Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Skip Has Left The Building

I'm on my way home! The past couple of days have been busy: finishing the turnover, getting stuff checked off my checkout list, throwing stuff away, and mailing one final box of things home (remember that old sweatshirt that I said I was going to throw away? I lied.) Yesterday I packed my bags and said a final goodbye to my friends and co-workers.

Yesterday was also my birthday. Many thanks to all of you who sent birthday wishes on email and Facebook - they were all greatly appreciated. I got the best birthday present ever: clearance to go home!

Early this morning the support team took me to the airport. I got myself checked in and manifested on the flight, then headed over to the Green Bean coffee shop for a last cappuccino in Baghdad.

Just after lunch, they called our flight. We put on our body armor, grabbed our carry-on bags, and went through the scanners (yes, the military uses scanners, too, but at least we don't have to take our boots off). Then we lined up and walked out to the waiting C-130. It was hot … not as hot as the day I arrived back in September 2008, but pretty warm nonetheless. Still, when I'm on my way out, I can put up with a lot. On one of these military cargo planes, you really want to get way up front, or way in back to have a little legroom and avoid the worst of being crammed in like sardines. C-130's don't have "seats", they have four rows of long nylon netting, and passengers are jammed in, side-by-side, in rows facing each other. Unfortunately, everybody else on this flight knew the "front or back" rule, too, and despite my best efforts, I wound up jammed in the middle with a bunch of burly soldiers all around me. Oh, well, when I'm on my way home ...

I put together a playlist of "going home" songs on my iPod, and as the pilots started the engines, I put on my headphones and cranked it up. It started out kinda slow with James Taylor singing "Carolina On My Mind". Just when Hootie and the Blowfish sang "Sha na na na, I'm going home" the plane started moving. A few minutes later, with Ten Years After's joyful yowp "Going home to my baby" in my ears, our plane rotated its nose and launched into the air. I write a pretty good soundtrack to my life.

On military air, though, you're never 100% sure where you're going until you get there. So when we landed and they opened the cargo doors, I was a happy man when I saw we were, indeed, in Kuwait. We then did the normal bus ride from the parking area to the processing tents, then checked in with all the various check-in places. I went to the IBA warehouse and turned in my body armor - no more wearing a 40-pound jacket! Then we went to retrieve our bags. You know how your bags come out on a conveyor belt at civilian terminals? We can only dream. Here, they deliver the pallet, with all your bags strapped down under heavy netting, to a dirt lot across the dirt street from the processing tent. You gotta remove the netting and unload all the bags yourself. And when one of your bags is a green duffel bag, which is identical to about 50 other green duffel bags, finding it can take a while.

But I did, and settled myself in to the Corps of Engineers' trailer. A couple of us got to talking about food, somebody said something about McDonald's french fries, and next thing ya know, that's where we're headed. DFAC french fries are just not in the same universe as McDonald's, and after three months with the crummy stuff, we had to go for the gold. Those of you who've gone through Ali Al Salem airbase after months in-country will know exactly what I'm talking about.

So now I have a Big Mac sitting like lead in my stomach. I had a shower to wash off several pounds of Baghdad and Kuwaiti dirt. For tonight, I have a cot with a worn-out piece of foam for a mattress, in a cubicle next to the duty TV that goes all night. Do I care? Hey, I'm on my way home: I can put up with a lot!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Recommended Reading

I've found a few interesting things on "the internets" and on paper lately. Here are some -

There's a blog called Ephphatha Poetry that had a tremendous posting on Thursday. Called "Imagine if the Tea Party was Black", it does just that: it imagines what the reaction would be if blacks were the ones descending on Washington armed with semiautomatic rifles. By coming at Tea Party tactics from outside the box, it provides a very different and enlightening perspective.

Soldiers' Angels Germany is a nonprofit (501 (c)3) organization that provides support to wounded soldiers being treated at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. Their post from Monday, "The True Heart of the American Soldier", is a gut-wrencher. So are many of their other articles.

The financial implosion that we are just beginning to emerge from is a very confusing thing, at best, to try to understand. While trying to make some sense out of it, I stumbled on Paul Krugman, an op-ed contributor for the New York Times. His columns explain in clear English what's going on. He also writes about where his disagreements with other economists are, and why, and in a respectful manner (as long as they have a leg to stand on). Paul also has a blog where he posts his shorter, more off-the-cuff remarks.

Some of my friends on the political far right have been raising a ruckus about Saul Alinsky. He was a community organizer, beginning in the 1930's (when it was a very, very bad time to be a community organizer) and continuing right up until his death in 1972. Alinsky wrote a book, Rules for Radicals, after the debacle of the 1968 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago. My friends have been saying, in effect, "Read this book by this communist! He was Barack and Hillary's biggest influence! You'll see how evil they are!" Well, I'm reading the book, and I have to say it's brilliant. It's Machiavelli for the common man. It's also about as evil as an automotive shop manual. Now the comparison to a shop manual is not really a reach. Alinsky's book describes a set of techniques and approaches to creating a grass-roots movement for those who have little or no political power. These techniques and approaches can, and are, being used by both sides of the political spectrum. As I read through the book, I see beautifully-written passages that perfectly describe things done by the Tea Party, George Bush, Bill Clinton, the Taliban, Fox News, the Huffington Post - it doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum they're on, they're using Alinsky's tools. Especially the extremists.

And now for a lighter note. We have a rather large library of paperbacks that have collected here over the years. While browsing through it a few days ago, I came across a compilation of a particular line of DC Comics that I used to read as a kid back in the 60's. I'm getting the biggest kick out of finding issues that I remember reading 40+ years ago. And as an artist, I'm really amazed at the sophistication of the artwork. Each page is skillfully laid out to guide your eye from one panel to the other, without your being aware of it. Each drawing is connected to every one around it, and each page is its own concept. The "action" pages, where tanks are shooting and planes are blowing up, are drawn very differently than "quiet" pages. You could teach a whole semester's worth of composition from these old comics. Maybe that's where my interest in narrative art came from ... whaddaya think?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Thoughts on the Status of Iraq

I'm down now to just a short time remaining in-country. I've made a big mental shift in the last couple of days - no longer am I an active part of our effort in Iraq. It's something in my past already ... even though there are still a few action items to get done in the next 48 hours. Joyce, my replacement, has taken "my" projects and is running with them. She doesn't even include me on the cc line in emails anymore. At least until something comes along that throws her for a loop, then she's back here and asking lots of questions. Which is the way it should be.

I've been thinking about how things have changed during my time in-country. Iraq now is a far, far different place than it was 18 months ago, when I first arrived at the Embassy. At that time, US forces controlled the International Zone. Security around the IZ was tight and, within it, we had free rein to go from compound to compound, even walking if we wanted. Outside of the IZ was a different story. The insurgency was already dying down, but it was still very strong and very active. We heard car bombs, mortars, and automatic rifle fire from out there pretty frequently. Rockets and mortars were launched at the IZ with some regularity - usually Thursday evenings so the insurgents could brag about it at Friday prayers. Coalition forces were still in charge of running most of the provinces, while trying to build Iraqi capabilities to run their own governments, ministries, utilities, and other services. The army and police forces were not very effective (I'm being generous here). Utilities (power, water, sewage) were in very bad shape, where they existed at all. If we went outside the IZ or other controlled areas, we drove aggressively, blocking traffic, driving the wrong way down streets or even on the sidewalks, and Iraqis had to get out of our way or get run over, wrecked, or shot.

Now it's very different. There are still bombs, mortars, and rockets, but we saw more in a typical day 18 months ago than we see in a week now. Most attacks are targeted against specific Iraqi individuals for political or criminal reasons. American forces are not attacked very often, and most of those are just because they're targets of opportunity. The IZ is controlled by Iraqi forces, not Americans, and it does not feel nearly as safe anymore. Out in town, we don't drive against the traffic, we merge with it. Iraqis are in charge of all their provinces. The army is an effective security force and actually has the respect of most of the people. Police forces are a different matter - they're still seen as sectarian and corrupt. Speaking of corruption, it's unbelievably rampant in all areas of the government. Corruption is the single biggest issue that's holding this country back. If they could reduce it, Iraq's economy could take off. People here want to work, not shoot at each other.

But shooting at each other is a way of life. There have been some nasty bombings in the past couple of weeks. These seem to be intended to try to resurrect the violent sectarianism of a few years ago. If that's the insurgents' only goal, they will fail. Iraqis are tired of all that divisiveness just for the sake of it. On the other hand, they will take up arms again if they feel their lives and well-being are affected. Unfortunately, the ongoing power struggle over the election results could cause serious problems. One of the reasons the Sunni insurgency took off was because many Sunnis felt they were being shut out of the new political structure (they were, partly because of their own boycott of the '05 elections) and also because they believed the Shiites were taking revenge on them for many decades of oppressive Sunni rule. They had nothing to lose by fighting back. Right now, they have a ray of hope with Allawi's political party slightly ahead in the election results. But the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has started a recount process in the Baghdad area to try to take some of Allawis votes away, and Allawi has started another recount process in another area of the country to take away some of Maliki's votes. So the election comes down to a knife-edge between the two parties. Remember the big dispute we had over the Florida election results in 2000? That was a cake-walk compared to what's going on here. We, at least, have a history of following the rule of law to settle disputes. Iraqis don't. Unless Maliki and Allawi can figure out a way to resolve this with minimal bloodshed, there could be a very serious schism in another couple of months.

Having said that, I've also seen the Iraqis go right to a precipice and actually over it time and again, only to come to some sort of arrangement that allows everybody to walk away with their pride intact. Will they do it again this time? That's always the million-dollar question.

Still, my sense is that Iraq will continue to muddle forward. The mood here is vastly different than 18 months ago. There are still serious tensions and disagreements, and still threats of violence, but I don't get the feeling that people really want to go back to the bad old days. Iraqi "muddling forward" won't look anything like what we would like to see, but it'll work for them, and that's what will matter. In this country, there are good solutions, bad solutions, and Iraqi solutions. The only one with a chance is the Iraqi solution.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Bit of This 'n' That

You've been reading that we're drawing down in Iraq. I've been saying it, too. Let me give you a visual. Here is the group I worked with last summer, when we were still in the International Zone. This gaggle of folks oversaw Army Corps of Engineers construction and capacity development projects all around the country.

I'm somewhere in the middle. And if some of the faces look a little loopy, it's because I deliberately made them unrecognizable.
Here's what was left of that group as of two weeks ago. Since then, three of these people have left and two more of us (me included) will leave in the next week.

Recently, I came across an interesting blog on the Graphic Design Degrees site. They have a lot of links to other blogs and sites - for example, 100 interior design blogs, 100 web tools (painting applications, color analyzer, sweater pattern generator (this aimed at my niece, who has her own blog on knitting and a shop on etsy), notes on the psychology of color, links to comic strips, all kinds of stuff. I could go to that site and waste all kinds of time. Wait a minute, I did already.
Yesterday, I mailed my "keeper" junk home. Now my room is cluttered with the "take with me" pile, the "throwaway" pile, and the "giveaway" pile. Stuff keeps migrating back and forth between all three. My goal is to have a very small "take with me" pile ... but since I'm a bit of a packrat, the damn thing keeps growing. Do I really need to keep that big, heavy, very frayed 15-year-old sweatshirt from Bosnia any longer? (YES! ... well, ...) You get my point.
It's another beautiful day here in Paradise: no wind, no dust, blue skies, nice warm temperatures. And pollen. A bunch of people in the office have been knocked on their collective butts the past two days with clogged sinuses and watery eyes. People who've never had problems with allergies before will have them here. Last year I had a bit of trouble with it, but for some reason it hasn't bothered me this year. Knock on wood.
So now I need to go get some stuff checked off my check-out checkoff list. A couple of useless interviews, turn in my cell phone, things like that. Joyce, the proud recipient of all my projects, is happily working away in the next cubicle, trying to figure out what the hell I've done for the past six months and what needs to be done now. She's taking over at a time of big transition, when one project is just finishing up and three projects are all about to be launched within days of each other. So she's flailing around a bit, and I let her flail some and then give her a few pointers, and off she goes. She'll do fine. The projects will do fine. My work here is done!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Into the Home Stretch

It's been a busy few days since my last post. Yes, you guys back in the States have this thing called a "weekend", but we don't. Saturday and Sunday are just two more days to work 10 hours.

We held an evaluation board on Friday to determine which contractor, out of three, would get a contract to help one of the provinces develop a master plan for economic growth. It was a very interesting exercise. We had to go through each of the proposals beforehand, noting what we thought were strengths and weaknesses, and determining how well the proposal matched what we needed. Then on Friday, we got together in one room to hash it all out. With four people doing the evaluations, we had four very different sets of notes, and it was actually fun to kick our ideas back and forth and eventually come to a consensus. It was very clear to us which one should get the contract. What was most interesting to me was how well some of the proposals answered our concerns, and how poorly others did. Especially the "poorly" part: you would think that companies that routinely get multi-million-dollar contracts would be able to put out a high-quality, very in-depth proposal, but that is not necessarily the case.

Once the board was done, I had the honors of preparing the report. Worked on it all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday before finally getting it out to the other board members for review and comments. But this 12-page report was my swan song: the last major task I had to do here in Iraq. Everything now has gone over to my replacement, Joyce.

So now I'm starting my wrapup and checkout tasks. Yesterday, I went over to the medical center and got my post-deployment health assessment done. (Still breathing, not inclined to kill myself or anybody else - good to go). This morning, I took my two big gorilla boxes (plastic trunks) and several smaller boxes over to the Post Office and mailed them home. I've got my checkout sheet and need to get some signatures on it this week. And I need to clean a bunch of crap out of my room. We've been watching that volcano in Iceland. The flight route between Dulles and Kuwait passes right by Iceland and through the ash cloud over Europe. However, they must be diverting to the south, since the planes are still flying - yay!

Seven and a wakeup before I leave Baghdad.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Little More Cheer, Please

I walked out of my barracks this morning into a fabulously beautiful day. No dust at all, no wind, brilliantly blue sky, sparrows chirping, perfect short-sleeve temperatures. Wonderful way to start the workday! Strolled into the office and brewed up a pot of Peet's coffee. Checked my email and found a really nice thank-you note from the president of a company that just finished one of my projects. Looked on a couple of news sites and didn't see much in the way of mass stupidity. Saw a report that the Dow is just over 11,000 again, which is exactly where it was when I first arrived in Baghdad 18 months ago. (Heck, if I'd known that my presence in Iraq was what kept the Dow below 11,000, I'd have left a long time ago!)

So things are going very well right now. I've been working for six months to get a number of new projects launched. The contract for one of them will be awarded within the next couple of days. It's to provide assistance to an Iraqi university to bring their curriculum in line with American accreditation standards. This is a really big deal for Iraqi education: many schools are working hard to rebuild the reputation that Iraqi higher education had many years ago. The American education system is recognized as one of the best in the world, so these schools want to show that they can meet our standards. While a lot of universities here are talking about it, this is the first project in all of Iraq to actually do something. The contractor that we've selected is a good one and has a very effective plan. At the end of this project, the university will not be accredited (that's a multi-year effort), but they'll know what they need to do and will already be started down that road.

We're going to award another contract in a week to help a province develop a master plan for economic development. This one, I think, will pay huge dividends. The economy there is in the toilet: years of neglect and war have pretty much destroyed their industries, unemployment is somewhere around 40%, and they're not getting much help from anybody. But their governor is working extremely hard to turn things around and his staff is very motivated and eager. They just need some assistance in figuring out the best way forward. We have three proposals from contractors with urban planning experience to help the province develop a master plan. We're going to do the evaluation board tomorrow to determine which of the three will get the contract, but I'm really excited about what's going to come out of this. The province is going to get a heckuva good road map and a lot of assistance in lifting themselves up by their bootstraps. A better local economy means more jobs and less reason for people to shoot and bomb.

There's one more project that'll be awarded before the end of the month. We're going to bring on some training specialists to develop a bunch of training courses for one of the Iraqi ministries. They have a lot of unskilled workers who need to be trained on basic operations and maintenance. Things like, "if you change the oil in the diesel generator every once in a while, it'll last a lot longer". Many of these workers are former Sons of Iraq, the militia forces who used to fight coalition troops until we hired them to fight Al Qaeda. All they really want to do is have a steady productive job and take care of their families. This project will give them some new skills that are a bit more useful than carrying an AK47. Our project won't train them all - what we're doing is creating the courses and the Ministry will continue using them once we're done. So this is another project that I've really been excited about.

I'm not going to get to see any of these projects develop, though. My part has been to bring them to contract award. I'm handing them off to somebody else who will get to see them come to fruition. I'll just see a signed contract and then, in ELEVEN DAYS, I'll get on the plane and fly out of Baghdad for the last time. My time here is about done!

So it's a beautiful day in Baghdad, my projects are doing well, and I'm a happy man!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More Insanity

This is getting ridiculous. I really don't like making posts about political matters, but sometimes I just have to. Yesterday's post was on that wacko Jon Voight and his question of whether Obama is pushing the US towards civil war. (The answer, of course, is that Obama isn't, but Voight and his far-right wingnuts are). Just now I read a news article saying that some Tea Partiers in Oklahoma want to form a militia. I ask, FOR WHAT?? What do you need a "militia" for when you've got the National Guard? What are you going to do, shoot any Federale who wanders into town? And did you ever notice it's always the right-wing who starts grabbing their guns and waving the flag at the same time? Do they have any concept that this nation is founded on a concept called "democracy", where you decide your course of action by the ballot and not by guns? This is insanity.

Back in the early days of the Bush administration, I saw them running this country right off the tracks. I was not very vocal then because I thought, these guys can't be serious. I was wrong: they were very serious, and screwed this country up something fierce. Now I see even worse insanity coming from the right wing again. I've already been accused of being over the top on this issue, but this news story warrants it. I'll say it again:

If you believe that guns and militias are the way to make things happen in the United States of America, you are going against every principle that this country has ever stood for. You are trampling the Constitution that you say you value. By using threats of force, you are nothing but a terrorist. You are un-American. And you are a traitor to your own country.

If you don't like what the Administration and Congress are doing, fine. Lobby them. Protest. Organize. Nominate your own candidates and work to get them elected. If you don't like a law that's in place now, file a lawsuit. That's the way we do things in this country: through the rule of law and peaceful means.

People in the Germany in the 1930's didn't stand up to the Nazis when the brown-shirt thugs began their campaign of terror. We shouldn't stand for it in our country now.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Jon Voight

A friend of mine, who is of the ultra-conservative mindbent (yes, I have friends on both ends of the spectrum) posted an admiring note on Facebook on Jon Voight. Voight has been back in the news with a scathing open letter to President Obama, accusing the President of orchestrating a great lie upon the American people. The letter is really disgusting. And it pissed me off to no end. Here's my reply to that Facebook post:

Jon Voight is utterly and completely off-base. His letter is nothing but misrepresentations, outright lies, and outrageous and unfounded accusations. During the Bush years, Voight was staunchly in the camp that believed that to criticize the President, particularly in a time of war, was to criticize the country and was therefore unpatriotic. From an interview with Bill O’Reilly in 2008: “When I hear people saying quite unthinkable things about our President, when I see our President defaced, which is defacing our country – he’s the leader of our country, he’s the leader of the free world – my heart is very heavy.” Except now we have a different President, one he doesn’t agree with, so Voight feels free to say unthinkable things about our President, and deface our President, and therefore deface our country.

Voight bothers me for a much deeper reason. He accused President Obama of creating a civil war. (Actually, he phrased it as a rhetorical question in an interview with the Washington Times). Nobody in the Administration – or Congress, or anywhere else in the government – had ever brought up a “civil war” until Voight did. He, himself, has raised the spector of violent conflict within the people of our own country.

The last I checked, inciting violence is a crime. As Americans, if we don’t like our politicians, we bitch about them and then vote them out of office. We don’t advocate civil war. Advocating war among ourselves is not only un-American, but it’s treason. So Jon Voight is, therefore, a liar, a hypocrite, un-American, and treasonous.

If you don’t like what Obama and your other elected officials are doing, fine. Work to elect somebody else. Do it peacefully. Respect the fact that others have different opinions, and just because they’re different doesn’t mean they’re not patriotic Americans just like you.

In his letter, Voight states “We can weed out the liars and agitators”. Look in the mirror, Mr. Voight.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Video of a Baghdad Attack

This is a rare event: two blog posts in a single day. Since posting my comments earlier, I found some discussions about the now-infamous Wikileaks video of an aerial attack in Baghdad in 2007 that killed a number of Iraqi men, among them a photographer and driver for Reuters. The video, entitled Collateral Murder, is on virtually every news site and probably has been shown on most TV news shows as well by now. I'm not going to post it as everybody else already has.

I watched the video yesterday. It's very disturbing, in and of itself. You see and hear aircrews discussing the men on the ground, getting cleared to fire, shooting at the group, and then discussing the results afterward. You see living men get killed. And the discussion sounds cold and heartless.

But there is much more to the story than the Wikileaks video provides. It seems to me that Wikileaks is pursuing a sensationalist approach, or at least has an agenda to pursue. Just the title, Collateral Murder, shows that they are not a neutral arbiter of facts. As the video unfolds, Wikileaks edits, zooms in, and repeats sections to make their points. However, they do not mention, do not show, or ignore other aspects that undermine their "murder" allegation.

When I first watched the video, I could see how the Apache pilots could have thought that the photographer was carrying a weapon rather than a camera. And when he stuck his head around the corner to shoot a picture, it certainly looked like he was aiming something. Remember that there was a firefight going on in that area at that very moment, that had been going on for some time, and American troops were receiving fire. In a situation like that, if somebody aimed something towards our own troops, my presumption would have been "weapon", not "camera".

I thought the attack on the van was wrong. I saw no indication that they were doing anything other than removing the wounded for treatment. Wikileaks made a big deal of the children being in the van, but I never saw them until Wiki zoomed in late in the video (at about 16 minutes), and even then all I could see was an unidentified "something" moving around in the front passenger seat. Slow-motion replay was not an option to the Apache pilots, who had to make a decision in real-time, in the heat of a battle.

I've found two very informative postings about this video. One is by Anthony Martinez, a former Army sergeant whose job during the surge entailed watching this type of video feed from UAVs and giving (or witholding) clearance to fire. As he points out, this wasn't just a group of photographers and observers standing around innocently: early in the video, at 3:45-4:00, two men are clearly seen carrying an RPG and a rifle of some sort. Wikileaks ignored their presence, but it shows that the Reuters photographer and driver joined a group of men, at least two of whom were armed, and chose to stay with them. Anthony's viewpoint is that the initial attack on the group was understandable. The second attack, the one on the van that arrived to remove the wounded, was not.

The second posting is an online Q&A led by David Finkel. David was a Washington Post reporter who was embedded with the Army unit that was on the ground that day. Soldiers from his unit were the ones who arrived on the ground towards the end of the video. David also notes that one of the men killed had an RPG and another was armed. David brings a very well-considered viewpoint to the discussion that needs to be heard.

Although the news reports focused on deaths of the Reuters photographer and driver, I note that David Schlesinger, the Editor-in-Chief for Reuters, has not called the incident "murder", as Wikileaks did. David noted that this is an example of the dangers faced by reporters in wartime.

Wikileaks and many others have cited the language of the pilots and ground controllers as examples of their inhumanity. Well, this is WAR. One of the things you do in war is dehumanize your opponent. (You don't think so? Listen to Republicans talk about Democrats, and Democrats talk about Republicans, and they're not even shooting at each other. Not yet, at any rate.) British sailors were "Limeys". Germans were "Krauts". Japanese were "Japs" or "Nips". Viet Cong were "gooks". Arabs were "rag-heads". One of the ways you deal with the fact that you're killing people is to strip them of their humanity first. Then when they're shooting at you or your compatriots, it's easy to call them "bastards" and shoot them back. But if Americans are such heartless goons, please explain to me the soldier seen running with the wounded child to get him/her to treatment. Wikileaks ignored that event.

Finally, I see that Wikileaks is trying to raise funds for more exposures of American malfeasance, particularly in Afghanistan. I wonder, though, why they don't run exposures of the other side? Where are their exposures of how the Taliban hides behind women and children, often deliberately putting them in harm's way for propaganda purposes? Where are their exposures of how Sunni and Shiite militias are, right now, bombing restaurants filled with innocent people, or murdering their opponents and their families in cold blood? Where are their exposures of Afghan or Iraqi government corruption that siphons off up to 70% of any budget? (Yes, you read that right, up to 70%).

Wikileaks call this event "murder". It was not. It was an unfortunate event in a stupidly-conceived war. If they want to claim murder, they'll find many more examples of it if they turn their lenses to the extremists. Not American soldiers.

Winding Down

Three weeks from today, I'll be in Kuwait, on my way home for the final time. I've started the transition here in the office by transferring responsibilities for my projects over to my replacement, Joyce. She is taking the lead on all of them and I'm providing her with the history, backstory, files, and guidance. Sometimes it's a bit difficult for me. Something will come in, a question or action item, and I want to just jump in and do it. And I have, a few times, but that's not fair to Joyce. So I keep telling myself "take a deep breath ... step away from the projects ... let them go ...."

There has been a discussion raging at the next desk for the past half hour, arguing over where some responsibilities should reside. This discussion has really been going on since last summer. Our high honchos back in the states have been trying to slash my organization's expenses, but they haven't really understood what we were required to do. So over the past nine months, they've managed, bit by bit, to whack away almost all of our support contractors. And they tried to whack away most of our responsibilities. The problem is that some of the responsibilities they whacked were actually written-in-stone requirements, and the support contractors they whacked were the only ones who knew how to execute those requirements. So now they're beginning to find out that these functions still need to be done, but nobody can do them. Ooops! Their intention is to dump them right back on us, only without the support we need. Wrong answer, but it very well could be the one that's imposed.

I went crazy working on this last September, and again around the first of the year. Now here it is again. Same arguments, same lack of understanding at the HQ level, same same same. But this time, I'm just shaking my head, thinking "take a deep breath ... step away from the arguments ... let them go ... "

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ... er, my room ... I've started the sorting process. It's amazing how much junk you pick up over the course of a year. I've got the throw-it-away pile, the give-it-away pile, the ship-it-home pile, and the take-it-with-me pile. The ship-it-home pile is the most important right now. I've gotta figure out what I really want to keep and then get it in the mail sometime in the next week or so. Since I'm a bit of a packrat, that's not as easy as it sounds. Do I really need to keep a year's worth of Art in America magazines? Especially since I haven't read them since they were new? No. So why were they in the send-it-home pile? Good question. So I took a deep breath last night and carted them all off to the library. (Really. As if anybody else besides me is the least bit interested. They're not, but it goes against my religion to throw away a perfectly good magazine or book.)

The weather is shifting into early-summer mode. The days are very warm now, in the upper 80's. I thought this morning that we might get some rain (ugh) but that seems to have blown over. Since it's just about lunchtime now, I'm going to go for a plod around the compound. (Some people run, some people jog ... I plod.) So if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a deep breath ... step away from my desk ... let it go ...

Friday, April 02, 2010

New Painting

The DVD Seller
Oil on panel, 16"x12"

This afternoon was my "weekend". I did this small painting from some photos that I took last summer of a kid who sold bootleg DVDs on the street near our compound in the IZ. He was a hustler, too: always had something that he was sure that you needed. And he always had this worried, slightly desperate look on his face. Of course, if you had to make a living selling bootleg DVD's on the streets in Baghdad, you'd probably be worried and slightly desperate, too.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Thoughts on a Kindle

Well, I'm finally over my 9-day bout with Saddam's Revenge. The bug, whatever it was, is gone, and good riddance to it. I'm able to go jogging again, and yesterday I hit the gym for the first time in a week and a half. Today I'm a little stiff and sore ... but it's a good stiff and sore.

The rain has gone, too, and the mud is pretty much dried out. Our weather has been alternating between cool enough for jackets and being a bit warm. Yeah, that's really specific, huh? Okay, to be more accurate, it's ranged from the upper 60's to mid-80's at the height of the day. Today is supposed to be in the upper 70's, and we're looking at 90 by Sunday. In other words, pretty perfect. As long as we don't get rain, that is.

For some reason, we're in a "conserve water" mode. I don't know why. The vehicle wash racks have been closed, so we're driving around in beat-up filthy Suburbans that look like they haven't been washed in months. Actually, they haven't been washed in months. It's getting to the stage where you want to change into your dirty clothes before climbing into the truck.

A bit over a year ago, my wife bought me a Kindle. It was a pretty cool little gadget. I could carry around a ton of books without carrying around a ton of weight. It was pretty easy to operate and the screen was easy on the eyes. No flicker, like you get from computer screens. I became a Kindle advocate and got into lots of conversations with strangers about this little "iPod-for-books".

But on my last trip back to Iraq, something on the Kindle's screen went wrong, and the top inch or so doesn't work anymore. That meant that every time I turned the page, a couple of lines went missing. I figured out a workaround and was able to finish the book I was reading, but then was faced with the question, do I get a replacement, or no?

I decided, no. The Kindle is a neat little thing, but it is not for me. Yes, it can carry around hundreds of books, but I don't need hundreds of books, I only read one or two at a time. More importantly, to me the Luddite, is that I feel a sense of technology inserting itself between me and the writer without any value added. When I'm reading a book on paper, I feel a direct connection - it's as if the author is speaking directly to me, personally. On the Kindle, there was a sense of (insert robotic voice here) "I will process this publication for your perusal" (end robotic voice) and I did not feel that direct connection anymore. Maybe it's related, but when I'm reading on a computer, or to a less extent the Kindle, I feel a bit rushed. There is no time for contemplation. Time is money. With a paper book, I can take my time.

Then there are the practical aspects. When I finish a really good book on the Kindle, I can't just hand it to somebody and say "hey, you gotta read this". Nope, the book is only on my Kindle, and the only way they can read it is to (a) borrow my Kindle (no way) or (b) buy it themselves. And although you can carry around a lot of books in a Kindle without increasing your baggage load, but you also have to carry around a charger. So in my luggage, I had chargers for my laptop, cellphone, and Kindle.

The final straw was in thinking about electronic obsolesence. Mine was a first-generation Kindle; the second-generation has been out for a while and the third-generation is probably well along in development. And Kindles and iPads and other e-readers don't have the same electronic formats, meaning a book on one machine is not compatible with other machines. So what happens when the format you use is no longer supported? You have to upgrade, buy replacements, or lose them. Remember 8-tracks? They went away and were replaced by cassettes. So those of us who went through that transition had to duplicate their 8-track collection on the new format. Then cassettes went away and were replaced by CD's. And now CD's are being replaced by a whole slew of digital file formats, which will probably be replaced again in a few years. Applying this line of thought to the Kindle, well, I have a whole bunch of books that I bought that (a) must use a special gizmo to read, but (b) that gizmo is broken, and (c) it will be replaced by some incompatible format in the future anyway. Meanwhile, a book on paper printed 500 years ago is just as readable today as it was then.

So I'm not going to replace my broken Kindle. Paper or plastic? Paper, please.