Fab Surge Summary Part 2: Projects

Tim san really really wanted me to post our project descriptions for you readers even though I haven’t had enough time to them justice. (I’ve just returned from a very intense install / training / opening week in East Cleveland, Ohio where there was a more tense security presence than much of Afghanistan.)

One ton of machines and materials for the Jalalabad Fab Lab hit the ground in June 2008 and we’ve been busy transforming the pile of equipment into a living breathing community. We’ve accomplished a lot in 6 months, in addition to installing and configuring the machines, we’ve also started several projects with local users. That $40,000 I mentioned in the last post covered all of the below projects, plus a ton of work in infrastructure, groundwork, research and discussions.   What I find really great is all the projects described have been also been continued by Afghans after the international visitors left. Truly “teach a man to fish” stuff here.

T-Shirt Club

The t-shirt club makes custom shirts for profit. They use a computer drawing program and the internet for designs and a computer-controlled knife cutter to make the silk screen mask. Then they print the shirt (or anything) by hand. Club members use a computer spreadsheet to track their orders and cash ledger. In the first two weeks of operation, club members have already experienced business considerations such as pricing, cash accountability, stock management, quality control, delivery requirements and consequences, business goals and plans, scaling, and more.

In 14 days the club earned $142 “take home profit”, paid $19 in “use fees” to the FabLab and deposited $20 into the club account. (On day 15 the students received 6 more orders!) More than a week on and the club is still going strong with a small amount of remote mentoring. Club members are approximately 15-18 years old. More information on the T-shirt Club here.

The “use fee” paid to the FabLab is profoundly encouraging. The monthly burn rate at the lab is approximately $1200 – $1500 – and every single cent goes to directly Afghans in one way or another. A single club of 4 youth was able to generate almost 2% of those fees in their first two weeks by contributing only $1 per shirt… The market for custom T-shirts at $10 each is much bigger especially once these kids set up at the FOB and PRT bazaars. And the “use fee” from the FabFi and other projects have the potential to generate much more. It will take a while before the lab is fully self-sustainable but there is a reasonable path.

User Training (future clubs?)

Stamps, challenge coins, music boxes (in particular microcontroller-based circuits), Picocrickets and Scratch graphical game design and programming.

making stamps on the mini-mill
milling custom rubber stamps
challenge coins
casting custom challenge coins

FabFi : DIY Wireless

FabFi antenna hardware are completely made or sourced locally, the total cost is around $65-$75 in materials for each one depending on the size of the reflector. Reflectors “printed” in the lab are coupled with specially configured commercial access points / routers and can be used to make wireless high speed connections as far as 15 km away. Within the FabFi local network we’re achieving speeds of 4.5+ Mbps. And there’s nothing to stop the users from making more and expanding the network.

As of the end of January 2009, three main links were made: one to the school in our local village of Bagrami, one to the public hospital, and one to an NGO near to the hospital. To make the last two links, both in Jalalabad City center, we made a long-haul link to the water tower (the second highest structure in Jalalabad) then two downlinks fan out from the water tower. In addition to the technical achievement, the water/FabFi transmit tower is now a shared resource for all of the various organizations within the hospital. Since much of Jalalabad City can “see” the tower and are eager to also point downlink antennas at the FabFi, there is budding neighborhood pressure on the hospital to keep the resource working and serviced.

The FabLab freely shares its 2+Mbps down / 485kbps up Intelsat internet connection with anyone that connects to the FabFi network. All current sites are expected to fan out with more links; we’ve had Afghans working with us that are very close to being able to make and install future links. This will ultimately turn into a “FabFi Club” where members make money from making, installing, and maintaining the FabFi network. The prices, membership, and level of service have yet to be worked out. The design is open sourced, meaning that anyone can download the design and configuration files for free; club members would get paid for the service of actually buying the raw materials, constructing the antennas, configuring and installing the system, and so forth.


FabFi and GATR SatCom Antennas on Fab Lab Roof

More information on FabFi in Afghanistan here, including a FabFi 1.0 distribution download site.

Digital Pathology

20 years ago the pathology lab in the medical school was well known as one of the better labs in Asia. Today the lab looks exactly as it did 20 years ago… complete with 20 year old supplies and processes.

40X view
40X view
of sample
a sample slide on the microscope
a frozen section sample
on a digital microscope

How does technology (especially communication) change everything? With Dr. Mendoza from San Diego Sister Cities Association, we installed, integrated, and demonstrated a frozen section machine, digital microscope, and internet connection to obtain “real time” remote pathology consultations on a sample from a volunteer. See the full story here.

Local Copy of the Internet

A proxy server was installed between the Internet and the FabFi network. Much web content doesn’t change very quickly and a copy kept in country, synced only once in a while, means ridiculously fast “internet” and significantly eased load on the satellite link. This means that most of the traffic is only within the country. The current FabFi has 4.5Mbps bandwidth; the connection to the Internet is limited by the satellite bandwidth. (By the way, the “real” Internet works the same way, with copies of itself physically all over the world, but usually done by slightly more professional folks with bigger budgets for better server farms and power systems.) Right now the proxy server keeps a copy of anything anyone clicks on; in the near future we’ll mirror Wikipedia and other open educational and informational sources.

MIT Open CourseWare

Check out a long time MIT favorite: Prof Lewin
Check out a long time MIT favorite:
Prof Lewin demonstrating that the period
of a pendulum is independent of the mass
hanging from the pendulum in Lecture 10
of MIT 8.10: Physics I.

Every single undergraduate class and many of the graduate classes taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been painstakingly recorded, indexed, transcribed and compiled along with all the materials from the classes. You can watch any class just as if you were in the classroom. Free. And all of Open CourseWare is online in the FabFi network.

From anywhere in the world you can access MIT Open CourseWare; if you’re lucky enough to be connected to the FabFi network in Nangarhar Province you won’t have a wink of delay even with an entire classroom streaming the video courses.

Bagrami School Teacher Laptop Training

Approximately 9 teachers from the school in Bagrami wanted to learn basic computers. Teachers have been loaned OLPCs through the end of this semester so they can take the computers home to spend hands-on time with them. Ultimately these teachers’ students will have OLPCs or similar laptops and as the teachers learn to use the computers themselves, they are thinking about how they will integrate the availability of technology into their lesson plans. The teachers currently come to the FabLab to charge the laptops, connect to the internet, and use the printer (we hope in the near future they will also begin using the other Fab output devices). One teacher in particular is very good in English and has had about 2 weeks more of training from the FabFolk than the other teachers and is leading getting the other teachers involved. Most teachers involved are approximately 23-27 years old. More on the Bagrami teachers’ computer training here and the proposed FabLab/OLPC Bagrami field trial here.

Bagrami Online

The congruence of the FabFi network and teacher laptop training projects above naturally led to installing a FabFi connection at the school in our village of Bagrami. The headmaster and department of education have agreed to allow anyone to use the school rooms (and internet connection) outside of school hours. A wireless access point was installed at the Bagrami school and a small radius of houses nearby can also connect to the network without being inside the school walls. There is great interest in the small village of Bagrami (aproximately 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants) to extend the coverage across all of Bagrami. It is the children of Bagrami that are our constant students in the FabLab and so they are ideally poised to fabricate as many antennas as they wish. This is a village that does not have grid electricity or running water. Some residents share the cost of running a single generator, the others simply don’t have electricity. Ever. It’s funny to think that you could be lying in the sun on your mud roof enjoying faster net speeds than, well, me at my apartment in Cambridge, MA.

Naqibullah, with brothers and cousins in Bagrami discovering Wikipedia
discovering Wikipedia in Bagrami

In places like Bagrami, access to computers and the internet can be life-changing. Nekibulah’s brother, for instance, is interested in medicine but has absolutely no access to any information on the subject. A simple google search for “health” had him excited in no time at all, and I was glad to watch the attending group devour a page on woman’s health (including sexual health) without even batting an eyelash. In contrast to his brother, Nekibulah was more interested in information about Afghanistan and Islam. The tension between traditional cultural values / religious beliefs and the desire for the opportunities of western (for lack of a better term) society is palpable in these moments of discovery. “Are there Muslims in America?” “When you have a guest in your house would you have tea together?” (From Keith’s blog entry the day Bagrami link went online)

Online Lab Journal

It’s still not perfect or posted in the correct place, but we’ve got the teachers and lab assistant posting the daily lab journal online. (It’s supposed to be here but it’s probably in the stream here.) Management, finances, accountability, and responsibility, it’s all being developed wobbly and imperfectly in the open so you can see exactly what’s going on.

Weather Station (Almost) Online

If you go to weather.com and try to find weather for Jalalabad, you’ll get either Kabul or Peshawar weather, and neither are at all close or similar in weather. We installed a weather station – anemometer, temperature, barometer, etc. and had a blast teaching students about atmospheric sciences. Students from Bagrami are deeply connected to farming – they don’t need a gadget to predict the weather but the quantization of the data was world shifting. We realized too late that we don’t have the “special software” to gather the data and post it to something like weather.com, making Bagrami yet more connected with the world. We ran out of time to play with the system which has a serial interface and see if we can pipe the raw data directly into a FabFi router. For now, FabLab users carefully record the temperature and conditions in a journal and are learning how to track and graph the data.

Have you really made it all the way down to here? I’m still plodding through our photos and videos and I wish I was ready with an album to give you a taste of how exciting and vibrant the region as well as our students are — really quite opposite than what you might see on TV.

Interested in helping? We need everything from back end geek work to front end install / maintenance work, curriculum and teaching, small business mentoring, plus other specialist knowledge in pretty much anything that can be useful in Bagrami and beyond that can be enabled or enhanced with technology. If you’re good at something, I can probably use the help.

Afghanistan as Vietnam

I am wrapping up my time in Kabul and getting ready to press embed with the Marines down south in early March. I am currently working on something I cannot blog about and it is boring. Inshallah I’ll have a story to tell soon in the meantime I have been catching up on some reading (when the net works here) during my downtime. I recently came across a Men’s Journal article written by Robert Young Pelton (RYP) on his brief embed with a Human Terrain Team. Mr. Pelton’s article was neither positive nor accurate and completely lacked the ring of authenticity. Old Blue over at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure was the first off the mark questioning the factual content of Pelton’s article and he took it apart with his usual humor and sharp insight.

Amazingly RYP responded to Old Blue on his blog and other blogs and then engaged Old Blue in a direct email exchange where he threatened Blue with retribution from on high. That is called playing a weak hand where I come from normally a stunt pulled by a weak man. Blue was kind enough to forward me the correspondence and ask for my humble opinion on the matter. I spent the better part of a day reading various blog postings and related articles and I got a strong sense of déjà-vu. Then it hit me; Pelton was trying to come up with a Vietnam tale. This was his first installment of the Afghanistan version of Dispatches.

My Dad and three of my four uncles were career Marines like me infantry officers and there was seldom a time during the Vietnam conflict when one or more of them was not deployed in harm’s way. I have read everything I could about Vietnam since childhood and remember when Michael Herr’s Dispatches was published in the late 70’s. Dispatches is a travel log of sorts where the reader gets to hear the personal stories of the forgotten men at the front. The stories were typical of that period the generals were liars and clueless, the troops just wandered around the jungle not knowing where they were going or why they were there, they hated their officer’s and senior NCO’s, they committed atrocities and one of the front line grunts in the book carried a bag of severed ears with him. All the “cool kids” (fellow journalists) got together for dope smoking sessions and talked with authority about what was really going on because they were out and about covering the action and knew the real score. The military brass hung out in Saigon doing nothing constructive except for concocting lies to tell the press at the infamous five O’clock follies (the nightly press briefing in Saigon.) Some of the material in Dispatches was used in films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. Michael Herr and his fellow journalist defined the Vietnam generation in our collective consciousness and stuck them with a reputation that they did not earn and did not rate.

I liked Dispatches when it came out because I thought it was an authentic account of “real war.” I was also 18 at the time and not the brightest 18 year old you have ever seen either. I have since spent 22 years in the military as both commissioned officer and an enlisted man and now recognize Herr’s book for what it is. Fiction. Philip Caputo a soldier/author who served in Vietnam (Army infantry I think) is on record with this quote “Herr has told me, and he’s told other people, ‘I’ve made a lot of that shit up.’ But out of real stuff.”

Let me ask you dear reader, a question. How many Army general officers do you think ride around Afghanistan in “skull adorned black painted hot-rodded Blackhawks?” YeahI’m betting on zero too. Where does such imagery come from? It comes from movies about Vietnam. I say that knowing full well that Old Blue has posted an apology to RYP on his blog acknowledging that he was sent a picture by RYP of a Blackhawk helicopter with a faded grim reaper type illustration on the rear of the right engine nacelle. Big deal that is a long way from hot-rodded black rotary birds with skulls painted on them. Blue was keeping his word as a real man does by posting that mea culpa but we all know what he saw in the picture and what Pelton describes in his story are two different things. But good on you Blue for being a man of your word (as if guys like him would have it any other way.)

There was nothing remotely “authentic” about the classic Vietnam movies (with the exception of the Marine Boot Camp portion of Full Metal Jacket) and many now know they did a disservice to the men who had fought and died in that conflict. I know their depictions of haunted veterans who were unable to cope were absolute nonsense my Dad, all my friends Dad’s, as well as all the Dad’s of my High School classmates had served multiple tours in Vietnam. They had none of the typical symptoms of PTSD, they were not substance abusers, they were not haunted gilt ridden losers. They were and continue to be highly functioning reputable members of their communities. The book Stolen Valor is one of the best on this topic ever written and documents exactly where the common perception of Vietnam Vet as dehumanized, barely functioning, drug addled loser came from. It came from Hollywood and writers like Michael Herr. This is the legacy Pelton is reaching for in his hatchet job on the Bagram Human Terrain Team.

RYP is trying to sell a tired old Vietnam era song about Americans at war and he is wrong. I enlisted the military in 1979 the same year our president said he was thinking of enlisting because the military was such a proud organization full of quality people. Back in 1979 that was not the case which is why I know (at least on this topic) that President Obama was passing on contemporary democrat talking points. Another word for that is “telling a bald face lie” but who cares? President Obama’s fibbing on this subject pales in comparison with Hilary’s bizarre war stories or Biden’s blatant plagiarism of a British politician’s life story. Sorry the “stimulus Bill” saga has fouled my mood and I digress.

In 1979 the military was recovering from the debacle of Vietnam and had serious race, drug, and morale issues. I joined in 1979 because I had run out of viable options and needed to get out of the house. It turned out to be a brilliant move but at the time it was demoralizing at least in my case it was. The military did not start to recover and then transform itself into the organization we know and love today until the early 80’s and that transformation started with a zero tolerance drug policy. It was also aided by a gigantic pay raise and a new mandate for professionalism made by Ronald Regan. Under President Regan the military completed its stunning transformation into the most professional Armed Forces the world has ever seen.

I am a rather harsh critic of our efforts in Afghanistan. I have written repeatedly on the topic of risk aversion and how that drives our tactics costing us momentum. I remain convinced that we will take more casualties by trying to avoid them then if we followed our own counterinsurgency doctrine and got off the big FOB’s. But I have seen no indication on the bases I have visited (and I have been on a lot of them) that today’s military is in any way similar to the force I joined back in 1979. General officers are not frivolous people who fly around the battle space dropping in on combat outposts for a five minute grip and grin. Lieutenants assigned to Human Terrain Teams are trying to adapt scientific theory into action in the midst of the most complicated environment any military has ever operated in before. Lt Jones, it seems to me, demonstrates initiative and enthusiasm for his difficult task well above the norm. The officers and troops living outside the main FOB’s are not clueless draftees counting down the days until they fly home on the “freedom bird.” They are mission focused and when they bitch the topic is normally about being able to do their jobs better by being allowed greater freedom of action and movement.

I do not agree with current “force protection” policies and what appears to me to be an addiction to high technology solutions for tactical problems. But I understand where this mind set comes from. The military does not like losing its men or woman in combat. They are also terrified of inadvertently offending local sensibilities by allowing the American military outside of the bases and into the local bazaars with the people. When you see the number of blond and red headed children in Jalalabad (a Soviet Army R&R base was located there back in the day) you can understand why senior commanders are worried.

The American media is not going follow RYP’s lead and try to play “got ya” with the Pentagon in the near future. They have invested too much getting Barrack Obama elected to try to shoe horn Afghanistan into their Vietnam template. The main stream media also has an access problem in Afghanistan. It is possible to travel throughout most of this country without elaborate security measures but I do not know of any media organization who has figured out how to do it. Quite a few reporters were kidnapped in Afghanistan last year while trying to get out on their own to develop their stories. Afghanistan is a dangerous place where you really need to know what you are doing if you’re going to move outside the main cities. But it can be done and there are thousands of internationals in this country who live and work outside the wire with the Afghans daily to prove that point. The press has not broken the code on that and until they do their ability to deliver independent analysis will be minimal.

But there are guys like Pelton out there who are chasing little specks of Pulitzer dust and they know exactly the tone and tenor of the stories they need to write in order to achieve their goal. They are not going to be successful due to our military men and woman who are now able to enter the debate via the World Wide Web. Read Old Blue’s blog it is there you will find honest, pointed, at times even harsh criticism of how this war is being prosecuted. He is one voice in a sea of thousands of active duty mil bloggers who are not going to back down because some “jurno” threatens them. They also know more, explain more, and are funnier than RYP.

And there are guys like me and The Bot who are from the military, understand the military, understand Afghanistan, its people, culture and language, who are way outside the wire. We have the backs of our milblogging brothers and sisters in arms. I am absolutely disgusted at how Pelton depicted Lt. Jones in his article. It is the kind of yellow journalism which makes the blood boil. Gratuitous insults while depicting a young officer working a difficult, poorly defined billet is beneath contempt. It added nothing to the overall story line serving only to make Pelton look like a grade A number 1 asshole.

Pelton – if you want to be this war’s Michael Herr you need to get out like we do to get an understanding of this complex, dangerous, confusing situation the international military and aid agencies face here daily. Until you put in the time and effort that Old Blue or bloggers like I have you’ll have no voice and no real impact. Stop taking the easy way out you jerk.

I mentioned The Bot above because that knucklehead is two blog posts in arrears. He promised to cover me during my current gig and I’m now resorting to calling him out on the FRI blog. The Bot has been conducting a survey of all the Northern Provinces with just his driver as escort. I saw him briefly 10 days ago in Kabul and was disgusted to observe his Dari is almost fluent again. My Pashto is still pretty basic and I forgot most of my Dari but the Bot seems to pick this stuff up with little effort at all. Frigging annoying if you ask me. A little help in the comments section to motivate The Bot would be appreciated. He has fascinating tales to tell from the North which is becoming more dangerous and volatile. He doesn’t have too much good news but he does have fair and accurate news which is getting harder and harder to come by these days.

Observations on Kabul and the private security market

Private security contractors have been in news lately mostly due to the ongoing Blackwater saga from Iraq. Afghanistan has had its share of security contractor issues too but the market has never been as big or as wild as the Iraq PSC market. I cannot comment on Blackwater’s operations in Iraq but do know a few of their contractors working Afghanistan. They seem to be above average in the quality department and better yet (the ones I know) are on interesting contracts. The Blackwater country director is a former FBI agent who has been in Afghanistan a couple of years longer than I have. He is unquestionably one of the most knowledgeable Americans on Afghanistan and the current administration should spend time talking with him.   Given the time he has spent in -country combined with the breadth of projects he has supervised there are few Americans who have is insight. The problem contractors in this country come in two flavors, local companies that are unable to perform and companies spawned by former Department of State officals or closely tied to US prime contractors.   USPI, a Texas based company with all its corporate officers now under federal indictment is one example. The defunct, transparently corrupt World Services International (WSI) headed by   Henry Wilkins is another.

The Afghan Army is trying to drive around like their American mentors
The Afghan Army is trying to drive around like their American mentors but Afghan drivers will not give way knowing the soldiers will not shoot at them

I have only seen a group of wild international contractors, rifles pointed out all windows, screaming through downtown traffic like the more extreme Iraq crews, once and that was over two years ago. The international firms operating here are staffed with expats who, as a rule, have extensive in-country experience. They tend to move, some in hardened vehicles and some not, blended in with local traffic and obeying local traffic laws. That last remark is a joke there are no real traffic laws in Afghanistan just a number of unwritten rules revolving around perceived position vis a vis the bumper or quarter panel area of adjacent vehicles.

ISAF troops making an illegal U turn and menacing all Afghans around while
ISAF troops making a U turn in downtown Kabul and menacing all Afghans around them while doing so. We have been in Kabul for 8 years and one would think that maybe we could come up with better techniques

The good companies would sack international consultants immediately for conducting convoy operations which were out of sync with the local traffic. But there are convoys of large armored SUV’s which do drive at break neck speed around town aggressively blocking traffic, hitting vehicles which do not get out of the way fast enough, and being a general pain in the ass for all law abiding motorist and they belong to the United States Army. For the life of me I cannot figure out why it is that they continue to operate in Kabul as if they were on Route Irish back in 2005.

Kabul had changed dramatically since I moved to Jalalabad 14 months ago. The tension in the city is palatable. Old Afghan friends who were brimming with optimism back in 2005 no longer smile much or joke about when they too will visit Disney World in America. Mil blogger David Tate has a great post on being back in Kabul after a four year absence and he also has several posts detailing the misery of trying to move around the country as a reporter embedded with the military. I do not know David but find his observations spot on.

I awake every morning to the sound of multiple sirens peeling through the pre dawn chill. That is the newest technique of the American Army loud sirens to help alert traffic ahead to move out of the way. I hear those sirens all day long because both international and American military traffic has increased at least 10 fold in the past year. Convoy after convoy after convoy line the Jalalabad and airport roads all of them pointing guns at every vehicle or person who comes to close, all of them forcing traffic off the road in front of them, all of them looking every bit as stupid here as they would driving through Washington DC in a similar manner. Except now they have an abundance of SUV’s to add in the mix.

The other day I saw one of these SUV convoy’s (at least 8 vehicles) and in the middle was a large Expedition with an American flag placard in the left windshield and the two star placard of an American Major General in the right of the windshield. Is it me or is that not the most stupid thing you have ever heard? I am the son of a two star general I have very close friends who are about 5 years away from becoming two star generals. I know generals and guess what?   They exist on a bell shape curve just like the rest of us. On the front end of the curve are generals like Mattis, Kelly and Allen (John Allen is probably the least known best general officer serving in the military today Inshallah he will gain more prominence in the near future) at the back end of the curve are generals nobody has heard of or knows much about but who wreak havoc on the morale of their subordinates. Somewhere near the back end is the idiot riding around Kabul today with a flag placard on his SUV to remind one and all that he is an important man.   I hasten to add that my father was on the forward slope of the general officer curve too (having just been threatened by my Step Mom for ignoring this salient fact) despite his irrepressible sense of humor which will normally arouse suspicion from dour political appointees on high.

This is good to see - new armored SUV's with firing ports.  The staff officers
This is good to see - new armored SUV's with firing ports. The staff officers in Kabul don't need these - ETT's do. Only is the south is the threat capable enough to warrant the use of infantry fighting vehicles

To what lengths do you think the Taliban (and their many associates) would go to kill an American General Officer? If my son had been tasked to be on this Major General’s PSD detail I would be tempted to deliver a stunning blow with the old clue bat   just on general principal. There is not that much risk to armored SUV’s in Kabul but that is no reason to increase it dramatically by advertising that a general officer is contained therein.

We are supposed to bringing security and infrastructure to the people of Afghanistan. Yet when our military interacts with the people they do so at the point of a gun with full body armor, helmet, ballistic glasses, nomex special purpose fighting gloves (I have a pair myself because they do look cool,) ear plugs, etc And do you know what the people of Afghanistan think? They think our military men and woman are cowards. When the Soviets were here their troops would go out on the town after duty hours (unarmed) to patronize local restaurants, stores, tea houses, and bars. In Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e-Sharif the international community does just that today. The French restaurant in Kabul is the single largest taxpayer in the country that is how busy it is packed every night of the week save Sunday.   You will see senior military types there drinking occasionally despite the ban on alcohol consumption by American forces. But the rank and file are restricted to large FOB’s and subjected to morale crushing micro management by a legion of senior SNCO’s and officers who all need to immediately give up the pecan pie and hit the gym. That last remark may sound a little snippy but I have struck out my last three times at an American DFAC on the pecan pie front so I’m lashing out a bit.   I love pecan pie but never seem to make it into the DFAC early enough to score a slice.

I am starting to sound like a broken record and will end my critique of American convoy procedures with this observation if the current practice had once, ever, in the history of the Afghan conflict, worked at detecting a VBIED soon enough to engage it and prevent it from ramming our troops I would never bring the subject up.   The only time a VBIED was detected and engaged before it struck friendly forces occurred last month in Kandahar but the Canadian troops involved were dismounted and it therefore is not a valid example of our force protection posture actually protecting our forces.

We have killed hundreds of innocent Afghans (and three internationals) because nervous, poorly trained soldiers thought that Afghans driving like normal Afghans (which would seem chaotic to the point of madness to the average international) were instead suicide bombers. Our troops would be much safer allowing the local traffic to mix in with them, getting used to the lunacy that is normal Afghan driving and concentrating on spotting vehicles displaying the classic “rule of opposites” signature which is used to sort out potential threats based on unusual behavior.

I would also like to add that all these armored SUV’s being sent into Kabul should be serviced, stuffed with a dozen pecan pies, and given to the Embedded Training Teams (ETT’s) who are out with the people in the districts doing the real counterinsurgency work. As is always the case in war it is the raggedy assed infantry doing the fighting at the front and getting the least when it comes to vehicles and pecan pie. They currently have old worn out armored Hummers and complain bitterly that the Taliban, local criminals, and even teenage boys in donkey carts can outrun them in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The good gear and good rides should be given to the guys in the front who know how to use them without pissing off every Afghan citizen they come in contact with.

A friend leant me his shortie upper with the super cool pig snout suppressor
A friend lent me his shortie upper with the super cool pig snout flash suppressor to use on the PSD gig I am currently working. It is a vortex design which kicks all the gas and most of the noise out in front of the weapon. A standard bird cage suppressor will give both shooter and driver a vicious headache if you have to shoot from inside a vehicle which is the most common scenario for contractors in Afghanistan

I am in Kabul filling in for the month for a friend who is home on leave. I’m working for one of the larger security companies as a “shooter” on a PSD team which is looking after business developers from the largest American firm working in Afghanistan. My co-workers (both Afghan and international) are fit, well trained, and very competent. My duties consist of escorting men around three or four offices in Kabul. Most of the people we escort have been here a long time. After working hours they jump in to unarmored beaters like mine to hit the town for a little night life. I have not asked but suspect all of them will tell you that having the lavish security they currently enjoy is overkill in Kabul. But what we think doesn’t matter the fact is that they are operating under contract from the US State Department and must conform to the security regulations in those contracts and the State Department requires their prime contractors to operate this way.

Your tax dollars at work - this is just one of many 600 man camps built by American
Your tax dollars at work - this is just one of many 600 man camps built by American contractors and filled with brand new Ford armored trucks. Even the UN is not this lavish in their pursuit of first class health and comfort. We were supposed to spend billions helping the Afghans but what they got was this - a place where Afghans are not allowed to work or loiter.

Is it stupid? You bet. Is it necessary? Absolutely not and today’s multiple small arm/suicide bomber attack in Kabul doesn’t change my assessment one bit. Is this your government at work? It sure is (if you are American) and the excessive secutiy driven overhead costs is the symptom of a large government machine which is not really serious about the mission in Afghanistan.     Next time you see money being thrown around without serious thought or purpose behind it will be when the democrats inflict their new “stimulis” bill upon the people of America.   I understand you have to be employed by a K Street lobbying firm to read a copy so who knows what the hell is in this damn bill.

Do you know what a National Coordinator of Health Information Technology is? Better learn quickly if you’re American because that is who is going to dictate to your doctor what he or she can or cannot do when treating you and your family. As noted in my last post even the UN is doing a better job at reconstruction in Afghanistan than our federal governmental agencies. But wait you say, “I thought the UN placed their personal health and comfort at the very top of their list of priorities.” Well, that is exactly the case the UN has not changed and they do spend a lion’s share of their money of their own health and comfortand yet they are still operating in Afghanistan for pennies on the dollar when compared to the official US Government agencies.

The people of Afghanistan are waiting for a little change they can believe in and it looks to be a very very long wait.

Fab Surge Summary Part 1 : Value = (Cost)^-1

Tim’s been bugging me to write a summary post for all you readers wondering what became of us.   (Most of us are all the way home now and struggling to catch up on sleep while making an appearance at our “day jobs”.)   In short, we accomplished an awful lot and collectively recorded about 250GBs of photos and 30 hours of high def video – which has made it impossible to write a “short summary”.     Tim would want me to point out that it hasn’t cost the tax paying citizens of any country a single dime/rand/quid/eyrir.

PART 1: A $400,000,000 $40,000 SURGE

On our last full day we alternated among frantically finishing projects, collecting stuff for the trip home, and seeing more stuff. We’re all a little sad to leave, there’s so much to do, could do. The guesthouse was bursting at the seams, and even though some of the FabFolk were stuffed three to a room, that, in and of itself made it fun. It’s like camp for grown up little geeks.

 

We've chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our "Hundred Dollar Laptop"s with built-in Pashto keyboards... while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.
We’ve chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our “Hundred Dollar Laptop”s with built-in Pashto keyboards… while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.

The financial load was pretty hefty for a bunch of unemployed / students. I’m often asked to post our costs but I’ve been resisting for several reasons, the most of which is that I don’t want to seem like we’re complaining about our travel costs. We’d much rather see contributions going directly to FabLab users and infrastructure.

To bring the FabFi and other projects to the state it’s at, we’ve spent a total of about $40,000 where the bulk of that is travel costs across two trips (one in November and one in January).

Materials costs for three links were well under $1000:

  • $60 plywood
  • $20 chicken wire / screening
  • $40 staple gun, staples, gaffers tape, rope, etc.
  • $350 network routers (aprox $50 each)
  • $40 12V batteries and chargers
  • $60 network cables, jacks, crimper tool, etc
  • $50 phone sim cards and top-up cards
  • $60 wireless web cam (used for signal source when pointing)
  • $120 wi-spy (used as spectrum analyzer when pointing)

Average travel costs per person for what has been called the Fab Surge is about $4,000. In an ideal world, these costs would have been reimbursable.

  • $180 Afghanistan visa
  • $100 travel medical insurance
  • $100 travel medicines, vaccines, etc.
  • $2,000 – $2,500 Flight from USA to Dubai, return
  • $680 flight from Dubai to Kabul, return
  • $100 travel from Kabul to Jalalalabad by car
  • $630 guesthouse lodging fee (a special shared rate by cramming multiple people into rooms)
  • $20-$50 travel to/from home airport
  • (There is an additional $150-250 that each person has likely spent on random things to include internet access at Heathrow/Amsterdam/Delhi or postage fees of passports and so on)

In addition, all together we spent about $750 in excess baggage and/or shipping mostly for FabFi and video/photo gear, and we’ve used about $200 in DV tapes.

Additionally, Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk from Free Range International haven’t charged us a cent for several weeks worth of armed expat security work as well as rides to and fro. We never would have been able to cover those costs out of our pockets. Fortunately I think we’re a little bit entertaining to Tim and Shem and they kind of like us. But they have to fit us in with their day jobs which hasn’t been the most convenient for either side.

Perhaps the biggest cost that’s difficult to put a value on is the unpaid time. For some of us, our employers or universities did not want the liability of their student/staff in Afghanistan so we all had to quit and go on unpaid leave. For others, they were unemployed but could have been employed in the time they spent preparing for the trip (for example, Keith put in a solid 2 months of 100-hour weeks rather than, you know, working for pay.) That’s impossible to really put a price on.

One of the reasons we were so productive is because we’re individually experienced at what we do.   You can’t throw newbies out into the field with no mentoring and expect them to do anything that doesn’t read like Lord of the Flies… and that’s if you’re lucky and they do anything at all.   And not to pat myself on the back too much, but just as important is to put together a complementary team focused on a well defined set of goals.

Which is the biggest lesson I desperately hope someones out there learns. Never before in history has there been a significantly large population of educated, skilled, experienced, young talent with a semi-disposable income willing and eager to do professional work for little or no pay and even some that will spend their own funds. You have to provide a minimum infrastructure for them to come, and help offset some of the costs they just couldn’t bear. You have to rally them around an idea, spin a coherent vision and place them and their contributions squarely in focus. They won’t accept a mission that doesn’t make sense or isn’t technically or socially viable – and they’re more than competent to develop rational opinions that will need to be vetted and addressed. They will walk away from half-baked plans so you better be ready with supporting data for your claims; but once they buy into the vision they will autonomously meet mission with focus and intensity. It costs much less in dollars than you think.

Those few of us that have come to Afghanistan over the last few months represent a small part of the larger Fab Folk community. We are from many different nationalities and ancestries. Most of us have technical or professional degrees and advanced degrees. All of us have worked in the real world. We are generally between 25-35 years old, male and female.

 

Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is currently working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.
Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is now working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.   Ratafullah, the boy on the left, is the leader among equals of the T-shirt Club.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, former Navy, and was most recently a DOD analyst.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, MS in Applied Anatomy & Physiology, is former Navy, and is a DOD analyst.
Andreas from Iceland installing the downlink at the Public Hospital
Andreas from Iceland (but lives in Argentina) installing the downlink at the Public Hospital.   Andreas has BS in Math from University of Iceland, is working on an MS Math at the University of Amsterdam and works as a computer virus disassembler/analyst.
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab.     Said Jalal is a high school student.   Steve recently worked in the Dean’s office in the MIT Sloan School and is now in Seattle goofing off — restoring and flying WW2 era aircraft.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna. Smári is a Math student at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna in Jalalabad City. Smári studied Mathematics at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad/Peshawara configuring and peaking a router.   Carl is currently a Physics / Math PhD student at Cambridge University in the UK.   Dr. Naqueeb just passed his exams in the Medical School in Jalalabad.
Keith from Boston tethering down the AP on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Computer Science from Harvard.
Keith from Boston tethering down an antenna on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Biomedical Engineering Sciences from Harvard and most recently helped found a medical devices startup.
That’s me, Amy, with what seems to be a perpetual cadre of inquisitive kids excited to learn by day and (sometimes) friendly ANA soldiers by night . I’m an American and I live in Boston. I have a dual BSes in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering from Purdue, an MS from MIT, am working on a PhD from MIT, and have more than 10 years experience as a defense engineer… and have been on the Fab Lab ride since 2002.

 

The FabLabs all over the globe are magnets for us, offering technological infrastructure nearly as good as (and often better than) what we have available at home. We’re big-brained bugs flitting about bright pinpricks of light we don’t need lush hotels, gourmet cooks, or shiny cars. Most of us don’t even have TVs at home. More and more of us are coming of age every day, seeking and searching for light.

 

tea
Smari, Lucy, Carl, Andreas, Steve, Keith, Amy… enjoying a proper spot of tea.