Afghanistan Diary
Sunday, May 29, 2005
  I am staying

Well folks, it looks like I am staying after all. I had a pretty frank discussion with my boss’ boss this morning about what I am not happy with at work, at the end of which I decided to continue at DACAAR (providing of course, that my immigration attorney gives me the green light). SQL Server will come, and I will try to use C# to makes things more interesting. My aims for the remainder of my stay in Afghanistan are: to migrate all database to MS Sql Server, to get my navigation system up and running and hopefully even to sell it, and to write a grant for when I come back. She thought I have been in Kabul for too long, and urged me to go somewhere else for a few days. I am leaving tomorrow to Herart for three days. I will also go to New Mexico some time this summer to clear my passport.

It was a storm in a teacup. After all that, I am still doing the same job at the same place. It is exhausting to be around me, I think, because I question many of my life choices quite often. If it is of any comfort, it is exhausting to be me for the same reasons…

  Can’t decide
I am not sure what I am going to do. Today, I am leaning toward staying. Leaving is always easier (for me at least). I do feel far less enthusiasm about remaining in Afghanistan than I feel about going backpacking. I can only stay if it does not jeopardize my visa status and my nationalization prospects. It may be alright providing I go back to the States this summer, but I am not sure. I do feel some sense of obligation, commitment, etc. toward DACAAR, but this is the wrong way to think about it. The real questions are: Can I achieve anything here professionally and otherwise (my navigation system)? Am I useful here? Can I turn things around at work so that my work becomes more interesting?

I am not sure. The prospects are not great but I haven’t exhausted all possible efforts to shift things around. On Monday night (11 ½ time difference), I will try to call my immigration attorney for advice.

I may feel better about myself if I stay (I don’t like feeling like a quitter) if I can do good work, but will I enjoy myself? Is anything interesting going to happen in Kabul in the next 8 months? Friends will come and go. I may get some interesting work on the side with my nav. System and all. If I really work at it, I could maybe get some interesting C# and GIS experience, though the bulk of my work will be tedious, I should not kid myself about it. As far as discovering the country is concerned, I may get to know some of my Afghan colleagues better but it is likely that my mobility will remain quite limited for a while. Remaining here could give me enough time to write a grant that, if successful, would allow me to do some interesting work, once I come back to the US. I need to think about all this.

There were no demonstrations in Kabul today, but there were many in Pakistan. I hope Lyn is alright, she is in Islamabad where several demonstrations and a bomb explosion took place. I advised her many time to check for demonstrations, but I don’t think she took me seriously because Islamabad has the reputation to be a quite city where nothing happens (I told you so…).

I went to the Bazaar with Giovanni today. We passed street portrait photographers having a primitive camera that looks one hundred years old, beggars with an uneven number of limbs, car engines mounted on a decorated street carts to press sugarcane, even burkas in bright colors (Oh so vain!). I did not find what I was looking for (a shaver), but I had a good time.

We ate some kebabs on the way back. I do not know if I already mentioned this, but in Afghanistan, restaurants are divided in a main section destined to men that has view on the outside, and a family section, protected by a curtain or a door, where families or women with children eat. You might ask “where to single women sit?” The obvious answer is that you don’t really see any. In many traditional Afghan establishments, there is a mixture of tables with chairs, and areas where you sit on the floor.

Thursday, May 26, 2005
  On awful food and others things
Food is generally pretty good in Afghanistan. What they serve is not particularly surprising or unique (lots of stewy things, pilau rice, kebabs of all kinds, yogurt, etc.) but it is nice.

I have however tasted two dishes that were truly terrible. One was mantu from a street vendor. Mantu is, short of a better description, a kind of “ravioli” served with a white sauce. I loved this dish when I was in Turkey and I was looking forward to eating it again. Only it did not taste the same, this Afghan mantu had a overwhelming taste of rancid cream. I had to eat at least some of it, so as not to offend the seller, but it took me great pain to achieve this without throwing up.

Today was my second bad experience. There was a little gathering to celebrate my colleague’s promotion. Somebody came around with some “biscuits.” They were solid like a rock and the pungent smell of rotten cheese should have commanded prudence on my part, but I paid no attention to it. I took a large bite and immediately spit it out, putting aside any attempt to remain polite. Are you sure this stuff is for eating? Soap would have tasted better (and yes, I have tried it, although I don't care to explain when and how). It took me many cups of tea to wash off the taste.

I met with my supervisor’s boss today. She said that if I wanted to stay there was a possibility that DACAAR would help me with the cost of my place ticket. I don’t know how risky for me it is to do so, but coming back to the US before six months, then leaving again, is an option that might just work in terms of immigration. The question is: do I want to do so? I will give it some thought over the week-end.

Bureaucracy is a pain at DACAAR as in the rest of Afghanistan, no doubt. It took me thirty-five minutes to withdraw some money (my money!) from my employee account and I had to thank the treasurer for allowing me to do so without all the required signatures.

  Internationals in Kabul are getting scared.

Internationals in Kabul are getting scared. The number of “incidents” in the country is on the rise and even in Kabul, there was something that looked like an attempted hijacking in broad daylight yesterday (that was only narrowly averted). But mostly, it was the recent abduction of the Italian girl (whom many people knew) that affects people the most. Even those who are usually the most lax about safety seem to apply security recommendations with zeal. As my flatmate noted, the very fact that we have curfew reinforces the impression that we live in a dangerous place (“Six thirty already? I’d better head back quickly or else …) whereas the situation may not be more or less dangerous than it was a month ago. There are rumors of possible demonstrations on Friday, and several agencies are on complete lockdown (not DACAAR).

I have slowly started the process of preparing myself to leave Kabul, and I know the day of my departure will come really quickly. In objective terms, my job sucked, my salary was laughable and thanks to curfews and lockdowns, there is not much left of my social life at this point. Yet, that hardly depicts how I feel about this place. I will in fact miss it dearly and digesting memories and insights gained in my journey will take me some time.

I regret I don’t have much more to say about Kabul at the moment. Curfews are not very conducive to exploring the place.

One of the reasons I took this job was to give me the opportunity of changing my professional life. I had a very hard time making a living while being a graduate student, and I became a programmer because I needed a job, it was a happening field (the Internet!), and having been a computer kid when I was 14, I had some facilities with computers (Ah, everybody taught it was a waste of time back then...). Also, I was never successful in finding a job, or a scholarship in the field I studied (social anthropology). So basically, even though I liked the whole computer-internet field and was fairly successful at it, I felt that I never choose my career.

I took the job at DACAAR in the hope that working for a NGO would be more meaningful, that I would get to experience another culture and perhaps even, it would give me an entry to the whole world of development where I might work in any capacity (not just computer related) if I so decided. The experience is mixed. The job wasn’t more meaningful. I liked to be in Afghanistan and to know different people, but expatriate life did not totally meet my expectations either. I hope however that I will have some opportunity to work with others NGOs in the future. I think I am in the right field after all, and that it would be even slightly difficult for me to do something else (I have less than average social skills). The thing is that, if I am to be a geek, I want to be the best geek I can be. Boring, tedious, repetitive work will always be my nemesis (the same apply to everybody, I am sure). I will try to get more challenging work by setting up my own projects, finding the perfect work environment, or by doing shorter term contract work and frequently changing so as vary the skills I use.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005
  Things are shaping up
I resigned yesterday. My boss looked pained. I felt both guilty and relieved. My notice is one month, minus the accrued holidays. Basically, it works out just fine, I will have one month to travel, and I will be back in the States just in time so that my stay in less than six months.

I do not know if I will travel with my friend Babak or by myself. It depends if his schedule does not conflict with mine. If we travel together (at least for part of the trip), I do not know yet where we'll go. If I am by myself, I plan to go to India. We'll see when he gets here.

A couple of business/grant ideas are taking shape in my head. When I come back, I plan to write a grant proposal and to pitch for some contracts. If it worked out, I would be able to stay in New Mexico.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Not much to report. There is a suicide bomber warning for the next week and possible demonstrations on Friday. Our lockdown condition is unlikely to change for a while.

Today, I played with a wolf pup. A guesthouse had adopted it. I am not sure it would have been my choice of a guesthouse pet (Wouldn’t an alligator seem friendlier?) It stayed in a cage that was WOLFully inadequate for a wild animal IMHO. It was nice puppy and overall it was fairly friendly. He let me pet him for a while, although it must be said that he also did try to bite me. In fact, italmost succeeded: I could feel his teeth, but I manage to withdraw my fingers just before it broke the skin.

I have decided to give my notice. I do feel rather bad about it (I committed myself for twelve months when I came here), but I am far from being irreplaceable and I know DACAAR will be alright. It just wasn’t a very good match for me workwise. Other than that, I know I will miss Kabul, the people I know and the live I lead here. I know that must sound insane from the outside, and I don’t know how to explain it.

In fairness, my decision to leave has more to do with my immigration worries than with my boredom at work. I am tired of having to worry about my immigration status and I recently decided to become naturalized US citizen. The thing is, it is a little risky for me to stay outside the country for more than six months as it might prevent me to be eligible for citizenship. Right now, I am less than one year away from being able to apply, if this did not work out, I would need to stay another five years (continuously) in the US before being able to apply. I just don’t fancy myself worrying about this kind of stuff for five more years without being able to travel for extended period of time. There is an alternative to this which is to work for the UN in which case, the residency requirements are waived. UN jobs are very well paid as well, but I don’t think it is very likely...

So my plan right now, is to give my notice, to ship most of my things to NM, and then to go backpacking for a month. I can’t remember last time I went backpacking for an extended period of time.

I do have two major regrets about leaving. I won’t be able to travel to Uzbekistan with Babak (too dangerous right now if we could even get a visa), although it is possible that we manage to travel together somewhere else. The other regret is that it is possible (but not sure) that I won’t have time to complete my Kabul turn-by-turn navigation project (I hope I will). It would be a bummer after all the time and money (equipment does not come cheap) I invested in the project. I am trying to work as much as possible to finish this in the next month. It is not a lot of time, but that might just be enough. However, I have started to think about others fun to write applications using similar technologies (gps-.Net-C#-database-xml-Pocket PC-mp3-mpeg-bluetooth, ...) that would potentially be quite marketable. That will certainly give me something to do when I get back.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Today a former TV presenter was shot dead in Kabul. In the country, seven aid workers were killed in an ambush, five yesterday. The people who abducted the aid worker in Kabul have made their demands known ( I don't see how a government could possibly accept to have its policy dictated by hijackers. In light of this, I fear the poor girl might remain captive for a while. That is if she stays alive, she is said to suffer from internal bleeding in the head, vomiting and hasn't eaten for three days. It really does not sounds good.

I had a chat with my boss today. I explained how bored I was. She told me that this work will always need to be done, but she recommended me to plan a vacation. Thinking... Vacation is not a bad idea and I have indeed been thinking about it. Kabul gets to you after a while. It would do me some good but, would it solve everything at work?
  My Project
I decided to use my version of the map (vector map, divided into road segments) for the time being. Changing the map at this stage would delay me quite a bit and I would like to get the thing out there (in Beta) pretty quickly. It is great that I have an accurate vector map, but it comes a little too late. I will use it for the next release.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
I am considering resigning tomorrow. We'll see. I will sleep on it. Clearly, I am not doing a good job because I am bored. I don't think the situation is going to improve, so maybe I should cut my losses. It is a shame because I like the organization I work for, the people I work with, and even life in Kabul (I know that must sounds strange from the outside).

On a more optimistic note, I received from a friend the complete accurate map of Kabul in vector format. I don't think it is georeferenced though (if it is, it uses another coordinate system, not lat and lon). If I use that, the result will be more accurate than if I use the map I drew by hand. On the other hand, it represent quite a bit of work. First, I need to parse the .shp binary files, next I need to make sense of the data, which is non trivial because it is a series of polygon, rather than lines and polylines, and last but not least, I need to implement a line intersection algorythm in order to know which road segment connects to which road segment.

Oh yeah, and if I can make it work, I already have a buyer for my navigation system.
I am still struggling to accept the fact that Kabul is not safe. I tried to think of the issue statistically but no matter how I manipulate the numbers the results are not good. The chance for any of us to be a victim are very small, yet, compared to our home countries, they are still astonishingly high. And then again (here comes the nice rationalization), the chance of being adbucted for an aid worker in Kabul is considerably less than the chance of dying from smoking.

I think this time, we are starting to take security very seriously. We take different routes to our office and leave at different times, so as to make our movements less predictable. If we leave a friend's house, we also call when we arrive to our home destination, etc.

Afghan workers are at risk too (among others incidents, three women were raped and strangled last month), but that is especially the case in the country.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
One CARE worker was kidnapped last night. Everybody is quite upset. One of my friend knew the victim quite well. In a separate incident, eight rockets were fired to a UN compound.

We had a security meeting this morning that fell short of reassuring me. The fleaky argument that "now the kidnappers have what they want, they are not likely to attempt another kidnapping" strikes me as complete rubbish. At any rate, our curfew has been extended and I may try harder to abide by it. We may also soon be carrying a radio in addition to our cell phone.

You might be thinking that it must be real scary to live in Kabul with its abductions, rockets, bombs and the fear of riots. The truth is that it is not. To the contrary, the challenge is to be scared enough. We rationalize risk a lot (you have more of a chance to be shot in New York, etc.) but deep down, we are all aware that the situation is not good. However, just because we *know* about the danger, does not mean that we *feel* it. Perhaps, this is also because we are used to associate danger with specific things, like run-down inner city neighborhood with grafitis and gangs for instance. At any rate, it takes a lot of effort to remain cautious, especially given that security measures can be a real hassle.

I hesitate to suggest to management the possibility of fitting all vehicles with APRS that is a system to broadcast coordinates (measures by GPS) using a low-cost radio transmitter. In that way we would be able to know everybody's position at any time (big brother is watching). The thing is that I don't know anything about radios, therefore I don't have the expertise for it, and I don't know how hard it is to figure it out.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
I am spending a relatively pleasant day at work today. Regarding my earlier thoughts of leaving early... I am still considering it, but it is quite possible that I mostly need a holiday. I don't know what will happen to my plans of traveling to Uzbekistan, but either way I will go somewhere in the next two months.
Saturday, May 14, 2005

There were some violent clashes between demonstrators and the police yesterday. More than ten people died as a result. The police does not have much training in peacefully containing the crowds, neither do they care much about human life it seems, so they spray bullets to disperse the demonstration (which is certainly effective, but). I get most of my news from BBC world service on the radio and they did not specify where this took place. I think it was somewhere up North, but I don’t know. I heard what appeared to be a demonstration in the morning yesterday (I did not think it was wise to go an look) but it sounded peaceful. There are rumors that some national protests are to take place today in Kabul, so we’ll see. I read an article in the paper describing the riots in Jalalabad. They mentionned that people were, I quote, "hunting for foreigners." That does not sound too good, does it.

I don’t know about my plans to travel to Uzbekistan, there is quite some turmoil (totally unrelated) over there as well (up to three hundred deaths) so we'll have to see how that evolves.

We had some people over last night, it was nice. The weather is also warming up nicely and we have roses all over the garden.

Work wise, I am still working on georeferencing my vector map of Kabul. In theory, one can georeference a map with two or three points of reference, but if I do so, the results are really not accurate enough. Keep in mind that a difference of a few pixels can equate to hundreds of meters on the ground. Therefore, I am devising a system using a larger number of points of reference (about 30). Then I will estimate the coordinate of each point, only instead of using a generic formula for the whole map, I will assess the point’s location based on its distance to the closest known points of reference. This will distort the map somewhat but it should make for a more reliable map.

Erratum: I had previously mentioned that the whole map of Kabul was composed of about 700 route segment. I don’t know how I got to that figure. The actual number is closer to 9000 (it will be interesting to see how that affects performance).

We are under locked down today, that is to say that we have been asked to stay at home. It has been since Thursday night that we are asked to stay in the house. Apparently, ANSO (the main organization that issues security guidelines here) would have issued a warning to internationals to be ready for evacuation. I know that this is the worse case scenario (and a pretty unlikely one) but still…

Friday, May 13, 2005

It has only been three and half months that I have been here and already I am considering leaving Dacaar early. It is not that it has been a bad experience, I met nice people, got to know a beautiful country, even learnt a lot of computer skills during my spare time, etc. etc. If it wasn’t for the work, which is tedious and boring, I would probably stay. But what am I achieving here? Nothing. I came here, at least in part, to help, and I don’t even feel I am a good worker. More importantly, I came here to be part of an organization I value. DACAAR is a great NGO, but one thing they are not good at (euphemism), is internal communication. I hear through the grapevine about important policy decisions. I would like to be better informed, to feel I am part of it. If it is just a matter of doing a boring computer job, I can do that anywhere, have hot water and electricity and even get paid real money for it (not that I care). Clearly, that’s not why I came here.

We are under high alert, at the moment (fear of possible riots in the next couple of days) and that might slightly affect my judgment as well.

Some things get clearer when you are away from “home.” It has become clear to me that I value a lot my residency in the US, hence my readiness to swap my EU citizenship for a US passport (although I do feel European - not Belgian though). I still intend to travel, but as I said, the US is the place I’ll be back to in between. Additionally, I have had to think about what I’ll do next. I don’t know if I will stay in New Mexico. I might, but I am not sure. For one thing, the job market is very small and I don’t know if I would find a position easily, especially considering I don’t really want to work for the Department of Defense or the labs (and I couldn’t anyway, I am not eligible for a security clearance).

This has led me to think about what I value in a place to live. To my surprise, on top of my list was nature. This is one thing I love about New Mexico. I would like to live in a beautiful place that has national parks and plenty of hiking/cycling opportunity within driving distance. There are some nice picnic spots around here, but no place where one can hike without fearing of having one’s legs blown off. I have been looking at the US state by state. I have only visited a few (seven) states, which makes things difficult. Alaska would be nice but I wouldn’t stand the winter and there aren’t any jobs. Hawaii would be lovely but they have quarantine for dogs, etc. etc. Currently, I am thinking that Southern California might be a good place. There are plenty of openings and possibly the highest concentration of national parks in the whole country. The proximity of the ocean is also a bonus and it is not too far (it is relative) from New Mexico. Rent might be an issue though. At any rate, I will be looking at short to medium term contract opportunities at first. After a while, I would like to travel again. There is an organization ( that dispatches techies to Africa on short term assignments and I might try to go with them.

Once I get my turn-by-turn homemade navigation system of Kabul working, I will also try to meet with aims'folks (a UN organization that does a lot of cartography, GIS work, etc.), they are bound to be interested and they might have some ideas for me.

I have really liked the people I have been working with both here and in New Mexico. I can only hope to be that lucky in my next job.

Thursday, May 12, 2005
The demonstration in Kabul disbanded peacefully and no material damages were reported, but there are some concerns regarding tomorrow (after some imams' sermon) and on Saturday (a new demonstration may take place).

In the meantime, we have been given a satellite phone and a spare phone card, both for emergencies.
  It's a riot...
Some demonstrations turned into a riot yesterday in Jalalabad. The demonstration were anti-US, but also anti-government, and anti-western. There were a few deads, many injured and some government offices and car burnt. Today, there are two demonstrations in Kabul. They are going through the center of town where we are and we have been advised to stay inside the work compound. Sadly, it did not prevent us to go to work;)
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
  Afghan Joke on foreign Aid (rather harsh)
A sheepherder was walking along behind his sheep out along the Kandahar Road minding his own business when a man in a White Land Cruiser pulled and got out.
Hello, sheepherder, he said. If I can tell you exactly where you are and exactly how many sheep you have, may I have one?
Sure, said the sheepherder, thinking the man a fool.
The man pulled out his pocket GPS/calculator/diary/satphone/ipod and punched away for a couple of minutes then said You are exactly 7.44 km from Kandahar and there are 131 animals in your flock.
The sheepherder was mildly surprised and said You are right, take one of my animals.
Just before the man got back into the car, the sheepherder said If I can tell you your profession in one go can I have my animal back? Of course, said the man, knowing full well that this sheepherder was a simpleton with no capacity.
You are a [insert organisation of choice] consultant. said the sheepherder.
"Amazing," said the man. "How did you \r\nknow?"
Amazing, said the man. How did you know?
It is simple, said the sheepherder You came here without being asked; you used high technology to tell me what I already knew; and you overcharged for the information. Now can I have my sheep back.
I was trying to georeference my map yesterday, when I realized that I barely knew what latitude and longitude were, let alone how to use them to calculate distances. So I did some internet search and once again, I found my answers in some fifth grade teaching materials. At the very least this project, makes me understand things that the crappy primary and high-school student I was never learnt. Last week it was basic trigonometry.

I also took an important decision that is to try to become an American citizen when I get back in the US. It was not an easy thing to decide (and it is far from being done) because for some complicated reason, I will loose my current citizenship in the process. I wouldn't care about having my Belgian nationality taken away from me (I'd perversely enjoy it even) except that with it, comes residency rights in the entire European Union, which is harder to relinquish. However, I do think of the US as my "base", the place I would go back to between travels and ultimately as much as a "home" as I have. I just hate having to worry about whether or not travelling for x amount of time will affect my residency rights. I have been thinking of where I'll go next, and I haven't entertained the thought of going back to Europe.
Monday, May 09, 2005
  House arrest

We received some a list of things to do when you are kidnapped. I am glad we did. It is important to know the proper etiquette in various contexts; one does not want to offend. As I mentioned, we are under curfew for the next two weeks. It is much like house arrest without the electronic bracelet.

There is really nothing better to do for me at night than to program my navigation system. I bet I will do some real progress in the coming weeks. I have finished dividing Kabul map into digital route segments. There are 732 of them, which strikes me as not that many (Kabul is a fairly small city), although it felt like there were a lot while I was drawing them. Next, I need to georeference the map (that is, translate the coordinates on my map into latitude and longitude) and then I will work on some code to display a portion of the map based on the user’s position (with the user placed at the center of the screen). Later, I will join that code, with my shortest route to destination algorithm , at which point we'll be almost there. Of course, there will be some threading issues to solve and a decent user interface to create.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

This morning, I got called in for an unscheduled meeting. I was half expecting getting fired (can you tell I have a heavy conscience?), but really it was to discuss the security situation. It is rapidly deteriorating, it seems. In Kabul there were two failed abduction attempts over the week-end (which brings the number to three in the last thirty days). In a separate incident, a bomb or grenade attack took place in an Internet café. The number of incident in the whole country is of course far greater. We are under curfew again: no more moving after dark for the time being. I still think that Afghanistan is somewhat dangerous but primarily due to the high incidence of accidents in the air and on the road, the risk of being asphixiated by a furnace, blasted by a gas explosion, carbonized by a domestic fire, or more simply stung by a scorpion (there are quite a few. A kid was walking a scorpion attached to a string - like a dog on a leash- close to my house, the other day).

Today, it is chilly and the sky is completely overcast. As often when this is the case, one of my Afghan colleague commented, without any sarcasm "Nice weather."

Regarding my project: I attempted to parse the ArcView file data file (not totally easy, it is a binary file). I managed to read the file header but not the file itself. I am not exactly sure what was the problem as I am pretty sure my code is correct. Anyway, I did not want to spent too much time on this, since it only contains major circulation axis. In the end, I used Adobe Illustrator to mark each road segment. I haven’t finished, but almost. I will be done tonight. The idea is to save it as svg, and then to parse and convert the file.

Thursday, May 05, 2005
  new paradigm?
I am starting to use my interface to mark each route segment and I am not terribly happy. I don't think this will be good enough. No doubt, I also say that because manually marking each route segment is such a pain in the ass.

I am revisiting previous idea I had. In previous attempt, I had generated one nice scalable vector graphic map (in case you don't know, svg is an XML based markup to describe vector gaphics) . I am wondering if perhaps I couldn't parse that file and use the information it contains. Most it content is some hideous metadata, but the svg markup itself is quite simple. Incidently, I also found some C# SVG libraries on the web.

Much to think about this week-end. I am not quite sure which direction to take.
  Geek update
I re-wrote the interface of my first software and I came up with something I am reasonably happy with. It is something akin to the Photoshop navigation tool: there is a main image window and a small navigation screen. On the later, there is a slider that lets you determine the scale of the map. On top of the slider is a thumbnail of the whole image on which you can move a red rectangle (its size varies according to the scale) that indicates which part of the image is currently blown up. I also added a grid tool to manually edit the data. Other gimmicks include a feature to automatically sense if you are clicking in proximity of an existing route, in which case, the route can be joined automatically. There are still some bugs, but the program looks pretty good overall and is good enough to enter data.

I will start entering data this week-end. I have been concerned that maybe the data won’t be precise enough to serve as base for the navigation.

Meanwhile, I am considering some alternative (or complementary) approaches. I found on aims’ website, good road info on Afghanistan in Arcview shape (.shp) format. It goes without saying that this does not cover Kabul’s side streets but there is a good coverage of the main axis of circulation. It is a good news in its own right because, I will be able to transfer the shape files directly to my gps. In fact, before I get it, it would like to set up the map and all waypoints of interest so that the gps will be ready to use immediately. I have now several maps I can use: I have the Magellan’s worldwide base map (ok for Afghanistan, poor for Kabul), the aims shape info (great for Afghanistan, ok for Kabul but I like it because it is in vector format), the old Russian topo. map. (it is georeferenced, but I have been told not to trust it and to check these measurements), and the aims Kabul map (but I need to georeference it).

I am trying to see if there is a way to extract the data from the shape file. There might be with the Arc GIS commercial software but these bastards don’t have an eval version offered for download on the site. I will bug Giovanni in our GIS department to see if he can do anything with the shapefile. Alternatively, I could parse the file. It is not easy because it is a binary file, but not impossible. I found the specifications of the file format.

I am currently at work and work is not going well at all. I am sooo bored! It takes me the greatest effort to get anything done and I have to really watch it because I will get in trouble if this continues. I know, I should try harder, finish the project I am currently doing and then start using mySQL and C# if possible.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Little set back on my project. Yesterday, I started to use my software to get coordinate info from the map when I realized that the scale was inadequate to gather precise enough information. I have been working on a zooming function since. The image zoom works but I am having difficulty in having the raster image (the background map) scroll exactly in sync with the vector graphics (the coordinates points). I tried to resolved this for a few hours, then my brain got so fogged that I use brute force (any possible variation of the equation) without success either. I am still working on it.

Looks like most of my former colleagues and friends in New Mexico are having babies. It is quite strange because over here, children are few and there is a disproportionate amount of single folks (especially male) among expatriates.
Sunday, May 01, 2005
The paper this morning quotes Karzai as saying "Messenger of Islam taught us how to live with others in tranquility." Mmm. How has that been working for you?

Eureka and victory! I found a way to make my work more interesting. It is simple; I will develop all future projects in C#. My boss think that it is a good idea for the organization (it is, it will help us eradicate Access) and I am thrilled because I will have the opportunity to become really good at it. I don’t think I can cope with twelve months of Access without a lobotomy. Only snag is: I still need to finish my current projects first. Mind you, C# is easier than I expected and I suspect it will get boring after a while too, but not for a few months, hopefully.

Soon, I will also write code in Java (the two languages are very alike, so I don’t think it will be a problem. What I really want, as far as IT is concerned, is to be a Java-JSP-Xml-Oracle kind of guy. There is still some way to go but I feel I am not that far off anymore.

I am a little concerned about what is going to happen to my applications after my departure. It can’t be easy to find such a programmer/database analyst/dba in Afghanistan, otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired me. From my selfish perspective, working with .Net and Java for a year, gives me the opportunity to build valuable experience and will make it easier for me to find a job when I return to the US.

Spent the week-end working and it was worthwhile! I finished the first software I had to write, which is basically a desktop application to author routable information based on a raster map. There is still some work needed to make it a reusable application, but it looks pretty good. Now comes, the shitty part, actually designing each route segment with the software.

This is my diary. My name is Lev and I work in Kabul for a non-governmental organization (

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 /

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