Friday, April 17, 2009

Gaining Traction

I'm having the wonderful experience of walking into a new job and being able to contribute something from Day 1.  Now that doesn't happen all that often, does it?  It certainly hasn't with me.  When I first came to Baghdad with the State Department, it took me quite a while to get a workable handle on what was going on and what my role could be.  This time around, with the Corps of Engineers, I'm familiar with the issues, know the players, have a good grasp of the background, and have a lot of my own hairbrained ideas for moving forward.  

I'm working in a small section of (for the moment) six people.  Three of them are working on wrapping up (and cleaning up) financial records.  All are sharp and self-motivated - you can practically see the numbers flying as they dig through the records.  Me, I'm clueless about that stuff, so I'm happy to let them do their thing.  The other three of us are focused on planning efforts.  Our organization has some major developments coming down the pike over the next twelve months, and we three are part of a group that's looking at how the organization is going to carry them out.  For example, to achieve a particular goal, there may be four different ways identified.  We look at each of the four ways, estimate how much each one costs, how long it would take, what the problems and benefits are, and make recommendations as to which one best meets our needs.  What really keeps it interesting is that the environment keeps changing, and our plans have to be quickly adaptable.  For example, we may plan on putting a contingent of people into one small base, and after we put the plan in motion, we get word that the base is going to close.  Now we have to find an alternative location that can provide our people with living quarters, food, office space, communications, transportation, and access to the various projects they may be working on.  Sound like fun?  Maybe not to you, but to me, it's pretty exciting stuff.  I'm trying to ensure that our people can do the projects that Iraqis need to make their country viable again.

When I'm not out saving Iraq, I've been working on a more mundane but critically important task: being able to videochat with my wife.  Our computers are Macs, which have the iChat video capability built in.  It's like Skype, only with higher-quality video.  iChat worked great when I was going through training in Virginia.  When I was at the Embassy here in Baghdad, it wasn't all that reliable.  Whenever the bandwidth got a bit tight, usually in the evenings when everybody was in their rooms talking to family back home, iChat often wouldn't make the connection.  But since I've been here, Janis and I haven't been able to connect on iChat at all.  We couldn't even get a voice connection.  All that worked was the text chat.  I tried resetting my proxies, connecting to different lines, complaining to our IT guys, and lighting an incense stick in front of a Buddha.  Nothing worked.

Until tonight.  I decided to see if Skype would work any better.  So I downloaded Skype today and after fiddling around with it for a while, got it to run.  I was even able to call Janis over the phone with it.  Cool!  So she downloaded it to her computer, I talked her through the installation and registration process, and voila!  There she was, on the screen.  I could call her, she could call me, and we could finally see each other.  And I have the ability to call anybody in the United States on a regular telephone without fiddling with an expensive calling card.  Life is good again!  So it looks to me like iChat is good when there's a high-quality connection.  When the quality gets iffy, then Skype is the way to go.  If you have a Mac, you need them both.

Okay, folks, 'nuf for tonight.  Time for this old puppy to hit the rack.  More thoughts on living the dream in Baghdad in a day or so.

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