove they don't have a criminal record which makes them inadmissible and they also have to prove their identity. If the consular officer approves the application, this still doesn't make them a permanent resident. They must go to a U.S. port of entry (by land, sea, or air) and apply for admission through an officer of Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security. This officer will also verify their identity and can turn them away if the officer believes they are inadmissible. If the CBP officer admits them, they are then a permanent resident.

Adjustment of Status

If the alien is inside the U.S. (either on a nonimmigrant visa or as an illegal alien who is admissible due to asylum status or a previous amnesty program) they can apply to adjust their status to that of a permanent resident by filing Form I-485 with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, another branch of DHS. The requirements are essentially the same as for consular processing, but they must also establish they entered the country legally and have remained legal the entire time they were here, with some room for forgiveness, or they are eligible for a waiver or meet an exception to the rules.


So, just so we're clear, I'll go over the basic steps again. First, someone in the U.S. (a citizen, permanent resident, or business) petitions for the alien. If the petition is approved, and when the visa is available, the alien makes an application to either a consulate or USCIS. If the application is to USCIS, approval means they are a permanent resident. If the application is to a consulate, then they must come to the U.S. and apply for admission by a CBP officer. Approval makes them a permanent resident.

Next time, I'll discuss some other ways to become a permanent resident which are less common, but also important: refugee and asylum, and the diversity visa program.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

DFW Sketch 336: Triceratops

Immigration 101: Immigrant Petitions

Not long ago, someone told me about an illegal immigrant's situation. He was someone who had been brought into the country by his parents at a young age. I was asked what would happen if he applied for citizenship.

This type of question, which is very common, is not the question our immigration laws ask at all. Most people assume the question is, "How does someone who wants to immigrate into America do it while following the law?" Instead, our law asks, "How does someone in America bring an immigrant into the country?" As a policy matter, this only makes sense. Why should our laws be designed to help outsiders, when we could just as easily enact laws that serve our own?

The two primary ways our law allows this are (1) family petitions and (2) employment petitions.

Family Petitions

The first step to bring a relative into the U.S. is when an American citizen or legal permanent resident (LPR--a green card holder) files a petition for a family member with USCIS. Usually, this is done by filing Form I-130.

As a U.S. citizen or LPR there are certain types of relationships you can file for, such as a spouse, child, or parent. Only citizens can file for a brother or sister. One interesting fact is you have to be 21 years old to file for a sibling or a parent, so the problem of so-called "anchor babies" is vastly overstated. If jumping the border and having a baby is your immigration plan, I hope you're very patient. (However, having a U.S. citizen child may play a role in deportation decisions.)

To get an I-130 approved, all you need to do is file it, with the appropriate fee, and prove the relationship. Usually this is done with documentation, such as birth certificates or marriage certificates. To prevent marriage fraud, spousal petitions usually also require an in-person interview.

If the petition is approved, all you have done is prove the relationship and allow the alien to apply to become an LPR. That's it--it confers no immediate benefit. And the wait times are very long due to the immigrant quota system. A quick look at the current visa bulletin shows that siblings of U.S. citizens from most countries have about a 10 year wait, while those Filipinos whose relatives filed in 1987 are now eligible. Certain "immediate relatives" of U.S. citizens (spouse, unmarried child under 21, or parent) get in regardless of the quotas.

Employment Petitions

The other most important way to bring an alien into the U.S. is through an employment petition, usually Form I-140. This is NOT the same thing as an H-1B visa, which is for a temporary worker instead of a permanent one, although the two are often confused by people debating the subject.

For most employment petitions, you first have to file ETA Form 9089 with the U.S. Department of Labor. With this form, ostensibly an employer has to prove (1) it has tried to hire someone who is already legally in the U.S., (2) it is offering a wage which is normal for the job in the location where the job is, and (3) it couldn't find anyone in the U.S. who was willing and qualified to take the job. This is, at least, how it's supposed to work. If DOL believes the employer has proven all of those things, it will issue a "labor certification." The employer will then file the labor certification, along with Form I-140, with USCIS. USCIS then must determine whether the alien is indeed qualified for the job and that the employer is able to pay the wage they have offered. These requirements make sense: Why would we let them bring in an unqualified person, when they are saying that the reason they need them is no one here is qualified? And, if they can't pay the wage, then they are bringing down wages of U.S. workers.

Some categories don't require a labor certification. If you are really, really famous for your artistic or athletic endeavors (think Paul McCartney or Roger Federer, although the bar may not be that high) then you can petition for yourself, assuming you intend to continue those artistic or athletic endeavors in the U.S. Also, accomplished scientists can be brought in to do research, and multinational corporations can move some of their important executives into the U.S.

As with the family petitions, approval of the petition only gives you the right to ask to come into the country, and there are quotas on all of the employment categories (the visas for the "really great" people are usually immediately available).

Be sure to check back next time, where I'll go over what people actually do when they get an approved petition, and how they turn it into a green card.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

DFW Sketch 335: Narwhal

Immigration 101: Introduction

After health care reform, the next major issue our President is expected to tackle is immigration reform.

Everyone has an opinion on this issue, and many people have a very strong opinion about it. However, I long ago realized that most people don't know much, if anything, about our current immigration system. In the interest of educating my fellow Americans and hopefully contributing in my own small way to fostering an informed debate, I hope to explain the basics of our system. I will explore various aspects of the system, including how an alien becomes an immigrant, how they can visit our country, and also explore how they can become citizens (and why many of us are born as citizens). I will do my very best to keep the Immigration 101 series strictly to the facts, without bringing any opinions to the table. After this series, I may discuss opinions.

If you've ever asked "Why don't illegal immigrants just come here the right way?" then be sure to check back tomorrow for an eye-opening discussion.

Friday, November 27, 2009

DFW Sketch 331: The Ancient Blood Feud

Mainspring by Jay Lake (2007)

I recently finished reading Mainspring by Jay Lake. It is a definite steampunk novel with a very interesting premise. Nearly all steampunk is set in an alternate history setting, but this one is set in a completely alternate world: The Earth literally orbits the Sun on gears, the Moon orbits the Earth in the same way, and a giant gear at the equator (it extends 100 miles from the surface) makes the northern and southern hemispheres almost entirely isolated from one another. It's orrery-as-reality. The major conflict is introduced in the first chapter, when Gabriel appears to the protagonist to inform him the world's mainspring is running down, and tasks him with traveling halfway across the world to wind the mainspring. You find out early on that this is one of the things Jesus is believed to have done (although the evidence is apocryphal).

At its core, the book is merely an exercise in worldbuilding. Most speculative fiction has at least some element of worldbuilding, but in this particular book, the world is so compelling that I would be willing to follow just about any journey into it. In other words, the characters and plot are of secondary importance. Which is not to say they're not worthwhile. Most of the characters are flat, and there are groups of them which are mostly undifferentiated, but they are all believable, acting in consistent ways. The plot does have some moments which could be accused of being Deus ex machina (excuse the pun), but they all make sense in context (in any case, I think there was just a tiny bit less foreshadowing than I would have liked).

My biggest complaint is, as with my last book review, the love story. Here it's not because it's unbelievable, or not compelling, or that it fails to advance the story. It's just weird. I mean, really freaking weird. It turns out to be necessary to the plot, but there are at least a few ways Lake could have written around it. Some of them would have required making the book longer, but anything would have been an improvement. Even with this very weird element, the rest of the book is so compelling that I could easily get past it.

Now, I feel I have to address some of the characterizations of the book as blasphemy, as some reviewers have done. I think it's better understood as taking the speculation in the speculative fiction to its logical extreme. Here, that means asking the question, "What kind of God would make a world like this?" or "If we change the world in this way, how would God treat the world differently?" It's not all that different from C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, where he asked, "What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia . . . ?" Which is not to say Lake was asking that question. Indeed, he does not wholeheartedly embrace any single alternate theology. As in the real world, the characters are not given plain answers to those questions.

In sum, the world is extremely compelling and absolutely unique, the characters are believable, and the plot is intriguing. In all, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.