Saturday, August 27, 2011

25 Aug 2011

Another entry from the road.  Kandahar was more or less exactly like I remembered it from my prior visit, hot, dusty, and smelly.  The building we stayed in this time was called the Tropicana (last time I was in the MGM Grand which happens to be right next door).  I didn’t have the room to myself like last time but my fellow travel companions are pretty easy to room with so no complaints.  We stayed in Kandahar for a few days attending various meeting and talking to people all over base about some of the ongoing projects that we are working.  I was able to get the short “leadership” level brief on one of the systems that they have over here which was pretty cool and very informative.  I had seen things on that system before but never nearly as detailed. 

I mentioned Kandahar’s legendary boardwalk after my last trip there but was able to experience it a bit more this time.  We ate at the big pizza place one night which was actually pretty good.  The crust was very thin “traditional” Italian style crust while the rest was normal pizza style, nothing to special.  Well aside from that it was Pizza which I haven’t really had any of for a long time so that was fun.  They also have a few ice cream stands which are pretty clutch when it is 110+ out and you’re walking around outside a lot.  We also hit up the TGI Fridays one night for a late night snack and hey why not.  Bit of a disappointment, not that I’ve ever been a huge TGI Fridays fan (cant think of the last time I went to one prior to last week).  Really it would have been awesome but they didn’t have Mozzarella sticks.  The ones in the DFACs just aren’t that great. (buffet style serving of fried cheese has some drawbacks.   No Mozzarella sticks, War truly is hell….

…till you get to the Canadian complex anyway.

Yeah gotta love those crazy Canadians, they have a Tim Horton’s.  If you don’t know Tim Horton’s is roughly the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin Donuts.  Yup fresh doughnuts, mmmm doughnuts.  They were very tasty. 

Not much else exciting happened while we were in Kandahar, spent the days talking to people and the evenings reading or watching movies over in the MWR.  Well I did get to do laundry which while not really exciting makes the last half of the trip much more pleasant.  We didn’t make it on the flight we wanted to so we had to sit around the PAX terminal all day waiting for a later flight but once we made it on the flight went smooth and we got back to Bagram at a reasonable hour.  Flying involves a lot of waiting but at the same time I’m flying through the Game of Thrones series, on the third book already.

We were in Bagram for a few days, we weren’t planning on being there very long but since the whole start of the trip got delayed everything else got delayed which means our reserved flights weren’t an option, more waiting.  The Paladin guys that I’m doing this whole trip with put me up in a pretty nice shack, small but nice.  No complaints.  Also being in Kandahar and then Bagram I was able to get to my email so I was able to help keep up with stuff going on back at C3 somewhat decently.  I think the boss is ready for me to get back, esp since this trip is taking a tad longer than planned.  Oh well

Flying down to FOB Shank the guys we were with had reserved seats on one of the little planes that flies around here and through some miracle we were able to get standby seats on it as well. (they hold less than 10 people.)  Unfortunately about an hour after we got told we were on the flight and everything they canceled the entire flight.  Oh well, more sitting around the terminal.  We did finally get on a flight so it all worked out.  They loaded the passengers first so then we taxied over to a different part of the airfield where they loaded the cargo.  Bunch of small wooden boxes, hmm wonder what that could be…  The flight itself was really short, we ended up getting here right as the sun was going down.  It was a nice clear night and you could see the stars really well which was nice, haven’t had many chances to see the stars while I’ve been over here.  Even saw the milky way. 

Our temp lodging here is pretty nice, we’re in a tent like we were at leatherneck but instead of it being open with bunk beds it has 8 small rooms sectioned off with plywood and 2x4 walls so everyone has an individual “room”.  They are still open at the top and all but it is pretty nice and the mattresses are halfway decent which is always a plus.  We’ve only been here a few days but they have been really productive.  Talked with a bunch of EOD and Engineer guys about what is going on and their equipment needs, got some familiarization with a couple of different robotic systems, got to go check out an aerostat up-close and talk to the guys that work those.  Also today it rained!  This is really the first real rain I’ve had since I got to Afghanistan.  It was drizziling when I got off my inbound flight from Kuwait and then it almost sprinkled a few times at C3, once it even looked like it had rained but I missed it.  This time there was tons of wind, rain, lighting, the works.  It really cooled everything off and the air smells a lot cleaner since there isn’t a ton of dust everywhere.

Yesterday afternoon I started feeling pretty bad, headache and stomach just didn’t feel right so I skipped dinner and just went and relaxed.  I felt a little better this morning but still pretty poor so I did a very light breakfast,  I felt pretty bad all morning and at lunch I had another light meal and they guys said I was pretty pale which Id believe since I felt pretty crappy.  We had about an hour between meetings this afternoon so I came back to the room and took a nap and after that I’ve felt a ton better, not 100% but much closer to it.  Even had a normal dinner.  I’m guessing it was a weak case of food poisoning or something like that, that stuff normally runs it’s course in ~24 hours.  So hopefully I’ll be back to normal tomorrow.  (I’m sure being on the move for the last two weeks hasn’t really be helpful in terms of being well but on the whole not really that big a deal.)

This should be my last entry from the road for a while, I’ll probably post these entries once I get back and then I’ll start back up with my “regular” updates.

19 Aug 2011

Hey hey!  Again another blog entry that wont be posted for at least another week, oh well such is the price of keeping a blog while traveling in theater.  So currently Im writing this from the Tropicana, no, not the one in Las Vegas.  The temp housing at Kandahar has casino names, last time I was here I stayed in the MGM Grand. What’s happened in the past week?  A whole lot.

We finally got out of Bagram last week on a flight late Saturday, or early Sunday, I think.  We didn’t end up flying till sometime in the wee hours of the morning, so we got to Kandahar in the middle of the night.  Luckily we got a ride from the inbound terminal to a different ramp at the airfield where we would be able to get a flight out to Camp Leatherneck.  We ended up getting to the correct location at about 0330 and there were no flights till the morning so we found a dark waiting room and all just crashed in there on the wooden benches, believe it or not I actually slept really well.  The night morning started a little earlier than I would have liked but we managed to get some chow (the eggs in Kandahar are pretty bad..) and get onto a flight later that morning.  That flight went well, a little longer than expected, guess they took a different route or something.  Oh and we had some working dogs on the flight that were actually rather well behaved.  I was surprised how well they handled the flight. 

For those of you that don’t know Leatherneck is a Marine Corp base which is somewhat ironic since it is out in the middle of nowhere in the desert, nowhere near water.  What is it like?  Hot, Dry, and Dusty.  However I was rather impressed with the base as a whole.  It was a lot closer to my imagined notion of what a base would look like, very “clean” and organized, sprawling but a much more organized sprawl than say Bagram.  We were staying at the compound of some of the guys we were visiting which was actually really nice.  We were in the transient tent which was brand new, and right next door they had their own little MWR, so we ended up watching movies at night.  8mm movies.  Apparently the Navy hasn’t moved to DVDs and is still living in 8mm land.   The guys we stayed with were really cool and we had some very good conversations with them about gear related issues and what the science and technology community can do for them.  Good Stuff, hopefully I’ll get more chances to do that sort of thing.

Lots of walking around base, got some god PT in.  Actually the thing about the 110+ heat is that yeah it is hot, but you still almost get used to it.  You sweat and you drink a lot of water and try to stay inside as much as you can.  After a few days it is less bad.  Also once the sun starts to go down is cools off fairly decently.  It was down in the low 80s one night as I was walking back from my shower before bed, almost chilly. 

Leatherneck is actually only a portion of the base, the other half is the British compound, so while our day to day activities there didn’t include the Brits we did sneak over to their DFAC one night to get some good British grub. The Marine DFACs aren’t bad, they aren’t the best I’ve been to, more middle of the pack, however the British DFAC was pretty darn good.  Maybe it was just that everything was different than anything else I’d had?  I dunno but they had a really good beef stew w biscuits and the dessert bar had a ton of different goodies on it. 

If you don’t follow the Islamic calendar we happen to be in the middle of Ramadan at the moment.  Now normally this doesn’t mean much to the non Muslims in the crowd however if you’re in a country that is predominately Muslim that changes a bit.  First off everything done by local nationals slows down to a crawl or stops completely for the month.  This happens all over and is interesting how their culture just accepts and works around the decreased productivity of a period as long as this.  Also the call to prayer is a lot more prevalent at night than it is normally.

We had a pretty good visit to Leatherneck but of course we must continue on our journey.  Next stop is back to Kandahar for a few days.  We ended up getting to the outbound terminal a few hours earlier than we needed to so we ended up sitting around for 5ish hours.  The outbound terminal is on the British side so the tv had the British Equivalent of sports center going so after watching a loop of that I mostly read on my kindle and we talked to pass the time.  We also scored some MREs to snack on, those things keep getting better and better.  The one I got had Chocolate Peanut Butter in it.  Genius Idea.  Now we just need to see that on store shelves near you.  It was the middle of the night again when we got on to the flight, however flying back to Kandahar was significantly shorter than the trip out, not sure why, I barely had time to fall asleep before I had to wake up again.  Anyway we got to Kandahar some crazy time, probably about 0330 again, got to our temp rooms here and crashed.

12 Aug 2011

I’m writing this on 12 Aug 2011, however it wont be posted for some time.  This is because yesterday I started a long awaited trip and wont be posting till I get back to C3.  Yesterday I took my favorite mode of transportation from C3 to Bagram and met up with the Paladin STAT guys here.  I’m going with them to a number of places across the country to work on helping with some new technologies being fielded in theater.  First we are going to see the USMC guys down at Camp Leatherneck, then we’ll go to Kandahar and finally on to FOB Shank for a few days.  In addition to helping out with the new stuff I’ll have a chance to talk to some soldiers and get some feedback on current gear.  More or less the sort of stuff that I came over here to do.  We’ll see how it turns out, but I think this will be a good trip so I’m pretty excited about it.  Then again we’ve already had a flight canceled so we’re still in Bagarm waiting to leave.  But ehh that’s how going places around here tends to be.  The Paladin guys have pretty much adopted me for the time being,  they are a good bunch and pretty fun to hang out with so no complaints here.  I’ve even managed to get some work done while I’ve been here which will help keep the boss happy even If I’m out of the office so that’s a plus.

Every time I’ve been to Bagram I seem to eat at atleast one DFAC that I’ve haven’t been to before.  I don’t know how many they have here but there sure are a lot, of course with the size of this place you need a lot to keep everyone fed.  I think Bagram might have a larger population than a number of places that I have lived in the states, BIG difference when you’re coming from somewhere as small as C3. 

Work this week went pretty well, I got some useful stuff done so that helps the time move and doing useful things which help out is just generally good too of course.

On a possibly more important note, Oreos, we now have a rather decent collection for the taste test.  We have regular ones (which are now much easier to get since the new PX stocks them), Double Stuff, Cool Mint, Goldies, Peanut Butter, Chocolate, and Berry Blast.  Personally I’m not sure why you would think the Berry Blast would be a good idea but I guess chocolate covered strawberries are pretty good so who knows.  I even brought a small stash with me (well more like the boss forced me to take it but hey no complaints here), so I wont be going hungry.

I also finally tried something I had been thing about doing for a while now.  Playing my PSP while riding the bike down in the gym.  It is actually pretty easy to do and has a surprising side benefit of I actually workout harder since I get sucked into the game and don’t pay attention to the workout.  Put the legs on autopilot and just go.  Plus of course I get to ride the bike for 50 min AND play video games for 50 min all in less than an hour.  Pretty good deal if you ask me.

The beginning of the week I have two rather clever ideas which I’m rather happy with as well, having good ideas always makes the day better!  The first was to download a software program that lets me use the sound card in my netbook as a signal generator.  Which is useful because now I can use it replicate an R/C type servo control signal and have the Arduino I’m working with read that incoming signal and react to it.  Once I get that part sorted out I can start programming useful code for the Arduino since of course it will be going in the boat sooner or later.  The other idea I had while much cooler also happens to be something for my boat that I can’t share at the moment but it has a lot of potential to increase the performance of every ship in my fleet, well and it is just kind of cool.  Now I cant’t wait to get back home so I can start doing the research/development type work that I need to do in order to implement this idea.  Mayhaps I’ll even get my very own rule out of the deal if I manage to pull it off correctly and it works as envisioned.  Either way I’ve got lots of cool projects and ideas in store for the winter.

Back to the Arduino, the kit I got is pretty good, the “cookbook” I got for it isn’t really what I was expecting so that was a little disappointing but oh well.  The more I learn about them the happier I am, the base microcrontroller and all the different sizes/configurations which are available and able to run the Arduino bootloader.  Some of the smaller microcontrollers chips are less than $2/each (granted they have reduced memory and functionality) which means I’ll probably be using them a whole lot more than I ever had thought about using a BasicStamp.  I’m very pleased with this as you can do some pretty spiffy things with microntrollers, especially if you can get them at a reasonable cost.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hey Mr. Taliban...

Wow past week flew by!  I had a really good week so no doubt that had something to do with it.

The boss and I took a little trip over to Bagram to attend some meetings and check on some ongoing projects.  First off the guys over there that we work with are all top notch and so it is always nice to get a chance to hang out with them and talk about current things going on in theater.  We ended up flying over there on Saturday morning, we we’re able to take the usual helo ride that we do so we took a different helo “service”.  What is the difference you ask? Well normally we fly in Blackhawks, which is well and good, but this other service uses an Sikorsky S-61 which is pretty big compared to a Blackhawk.  It was beautiful flying weather, unfortunately all the seats in it faced in so it was really hard to get good views when we were flying.  There was one neat point while we were banked in a turn that looking out the windows in the back it looked like we were sideways.  We weren’t but you could see ground out of all the starboard windows and sky out of all the port windows, it was a neat feeling. 

Once in Bagram we stayed at a different compound which was pretty nice, I actually ended up sleeping on the floor in the “living room” of the team leader there.  I had a bed in temp billeting but his floor was dark and quiet which is not always the case with temp billeting, plus he had a thermarest pad and I had my sleeping bag so I was actually fairly comfortable.  (As far as sleeping on floors go it was actually really nice, I’ve slept on a lot worse.)  Also this compound has a pretty nice DFAC, so that is always a plus.  They say the DFAC at C^3 is one of the better one and while that is probably true it’s nice to get other places when possible since things are a little different and that helps.  Actually I ate at 3 rather good DFACs over the couple of days we were in Bagram, and they were all military dominated (some of the DFACs there have more contractors eating than military, it is a bit strange sometimes.) dunno if that had anything do with it but no complaints here.  Speaking of food we also got to eat at the local Afghan restaurant which was close to where we were staying.  I had Lamb Kabobs served with Nan of course. (Nan is the Afghan flatbread)  It was all rather good (cheap too), I’d go back. 

While visiting with some of our teams there we got to go see some pretty cool new technology so that is always fun for a geek like me.  The highlight of the whole trip, for me anyway, was probably getting to go to the CEXC Lab. (yes it is pronounced Sexy)  Think CSI + IEDs, it was awesome, had some good discussions with some of the engineers there as well. It was interesting to see the progression of IED technology over the course of the war.

I also got to drive some for the first time in ~3 months, not sure how note worthy that is but it was something different.  We had an old Land Rover Defender 110, not the nicest vehicle but it got us where we needed to go.  Also it appears that british people are short, even with the seat all the way back there just wasn’t enough leg room to drive.  Other than that it actually drove pretty well.

The flight back to C^3 we were back aboard a Blackhawk.  They had the doors open when they came into land so I picked my seat more carefully and got on the edge but facing the back so I didn’t get the wind in my face.  That was one of the coolest flights I’ve been on yet.  Doors wide open, flying along at at dusk, it was beautiful.  The more you fly the easier it becomes to identify things along the way, makes sense right?  Anyway I think there are really only two occupations that people around here outside of the towns/cities have.  You’re either a farmer or a brick maker.  Lots of green farmland as well as farmers herding animals but tons of brick factories.  Afghan brick factories have a very standard look so they are pretty easy to spot once you know what they are. From above they look like big ovals with a chimney in the middle and then huge piles of bricks around.  They make a lot of bricks here, not that have wood or other building materials. 

One of the guys we work with came back with us for some meeting around here, one of those was over at another compound here in town.  As he had never been there before I ended up going with him to make sure he got to the right place etc.  Well nothing to interesting happened until after we finished the meeting.  We were done early so we had a while to wait but I thought I might be able to catch an earlier ride back so we went out to wait.  This area of town is “safe”(there are a ton of checkpoints and guards around so it really is pretty safe but also one of the few places you can be “outside the wire” if you will) so we’re allowed to sit outside of the compound on a bench waiting for a ride.  It is a pretty wide road (not sure how many lanes) but running down the center is a big divider and some local foot traffic and such is allowed on the other side.  Anyway we’re sitting waiting for a ride and this little girl on the other side of the barrier starts trying to sell us scarves. The street urchins are pretty impressive in that they actually speak English pretty well and they know all the military ranks and whatnot.  So they’ll call to people using their name and rank, we’ll I don’t have my name on my IBA and of course I don’t have a rank so she starts trying to get my attention by calling “Hey Mr. Taliban”.  Yup apparently I look like a taliban type.  Now I’m sure it’s because of the beard but it was still pretty funny that she was trying to sell me something by calling me Taliban.  Anyway after she wandered off this boy comes by wanting to sell scarves or somesuch.  So he is trying to get the guy I’m with to buy some, he isn’t having much luck so he resorts to a rather interesting sales tactic. “I kill you this afternoon, you buy a scarf?”  needless to say that tactic didn’t fare any better.  But still gotta give them credit for the effort.  The rest of that trip was significantly less amusing…

While I’m continuing to read my kindle and making good progress on the game of thrones series I decided that I should take the time while im here to learn something else.  So I went ahead and ordered an Arduino starter kit and book on amazon, now that isn’t too impressive anyone with a credit card can do that.  But it got here in a week! With free shipping, I was amazed.  For those of you that aren’t as much of a geek as I am (probably 95+% of anyone reading this) an arduino is a microcontroller/programming “language”.  The programming is based off of C or C++ which I have no experience with.  Now I’ve already used microcontrollers for a few projects but those were all BasicStamps which are programmed with a  variant of BASIC.  The difference between the two really comes down to cost as far as my uses are concerned, a cheap Arduino is <$20 while a BasicStamp is closer to $50.  I’m much more likely to drop an extra $20 into a project than $50 so I’m thinking I’ll be more likely to do cool microcontroller based projects.() yes most of my current ideas are boat related….)  Anyway that should help keep me more than busy in my free time while I’m over here.