June 28, 2004

shameless self promotion: rent my Tahoe house

House Interlaken

Posted by rick at 07:52 PM

Best Iraq Stories: "Give to my son Uday $900M..."

I usually try to be politically neutral, especially on this blog, but today I'd like to open with a statement: Michael Moore is a smart man ... in only that he makes money off the idiots that pay to watch his drivel. As one commentator noted about Fahrenheit 911: "it's so misleading, you can't even call it wrong". If you believe anything in the documentary, without at least doing a modicum of research on the web or elsewhere, you will fail to meet the qualification of an independent thinker.

Iraq was not a country at peace with it's neighbors, with food for all, before the current occupation as the movie implies. Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, they attacked half of their neighbors in the last two decades. These were expensive wars that, coupled with the resultant sanctions and Saddam's corruption, bankrupted their country. We came in and are helping setting it back on track. As I've said before, this is the most generous, and thankless, thing we have done since we gave France back to the French.

My housemate in Iraq was working on their banking system. 15 years ago the bank of Iraq, with copious oil revenue, was the 13th strongest bank in the world. Now their currency, until we recently bolstered it, was worthless. In 1989 it took three US Dollars to buy one Iraqi Dinar, now it takes 1,500.00 Iraqi Dinars to buy one US Dollar (over three orders of magnitude of devaluation in a decade in a half). So my housemate had a chance to ask the banks "uh, hey, guys, WTF happened here?". They produced several letters written by Saddam Hussein that said "give to my son Uday the sum of $900 million dollars (equivalent)", "give to my son Quessa the sum of $800M"...

The Husseins took the money and spent it. Saddam had 27 palaces at last count. Since so many of his own people were trying to kill him, he didn't want people to know his travel schedule, so he had meals for 100 people prepared for every palace 3x a day. He also didn't want people to be able to track where he was, so he didn't want whether or not the locals got fed to indicate if he was there or not -- so he had every uneaten meal destroyed instead of given away. This while most of his people were below the hunger line.

So, then the UN came up with the Oil for Food program. This is often called the "Oil for Palace's" program. Some of the other people I was working along side with had the opportunity to help unravel the multiple layers of fraud that came along with the program. It quickly becomes clear why France and Russia didn't want us to go in there, if nothing else we'd expose all their corruption. Not to mention the fact that the UN was taking a commission on every sale, and pocked over a billion dollars themselves off the scam (the books the UN keeps are secret).

Think I'm crazy? Think this is Western propaganda? Here, look at what Al Jazeera says about it:

Al Jazeera story

Posted by rick at 06:52 PM

June 23, 2004

Best Iraq Stories: the best quote

I heard a lot of great stories when I was in Iraq, I'll start posting them here while they're still fresh in my head. One of the better stories I heard contained what might be the best quote I've heard in my entire life.

There is a group of solidiers called Gurkhas, they traditionaly hail from Nepal and serve with the British Army. They are universally considered to be bad asses.


One of the military guys I was having lunch with was out in the red zone, with a Gurkha with him, when a firefight broke out. He was running and ducking for cover when the Gurkha said:

"Don't worry ... my job is to make sure you die last".

Posted by rick at 05:27 PM

June 16, 2004

the sweet air of freedom (and a movie night)

back in SF, it seems really wierd now. The agoraphobia has mostly worn off but I can't help but look at every person/vehicle/situation from a security standpoint -- and everything I see looks poorly secured.

Our society has been largely free of terrorism and the fact is that we're not prepared to deal with it. A cop who shows up 15 minutes after a call to file a report is not how many other parts of the world handle security. I don't think we're ready for rifle toting soldiers on the streets, armored cars, and an occasional military vehicle on the corner, but that might be our future. In between now and then I predict that we will be shouldering more and more of a security burden out of our own pockets.

In any case, on that cheery note, I'm having a picture/movie night at my place this Friday at 8pm. I'll be showing pictures and video clips of Baghdad on the big screen TV. Everyone is welcome, I'll hope to see you all there.

Posted by rick at 03:59 PM

June 15, 2004

keeping it real

(btw: I can't seem to reach my outgoing mail server these last couple of days, but can recieve fine. I owe many of you e-mails that will have to wait until I'm home).

So I get off the plane in Frankfurt at 6-something a.m., breeze through customs (my bag is checked straight through to SFO so I'm only lugging my daypack), follow the signs to the train, take the train to downtown Frankfurt, walk out of the station and start heading for the old part of town. I'm trying to sort out which way is which, while keeping an eye out for a good hotel with Internet connection, and looking forward to a day practicing German, when a girl walking by says something to me that I don't make out. So I stop and say (in German) "Sorry, I'm from America and my German isn't so good.". To which she replies (in English) "oh, do you want a blow job?".

Well, the answer to this question is generally a rapid: "yes". But this is obviously the wrong context so I'm trying to sort out my reply in German when she says "I do a good job, 10 Euros". Okay, so much for replying in German "No thank yo—" wait, 10 Euros? That's like $12. I mean ‘dinner-and-a-movie' back in the States is...never mind "No, no thanks. Later."

Quite a slap in the face after the land of Burkas -- it's been a while since I've seen a local woman without at least long sleeves, if not a headscarf, who would even remain in the room while so much as a tangential reference to sex was made. Anyway, guess I'll be practicing German in a different part of town (in fact I already have and am now typing this from a bench in a open stone plaza in the middle of old-town Frankfurt having fumbled my way through most of the morning with rusty language skills; no luck "wardriving", looking for free 802.11, yet but I'm still trying -- wait, got one, uploading blog).

on the web in Frankfurt

Which brings up the next topic, I've intentionally kept this Blog in the informal voice, and made no pretenses at professional airs, with the intention of keeping this as entertaining and informative as possible (in the vernacular: ‘keeping it real'), but there are a LOT of people reading it. The site has been averaging over a hundred visitors a day. It's also interesting to note the domains from which the traffic is coming, two of the top 15 most active domains belong to well known Bay Area venture funds -- so much for it not crossing over into my professional life. I guess I should leave out stories that involve things like German hookers.

Of course, now that I'm out of Baghdad, I'm sure most of you will get bored and wander off anyway -- at least until I do something else kinda stupid and crazy (... which, admittedly, usually doesn't take very long...). I just hope that I've only offended those that I meant to, and entertained the rest of you to your satisfaction.

I'll be posting some epilogues here shortly after I'm back. I made some observations in Iraq, and have a few stories left, that I haven't had a chance to post but that I think are worth sharing. I'll make the odd posting on life in general going forward too -- but before everyone disappears I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for taking the time to read my ramblings. Your attention has been flattering and I won't take it personally as the traffic drops back down.


Posted by rick at 12:06 AM

June 14, 2004

and none too soon

There was a VERY big, >1000lb, bomb blast today that targeted a US convoy:
Netscape Story

6 killed, 33 wounded, a real mess.

Our security team has recommended that everyone still in country work from home -- no travel unless absolutely neccessary.

Extra glad to be heading home now.

Posted by rick at 08:33 AM

outta dodge

Safe arrival in Amman, went to the Dead Sea today, going to go hang out with the gang tonight (there are about a half dozen of us here from the same project), and then hop a 3am fligth to Frankfurt.

The ride to BIAP was (in)tense. We took a private car, like on the way in, and not one of the big armored buses I had been seeing around. The PSD's told us not to talk to them once we started moving. We were in a really big American SUV that was armored to the moon and got a long briefing before we left on what to do in situations like "there is someone outside with a gun who wants you to get out of the car" etc.

Anyway, I had picked up a hunk of marble from Saddam's Secret Bunker (see previous blog) that was heading for the landfill. The tour guys told me that if I didn't take it that it would end up as trash, they said I'd have no problem getting it home too. So I lugged this crazy thing around the Green Zone, cleaned it up, found a box, etc. and tried to ship it via APO (the military mail system to which we have access), which involves a few hundred meters of lugging this thing in itself. Well, the APO won't ship "sand, rocks, or bricks" and I guess this was a rock. So I decided to pay through the nose to check it on the airlines. All the locals thought I was insane "why you want this? It is junk. There is stuff like this everywhere. Nobody want this." I told them I thought it would look great on my mantel. They still think I'm crazy for lugging this thing around in the heat.

...It got confiscated at the airport. They took my rock. I'm still bitter. They took another guy's deoderant. They're apparently making up rules as they go along. Whatever. Have fun with the rock. I think they're going to use it as a door stop. Grumble.

Anyway, it's good to be someplace where stuff doesn't blow up. Though I admit to feeling a little agoraphobic walking around outside w/o body armor or a security detail. I assume this feeling will wear off soon.

Posted by rick at 08:17 AM

June 13, 2004

and then stuff blew up in front of me.

So, I was on my way to the CPA for breakfast and had decided to take the shuttle bus for a change when there was a big BANG! At first I thought maybe we had a big backfire or something but the way the bus driver reacted it was clear it was a bomb/missle/mortar/whatever.

So, since we weren't 100% sure we kept on to the CPA. When we got there they had the sirens going so it was clear that we weren't going to have breakfast. So we turned around and came back.

Cell phone rumors say it was a missle or mortar that hit the hospital. E-mail rumors say it was a car bomb outside the North gate by the Police Station.

Anyway, within the hour I leave for BIAP, down the shooting gallery, which apparently now they only do with military escort. I think I'll be in one of these new armored buses that I see driving around, they look like something from a futuristic Stallone movie, but I don't know yet.

Then it's a quick hop to Jordon. I'm going to spend the day at the Dead Sea (first time for me on the Jordan side) and the night in Amman. Next I've got a 3am flight to Frankfurt, so I won't bother with a hotel in Jordan, and then I'm going to spend a full day in Frankfurt practicing German on Fraulines and generally playing Ugly American Tourist (or not). Finally it's Frankfurt direct to SFO, back on Wed.

I'll try to post something from Amman but don't know that I'll have the opportunity, it might have to wait until Frankfurt.

I'm really going to miss this place, the overt insanity is refreshingly engaging. When's the last time you wore body armor to work accompanied by armed escort, had sandbags piled around your office, got used to helicopters buzzing 50' overhead, were surrounded by tanks and armed Humvees/soldiers/civilians on a regular basis, spent some time thinking about which way the bombs were falling so you could plan your meals, and spent your off days visiting bomed out buildings and palaces?

For me the last time was June 14, 2004. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Posted by rick at 09:42 PM

June 12, 2004

... and then it blew up behind me

I had my usual breakfast at the Palace/CPA today and took about a half hour afterwards to look around. I saw Saddam's old movie theater, which now has regular movie nights for the troops, Bremmer's office, and a bunch of other neat stuff.

So, I'm walking back to The Camp, not even 5 mintues outside the Palace, when I hear BOOM .... **BAROOOOOOOOOM**! Something big landed right on the Palace/CPA, or at least right near it. I got my ass back to camp and into the shelter/laundry-room (with the f'n door open as always, so now I sit in a little alcove in the back behind a 2nd concrete wall).

(update) I found out later that it was three rockets, one hit the roof, one landed by the pool, the thrid didn't explode (so they blew it up later). The one that hit the roof blew out some windows and no one was hurt from any of them.

I'm suddenly glad that I'm leaving tomorrow morning. They closed the CPA for lunch, which is fine with me, I was going to have it somewhere else today anyway...

Posted by rick at 09:55 PM

Saddam's Secret Bunker tour

Okay, so I thought Uday's Palace on the Tigres was something to behold -- until I took a tour of Saddam's secret bunker yesterday.

In a building in Baghdad, with an administration building as a façade (complete with some real offices in the floors above ground) three stories underground, and another three stories deep, Saddam build a secret bunker. A lot of Soviet design techniques were employed, it was fitted with Scandinavian air recirculatory systems, furniture, cooling systems, and other stuff, and it wasn't even discovered until we had troops on the ground.

Side note: I've got a soft spot for Scandinavia but it looks like Sweden and Finland were all too happy to sell him all the gear he wanted.

A guy from the State Department does an unofficial tour every Friday at 4pm. This wouldn't exactly pass OSHA standards as you're walking through a bombed out building, followed by a huge military bunker, in the dark -- I used my digital camera's LCD as a flashlight. I was wishing for something other than the shorts and tennis shoes I wore, shoes with a steel shank would have been nice but I walked gingerly.

Apparently we knew there was something important there, we dropped two 2,000lb bombs on it (see pictures), but the bunker was so well built it was left completely intact. After the power went out, and the backup generators ran out of fuel, the sump pumps stopped and the bottom two stories are flooded. I'm glad I'm taking my chlorquine becuase the mosquitos that breed there now were all too happy to see us.

There is a secret escape tunnel that leads out even deeper below the water table but it was designed to essentially be a water proof tube. We walked through it to the circular staircase on the other side.

Our tour guide was in charge of interviewing people about the bunker and he reconstructed their SOP's. Most of the doors in the building are fake. If you do open the right door you are faced with a small alcove you step into. Once the door behind you closes you have the opportunity to present your credentials for the next door to open. No credentials and you don't leave alive. Next you take off all of your clothes and leave them behind, take a mandatory shower, and put on clothes that are issued to you on the other side. This way no listening devices or weapons could be snuck in.

On the inside you walk a circuitous route that takes you down three stories without really feeling it, it's an intentional illusion. There are several officer's quarters, furnished by Ikea, with some of the chemical suit equipment still left behind (yeah, he wasn't planning for chemical war or anything...). Locals keep breaking in at night and stealing stuff, so there are more things gone every week.

You can see Saddam's briefing room from where he issued statements for television release, you might remember this room from TV -- I did. There's a picture of me banging my fist on the table like I own the place at the link below. It's crazy to be there after seeing it on TV so many times and just be allowed to wander around.

When you come back up out of the bunker, you come out of one of six doors (five are fake), and into a bombed out section of the building. Walk about 30 yards to the other side, however, and you are in what used to be a very large domed entertainment room. There is a hole at the top right by the chandeler where a 2000lb bomb entered. The entire dome interior is one flattened wasteland now ... and we got to walk right through it. 2000lbs is a lot of boom.

It leaves you speechless.

Of course, I will now trip every chemical sniffer at every airport on the way home for bomb residue, but it was completely worth it. Look at the pictures, it is surreal -- even for this place. I'm still kinda stunned.

Saddam's Secret Bunker pics

Posted by rick at 07:16 AM

June 11, 2004

The Collaborators

The CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), and all the reconstruction that it generates here, wouldn't function without the help of the local Iraqis. They fill a variety of roles from food service to translators to associates at consulting firms to the members of new government that is taking over.

You notice that there are no pictures of the Iraqis that I work with on the website. Well, those that work with us, or for the new government, are generally considered to be collaborators. Iraqis that work with us are sometimes killed. Some of them don't come to work some days, or show up hours late, because they were being followed. One of our IT guy has a typical algorithm: he always takes two buses, or two cabs, or some combination of the two to get to and from work. That way it's not so obvious where he's going. If you call someone on their (company supplied) cell phone at night, and they are out with other people, and they have to speak English on the phone you could get them killed. I've called people who have jabbered Arabic at me for a while until they could get away from other people to talk to me (usually their car, I hear them drive in circles in the background while they talk).

First I assumed this was because they are working with the occupying power, but when I ask "well, this will bet better after June 30th, right?" every one of them has told me no. It seemed logical to me that, after June 30th, when an Iraqi government is in place, that it will be okay to work with an Iraqi government. Nope. Okay, so now I assumed that this was because the new government isn't viewed as legitimate. Nope, not that either.

It's because no one here trusts the government. Government in Iraq has for so long been an entity to be feared that working for the government is a short path to some potentially serious problems in the post liberation environment -- which is still a very chaotic and nearly lawless environment. Security is the object most desired by those I talk to, more than power, or water, or anything else.

None of them tell their friends where they work. Some tell their family, usually just their parents and not their siblings. One guy who works with us is from a town far away from Baghdad. Everyone at home, including every member of his family, thinks he is working in Amman. He goes home every month or two, drops off some money, tells them lies about Amman, and comes back to Baghdad to work.

I find talking with the locals extremely interesting, especially those in a socio-economic group parallel to mine. I recently met some very charming locals who are about my age etc. and I got a chance to ask about Iraqi culture (for a 30's something single). It used to be: go to dinner, go to the club, go to a friend's house for a party. Now it's stay home because it's not safe to go outside. Movies? Music? It was, at least, pretty much like America. In fact, American movies are very popular here. Titanic was such a hit that it was overplayed and there was a cultural backlash to it, just like in the US. They never heard of Kill Bill, so there's some selective censorship or at least filtering going on, but they're generally in the mainstream.

There is, not surprisingly, some visible anti-Semitism here. People are still suspicious of you if you've been to Israel. "I hate Israel" is a typical comment if it comes up. I try to portray a more balanced view of the US than a super power who, in between gulf wars, just sits around and funds Israel's conflict with the Arabs; I even once tried to explain some of the teachings of the great American Philosopher and Poet, Eric Cartman, (South Park reference) but I think they don't get it.

Our taxi driver likes to joke around about girls. But he has never heard of a thong before. I downloaded a picture for him last night; I think it will melt his brain. The guys joke about sex like in any culture; the women, even the most liberated ones, wouldn't consider making even a crack about it. It's still a very conservative culture that way.

An Iraqi man is allowed up to four wives. This is starting to sound pretty good, but it turns out that each wife typically wants her own house. I suggested that one big house, with one big bed, might be a better way to go. People tell me it would cause "discord". I guess I can see that, these things tend to obey the Pauli Exclusion Principal (the Physical law that states that two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time).

So maybe it's not as good as it sounds. Also, well educated Iraqis of any social standing only take one wife, with the possible exceptions of a man who's wife can't bear children, or a guy who is old and successful picks up a wife 30 years younger than him -- it's kind of like a trophy wife but you get to keep the first one too.

Anyway, the culture here is nothing short of fascinating. It's the same, yet completely different. Our IT guy was marveling at some of my technical gadgets and says, with open envy, "we don't have such things here". I said you will soon. He said "maybe ten years". I said "let's work hard together and do it in five". He said that it would take longer: "my people don't want to know about things on the outside".

Yeah, but, dude, you get four wives...

Posted by rick at 11:05 PM

June 10, 2004

what makes a lion look puny?


I just went and saw Uday's main Palace today. It's over by the Tigris, at the edge of the Green Zone ... and it's where his lions are.

They were mostly in the shade and out of site but one of them was sitting out for us to admire. There were some carcasses of antelope or something in the cage with them, so they're definitely eating. I hear that most places are afraid to take them since they have a taste for human flesh (people who displeased Uday, and the odd Russian hooker, are reported to have been routinely used as cat food).

But that's not the "wow" part. We also got to walk through his palace -- or what's left of it. It was hit so amazingly hard. I've got some incredible pictures I'll post of things like:
1) the hole in the roof the missile came through
2) the blown out section of the first and second floor that the missle blew up
3) the charred remains of two rooms in every direction.
here's one: knock knock

Whatever they dropped on there wasn't just supposed to go boom, it was supposed to burn out the whole place (and kill everyone inside). Too bad he wasn't home. There isn't a scratch on the grounds outside the building but the building itself took at least a few direct hits and is totaled.

Talk about precision: "I'd like to take out the entire inside of *that* house, quickly, without warning, from my chair on the other side of the world -- could you handle that for me please?"

I'm in awe, it really brings meaning to "projection of power".

Morris, a local who works with us that drove us over there, saw Uday's palace for the first time. In fact, most Iraqis that are here have never been allowed into what is now the Green Zone before. Morris was upset that all this wealth was concentrated in one place while the rest of the country struggled, he was also upset that we blew it all to crap. I pointed out that the palace itself, and the junk in it, was nothing compared to all the money hoarded elsewhere. In any case, he had a great time running around and taking pictures next to all the tacky statues and stuff.

I still need to finish my post on the locals and what they think of all of this, but it's bedtime now.

Posted by rick at 02:22 PM

June 08, 2004

"I love it when a plan comes together"

Okay, so "the shooting gallery" (aka BIAP, Baghdad International AirPort, Road) has lived up to its namesake. They closed it the other day after an attack in which 4 civilian contractors were killed. Three more in the same party managed to "fight their way across the median" where they were able to hail a passing car and escape. The US Military, with all of its might, responded by closing the road. Which, I think, is exactly what the terrorist wanted. It partially reopened today.

What I want to know is: what happened to the A-Team? I mean, maybe I'm just a product of the TV generation but can't we get an old black van, weld steel armor all through it, and drive it down BIAP road as a decoy? Then when the bad guys roll up on it ... the back doors pop open and "B. A." (as played by Mr. T, who says things like "I pity the fool" and "you ain't putting me on no airplane") appears with big gold chains and a 50 cal machine gun. Meanwhile Murdock and Face are dropping bundled stick of dynamite out the windows, fuses lit by cigar, and blowing up all the chase cars.

Maybe there is hot air balloon, or a motorcycle with machine guns on it, or something else in there too.

See, closing the road, or moving in more troops as a deterrent, kinda works but it just pushes the problem around; the bad guys go somewhere else. We want a decoy type of operation so that we can catch/kill them. Maybe we should just have a super armored SUV, that doesn't look so armored, driving up and down the road. When they come under attack the Apache gunships, who are laying in wait just behind the horizon, pop up with hellfires and put an end to all that noise.

< /rant> I'm working on another posting about the locals who help us out, and the risks they take to do so. I'll hope to post it soon.

Posted by rick at 11:43 PM

June 07, 2004

new pics


I somehow managed to leave town w/o a web publishing tool (my kingdom for a copy of dreamweaver right now) otherwise I'd add more comentary to it.

The signs are kind of amazing and sometimes surreal. I've got a special place in my heart for the Hummers, but I think I want an ASV now. Click around a see what catches your eye.

Posted by rick at 10:29 AM

Security Solutions

Well, the last two companies that I've started have in one way or another been related to the security industry, so I've always got security solutions on my mind. This place is a security candy store complete with display window. I've seen satellite based vehicle tracking devices (old and crappy by today's standards, the military apparently runs a bit behind the latest on the market), electronic and video solutions, and all kinds of other really neat high tech stuff. Of course, however, most of the focus is in on physical security and, though I never thought I'd find physical security that interesting, there are some solutions here that really have a satisfactory feel to them upon examination.

Razor wire and physical barriers really are effective means of keeping cars and people where you want them. There are two basic types of physical barriers around here: concrete and dirt filled. The concrete barriers have a certain elegance to them in and of themselves. They are about 5' wide, and 2' thick at the base, but then quickly taper up to about 10 inches thick, which they remain all the way to their top, which can be between 3' and 10' off the ground. There are re-bar loops at the top (so clearly the inside is re-bar enforced) so that you can grab them with the prongs on the scoop of a bulldozer, or a crane, and move them around. The nice thing about them is that even if you slammed into one with a car and knocked it over that it would still be 2' high (the thickness of the base) and high center the vehicle. Elegantly simple and effective. The dirt filled barriers are just wire reinforced bags that are about 5' in diameter and sit about 5' high -- then they fill them with dirt. Once it's filled it's not going anywhere and you're not driving anything through it. Line them up and throw some razor wire on top and you're not walking through it either.

The most elegant solution I've seen, however, is in the entrances to the green zone. They've created a nice long driveway, if you will, that you have to drive up to get in. It's probably 200' long and 20' wide. There are 3' tall concrete barriers every 30' or so, one blocking the left half of the driveway, the next blocking the right, and so on, so you have to drive very slowly along this serpentine route to get in. There are, of course, guards with M-16's, machine gun nests, and all that stuff along the way so that if you decide to try to break through you won't get very far without attracting lots of fast moving lead. Well, the neat part is what's at the end of the driveway ... a guard dog? ... a machine gun nest? ... a row of Hummers with .50 cals on the roof? ... a platoon of crack soldiers with M-16's?

Nope .... just an M1 tank.

With it's barrel pointing right down the driveway.

Gate crasher? Boom. Problem solved. No one is crashing that gate; the tank has a firing solution something akin to shooting a hippo squeezed into a barrel. Of course, the tank sits behind several rows of dirt filled barriers with it's cannon sticking over the top just because, uh, I dunno, no one is going to get to it anyway. But I guess it can't hurt. Oh, there is a second tank behind it in case the first one breaks.

Crude, but effective, and I freakin' love it.

Posted by rick at 12:21 AM

June 06, 2004

This week's Security Report brought to you by...

Coalition Security Report

"For security reasons, there are no security reports. "


We did get a report this moring that I haven't seen on the web (until just now, see below) which says that the "shooting gallery" in yesterday's blog, aka BIAP Road, was the site of the killing of four civilians in a two car convoy. It was apparently two cars containing four PSD's and three contractors. The technique employed was a rolling barricade to slow them down and then small arms fire and RPG('s) were used to take out the armored transport.

CNN article

"Assailants also ambushed two civilian sport utility vehicles, favored by Western civilian contractors, on the road to Baghdad's international airport. An Iraqi Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two or three people were killed but he had no further information. "

I heard some officers in the mess hall just now talking about the security of that same road. I told them I'm flying out on the 14th and if they could get it taken care of by then that I'd really appreciate it.

Posted by rick at 02:48 AM

June 05, 2004

IPF part II

as of this a.m. I was leaving tomorrow; as it now stands I'm leaving on the 14th. We'll see how it stands on the 14th.

This fine with me, like I've said I like this place. It also means I get to postpone "the shooting gallery" a little while longer. The shooting gallery is the term of endearment for the drive from Baghdad to Baghdad International Airport.

Both the Green Zone and the Airport are currently defined as Military Garrisons, you can see a good picture here:
Military Garrisons

See that curved dark line that connects them? That's the shooting gallery. If you're on that road then you're part of the occupation and the extremist outliers are out to get you -- you're fair game.

The PSD's only take armored cars on it, and they drive pedal to the metal the entire way, I'm not kidding, they don't slow down for anything. There are often fires off to the side of the road, burned out hulks of cars, and all kinds of crazy stuff. The PSD's will never get near a military convoy on it as they're an even jucier target than the rest of us. Of course, it's also your first introduction to Baghdad on your way in ... and it does a great job of setting the tone of "this place is nuts".

Okay, now the goal is to see exactly how much fun I can have between now and the 14th and put it on this blog.

I'll put up some new pictures soon too, I've got some good ones that I haven't had time to deal with.

Posted by rick at 01:06 AM

June 04, 2004


As a whole, this place gets really bad press. If you believed the media at home: everyone hates us, we messed the place up, we should pull out and it'll all be better.

These are all untrue, I guess that we-messed-up stories sell better than success stories but we've done a lot of good here that for whatever reason I just don't see in the papers. In fact, I'd say that our presence, and subsequent generosity, is the nicest, and most thankless, thing we did since giving France back to the French.

I'll address these three myths separately:

Myth #1: Hate. The fact is that some people do hate us. Just like there are some people in the south that go to Klan rallies and hate black people, there are people here who will always hate us -- regardless of how much we do to change their minds there will be no talking to them on this subject. They'll hold rallies that make for good foreign news clippings and there is nothing that will change this other than decades of education and tolerance. However, just like southern racists, they are in the minority (and generally looked down upon as ignorant as well).

Saddam Hussein had his boot right on the necks of the Iraqi people and there is absolutely positively no way they would be free of him or his eventual legacy (his sons) with out our help. The UN would have danced around this problem forever and the vast majority of the people here understand this and by and large they are very grateful for our intervention. Now, a lot of them are temporarily put out that we are occupying their country, that we get around more easily (coalition country citizens cruise through checkpoints while locals wait in line to be searched), live in the nice houses, and drive the nice cars, while they're still struggling. But this is a temporary annoyance and not a fundamental conflict of cultures or criticism of our actions; as their standard of living continues to visibly increase, and our presence decreases, this will become a self-resolving problem.

Myth #2: We messed the place up. Iraq has not only suffered from recent economic sanctions and subsequent military actions, but long before that it suffered from a nearly complete lack of capital improvement. The Baath party was brutally efficient in making sure that all of the country's wealth went into lining their own pockets. Hardly a Fil (lowest denomination of Iraqi currency, equivalent to a penny) went into doing anything for the country's infrastructure. Just look at every large building project in the last 20 years: Saddam's palaces and monuments. If you look at the telecommunications infrastructure it's a 1970's time warp. We didn't mess this place up; it was broken and looted long before we got here. Now, we did fail to provide adequate security after military operations ceased, but on the other hand all the people managed to do was steal from themselves. Furthermore, the post-liberation rioters looted a bunch of stuff that was all 30 years old and (should have been considered) fully depreciated anyway. Our arrival was simply the catalyst for a long overdue infrastructure upgrade to this place.

Myth #3: We should pull out and it'll all be better. The ONLY thing holding this place together is the US Military presence. If we pulled out now there would immediately be mass chaos and looting, and much worse, and this would persist until another ruthless dictator was finally able to assume power. More troublesome is that instead a dictator it could be a "religious" leader that would seize power and turn this place into an Iran-like Theocracy. Iraq would then plunge back into the dark ages and things would be worse than ever from a human right's perspective. No matter who took over, dictator or theocrat, in the resultant chaos of a sudden US Military pullout, the subsequent retributions would make the naked pyramids of Abu Gahrib look like fraternity hazing.

Iraq is going *much* better than the US press would have you believe. We have dumped BILLIONS of dollars ($18.7 and counting) right into this country that is the size of California. Our impact is huge and positive. The project I'm working on, however, is an IPF.

What's an IPF? Well, first you have to understand what a PF is. An old boss of mine introduced me to the term. When a project is going so incredibly poorly that you not only have no idea how to get it running right again and you really wish you didn't even take it on in the first place -- you suddenly realize that the project you are working on has all the traits that you'd expect of an commercial Pig F*ck. Just imagine all the hassles you would have with that: pigs running everywhere, animal right's organizations after you, massive legal problems, contestants/customers that you'd rather not deal with running around with their pants down...

The only thing more messed up than a PF is an IPF: an International Pig F*ck. It's the same thing but with more language and legal issues.

Well, this is an IPF. I won't get into the details of the job but let me say that I was sitting at my desk yesterday, minding my own business, as I am wont to do, when someone walks in and says "we're over budget, everyone is going home, you leave Sunday".


It's starting to sound like they really mean it too. I might be here just long enough to take some cool pictures, get used to an 11hour time difference and wearing a flack jacket, and go home. I'll keep you posted, but one thing is for sure -- when I do leave I'm gonna miss this place.

Posted by rick at 07:50 AM

June 03, 2004

things that make you go "hmmmm"

Three of them immediately come to mind:

1) "The Italians". Before I arrived there was a group of Italian security folks that worked with us, a lot of the guys around here knew them personally. They decided to go on R&R for a while but all the flights to Amman were booked -- so they decided to drive. They planned to go during the day, and avoid the hot spots, so they figured it would be okay. Here is where the series of errors began:
a. They booked a taxi with a guy they didn't know.
b. The taxi showed up four hours late, so now it's a night drive, but they went anyway.
c. They left their guns here because they wouldn't be able to take them into Jordan.

Well, there is a price (~$10k) on foreigner's heads around here. If you're a taxi driver this is a lot of money, like a few life-fortunes' worth. Apparently the Taxi driver's showing up late was an intentional ploy so that they couldn't see the wrong turn he took later in the dark. In any case, they were captured. The captors released a video tape in which they had put a hood over one guy's head, put a gun to his head and said that they were going to kill him. The guy reportedly said "I'll show you how an Italian dies" while taking off his hood ... and they shot him. Story is here: Washington Post Story

2) Mess hall chatter. The mess hall is a fascinating place here, not only because it's in the middle of a palace but because it draws a complete cross section of the coalition members here in Baghdad. There are soldiers and diplomats and consultants all sharing a table for 15 minutes, it makes for really fun networking. One day you'll hear all about the currency issues, the next day you'll hear about what it's like playing with military hardware. Well, most soldiers I've talked to eventually asks "have you been to the red zone?" (outside the green zone). They're in a pretty unique situation because they "get" to go outside, most people here haven't. And I say "yeah, uh, I live there". They look at you really funny after that. I tell them all about the security we do have, from the Iraqi guards in the semi-private neighborhood where we live, to the UK private security that drives us. They still look at me funny, clearly expressing that this doesn't sound like much fun to them. When I explain to them that I'm not allowed to have a gun, every one of them, from the enlisted guy who had to drop out of school because his guard unit got called up for the first time since WWI, all the way up, has said "I wouldn't take that job".

3) IED. Improvised Explosive Device. One of the guys I work with was heading home one day when the car he was in drove by an IED. This one was apparently a howitzer shell buried in the street with a guy off to the side who detonated it right as they went by. He explained it to me like this "it was all in slow motion. I saw the back window of the car in front of us blow out, and the three Iraqi children in the back seat get blown into the front seat." The car next to them was destroyed as well. The car he was in was well armored so it survived the blast, though it was heavily damaged and a tire was blown out. The private security guy floors it and just starts pushing cars out of the way left and right. They get clear, abandon the damaged car and hop in their chase car, and take off. But not before they snapped a few pictures of the car they were in. I saw them the other day. There were big holes in the sheet metal that clearly would have gone all the way through the door, except you could see the Kevlar weave behind it that stopped it. There was a big impact point in the glass on one of the rear seat windows right at head height that the lexan stopped. Some ride home.

So chew on this: not all of our vehicles are armored. In fact, most aren't. When you ask about this you're told that "well, the SUV's are armored but they really stand out. These sedans are better at blending in." Okaaaaay, why not just use armored sedans then? In fact, I think most armored cars are sedans. The answer is that this place is fresh out of armored cars. I'm going to come back and open a car armoring shop -- you could over charge everyone and never run out of business.

Well, there are rumors today of this project being over budget and everyone going home soon. If it takes them as long to get me home as it took them to get me here then I'll be here until the winter...

Posted by rick at 06:39 AM

June 02, 2004

What am I doing here?

I don't mean this rhetorically, as in "this is nuts, what am I doing here?". Nor do I mean it existentially, as in "what is my purpose in life?". Those are good questions but ... they're kinda on the back burner for now. What I mean is what many people are asking me: why am I in Iraq right now.

Well, it goes like this. The background is that I'm currently working on my second startup. We've got a good team and we're building a product/service that we think is very relevant and we expect it will do well. The problem is that we are what people call not only "pre-revenue", we're not making money yet, but also "pre-product", we can't even start making money yet -- this puts us pretty much outside the current investment arena. So, we've already done the whole MRD/PRD/specification process and the dev team is hard at work. I could stay in Si Valley and try to raise funds, which would probably be fruitless at this stage of the company's life, or I can take this opportunity to have an adventure and get paid too (I haven't been paid in a year and this gig pays just a little bit more than being a startup CEO of a venture backed company -- and we're not even venture backed yet). So, by the time I get back we should have something that I can run with and I get to eat for a little while too.

The foreground is that the Iraqi Telecommunications and Post Company (ITPC), think Pac Bell, is about to go from being a ward of the state to a player in a free market environment. Until very recently, if you were a member of the Baath party you got a phone. It cost you $5/year. If you were a member of the Baath party and knew the right people you got a job at the ITPC too. The ITPC existed to provide limited phone coverage to party members and to give people jobs ... and for the higher ups to embezzle from as well.

Now that's all changed. If things go the way we expect, they'll be spun out and forced to fend for themselves. They have no corporate structure, they have no department heads (they don't even know what the departments should be, in fact they've never done any sales or marketing since people came to them for phones) they have no accounting practices beyond a budget (and that's recent), they don't know what a set of financials should look like, they need to (re)build the technical side almost from the ground up, they don't have a billing system ... and at their projected burn for the next year is 2x their expected income.

It looks a lot like a startup, actually.

So, I'm trying to sort out which way is up, which is interesting as the infrastructure in the past here made releasing financials punishable by death, so there isn't much laying around you can pick up to start with. Next I'm trying to illustrate the difference between where they are and where they probably like to be (RPU should be higher than the $5/yr Baath party discount, phone lines per populations should be higher than it is, they should have Quality of Service metrics...).

In 1989 it took three US dollars to buy one Iraqi dinar, now there are 1,500 dinars to a dollar. This country used to be defined as "middle income", it's rich in natural resources and it used to have a modern infrastructure -- before the Baath party diverted all development funds to their own pockets and alienated the country from the rest of the world by invading Kuwait, and then generally being a pain afterwards. It'll be interesting to see when it's all over how this whole thing ends up. There is a culture here, left over from the former regime, that bullying and embezzling is they way to get by, so the whole thing could just end up a mess again. On the other hand there a lot of people who really want to see their country return back to its status of middle income (instead of its current status of impoverished), hopefully it is this group that will win. All we can do is advise.

Posted by rick at 08:45 PM

June 01, 2004

boom ... ... boom ... ... BOOOOOM!

So, I'm sitting at my desk minding my own business when I hear a "boom". No one else really seemed to notice, I thought it might be a door closing or something, and then I heard another "boom". I kind of stop and look around and am just thinking that it's nothing when we all hear a big BOOOM. You could actually feel the air pressure change in the trailer, the whole place really shook. So we leave our thin-roofed trailers for a bomb shelter where we sit and wait. After a few minutes it's decided that the shelling has stopped (it was mortar fire) and we go back to work.

5 minutes later they start again. We go to the shelter. We go back to work. 5 minutes later repeat.

While I'm sitting in the bomb shelter I'm examing its construction trying to form an opinion as to how sturdy it is. It's got four concrete walls for support and it has sandbags on top of a concrete roof for protection, it used to be a laundry room -- in fact it still is a laundry room, so I sit down on top one of the dryers. Okay, I'm not a physicist or anything (or wait, yes I am) but wouldn't you want those sandbags a few feet *above* the roof? That way when the mortar round blows up on it, all the energy is absorbed up there instead of by the roof itself. This is how most seriously armored military vehicles work, it's called "ablative plating". See, if I lived here (oh wait, I do) I would go to Home Depot, get some 4x4's and plywood, and build a workbench-like structure on top of the shelter and put sandbags on top of it. I could do it in an off day. I'd do it here but there's no Home Depot and by the time I got permission to do it I'd be back in the States.

Side note: there's a big f'n sign on the bomb shelter door that says "KEEP DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES". No shit, you're inside, stuffs blowing up outside, the big steel door has to be closed to do you any good. Guess what. It's open. So I walk across the room and close it. Someone comes in and opens it and leaves it open behind them. I walk over and close it again. The most senior person here is sitting right next to it and she doesn't even budge to close it, nor make any effort to make sure other people do the same. Great leadership and fundamental understanding of the purpose of the door (not to mention the meaning of the sign). The two security guys go in and out and leave the door open behind them too. I close it. Grumble.

So.... now what. The shelling has stopped and it's lunch time. I can go to the CPA/Palace to eat, or I can stay here. The upside to the CPA is that it's got all the food. The downside is that it's the target that the mortars are aimed at. I figure that the thing is built better than a brick house -- it was built to be a target by bigger stuff than mortar rounds -- and waddle on over for lunch.

At lunch I sit next to career Army guy who tells me that what we heard were all mortar rounds. The third one in the first round (Mr. BOOOM) sounded big to me because it was close to me. To him, at the CPA, they all sounded like 40-60mm mortars, which he tells me are medium sized. I ask about the construction of the Palace commenting that it seems to me that the roof, even though the ceiling is 30' above us, look like it could take a direct hit and shrug it off. He says that at medium sized one would. A big one, however, more like 120mm, he thinks would at least punch a hole. Great.

Anyway, we're eating lunch when we hear "all personnel retreat to the basement" come over the loudspeakers. Given the crowd this takes about 10minutes to get down there. After we'd been down there for a while a MP yells "turn off your cell phones". I turn to the person next to me, pretty much everyone here is a military expert in one way or another, and say "wait a minute, you mean someone's built a guidance system for a mortar round or rocket that homes in on public communication frequencies?" and he says "no, they home in on you back at the base and improve their aim that way. We did this way back in Vietnam". "Oh, just signal strength and direction?", I ask. He confirms with a nod. Mine's off.

About a half hour goes by and we leave the basement. I get back to work and see what all the fuss is about on the Internet. A new President of Iraq was named today. It wasn't the US's first choice, actually, but I guess some people are cranky about it anyway. That's when the shelling started. Later a car bomb went off and blew up a Kurdish political office. That's when we went down into the basement. Apparently that was a really big boom, and killed a lot of people (mostly/all Iraqi's) but in the CPA/Palace I didn't even hear it.

Story is here: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=540&e=1&u=/ap/20040601/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq

The location of the car bomb, btw, is right near where I live outside the Green Zone.

Conclusion: this is insane.

At the same time I still kind of like it, again, in a really messed up way. It's very good at ... keeping you alert.

Posted by rick at 03:33 AM