Saturday, May 24, 2014

Week 12 of Training: S.M.A.R.T.

Senioritis. I think that's the only way to describe how my half of the 132nd Specialist Class felt taking our class on SMART this week. Our instructor was quite funny (and knowledgeable, but lets be honest, at this point we appreciate the funny way more), and we were joking the whole way through. The material was pretty dry, so a good laugh here and there helped keep everyone awake and focused. 

As you can see from the picture, SMART stands for "State Messaging (and) Archive Retrieval Toolset." All in all, it's like Microsoft Outlook on steroids. The State Department has been around for awhile, and the idea of sending 'cables' between posts and back to Washington is certainly not a new one. A few years ago, it changed from a "received, printed, and hand delivered" system into an "integrated into your desktop" system. Fortunately for us IMSers, that means we no longer have to handle all cable traffic, and we can instead just set up filters to direct messages appropriately. Of course, if you're anything like me, you're probably asking why we need cables at all, hasn't e-mail pretty much filled that niche? Well, I'm glad you asked. Cables are more formal, searchable in a permanent archive, and represent 'official' communications. All in all, it's just one more facet of our job overseas.

Next week, Memorial Day and week one of Simulated Operations (SIMOPS).

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Week 11 of Training: Backups, Backups, BACKUPS!

Things are definitely coming to a close. We just wrapped up our week of training in the backup software we'll be using at post. First, let me just say that this is some of the most user friendly backup software I've ever used, short of VM snapshots. I mean, it'll be even better when we don't have to deal with tapes... but they're getting phased out as we speak, so that's something to look forward to! The course was mostly self-led-studying as we worked our way through the labs. Our instructor wrote the book, which was outstanding, and the class went pretty quickly. Many of us repeated the labs 'closed book' several times through the week and still had spare time to take care of errands.
On an unrelated note, I feel like I'm slowing down in my enthusiasm for our training. It's not that what we're doing now is any worse or less interesting... but I think everyone in my class is just... ready to go to post. I really feel for the folks that aren't leaving until August (or later)! Things are speeding up for my family, we've been scrambling to try to prepare for packout, nail down our flights, schedule the rest of our time in the US (between visiting family, people visiting us, and necessary errands) and we're even trying to hire household staff from departing officers in Chennai... It seems like we have so much to do, it's hard to keep up, and that doesn't even count our standard "chasing around a 1 year old" duties!

Well, as people keep telling me... it's not long now. They're probably right, 6 weeks still seems like a long time, but I imagine we'll be on the plane before I know it. Next week is dedicated to learning (how to be?) S.M.A.R.T., which is pretty much the system that replaced the system that replaced telegraphs... tune in next time?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our Housing Assignment is in!

It's official, we've been assigned a place to live in Chennai! Huzzah! It came with good and bad news. The good news is we're centrally located; have more bedrooms, bathrooms, and square footage than we've ever had before; and our apartment is currently being renovated! The bad news is, it won't be finished until a few weeks after we arrive... oh yeah, and even more egregious... there are currently no pictures. I guess we'll live, but it is always cool to scope out a place before you arrive! Anyway, after a bit of confusion (eventually cleared up by the General Services Office (GSO) employee that sent us the assignment), we were able to find the place on Google maps and voyeur it up (from a pretty low resolution) using Satellite view and "explore the area." There are a handful of restaurants and whatnot within easy walking distance (our first priority on the housing survey), so I was able to check out some of the local eateries (with websites). We were never really nervous about our housing, but it's nice to check that pre-departure box. Also, I am very excited to be 10-15 minutes from work, especially after the past few months of mind-shattering commuting.

I guess on a similar note, we have also scheduled the pack-out from our house. The government provides me with 10 days in a hotel prior to departure, and our pack-out actually falls on the first day of that time. That works out nicely, since it will allow us to pack up everything without having to worry about where we'll sleep. Now if we can just get everything organized for when the packers arrive...

Disclaimer: The picture is not an accurate portrayal of our future abode...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Week 10 of Training: Local Emergency and Evacuation Network VHF/UHF

Another week, another class down. This week we learned about Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radios. This is the range of frequencies used by cell phones and broadcast radio stations, but for our purposes are used for local communications (e.g. motor pool cars or radios used to communicate if the infrastructure in the host city goes belly up during an emergency). The FSI catalog describes the class as: 

"This course will train the Department's Information Resources Management operational and maintenance personnel in the operation programming, installation, and maintenance of VHF/UHF and Repeater deployed wireless systems overseas."

That's a pretty decent description of the learning aspects of the class. What it doesn't describe is the 'kid-in-a-candy-shop' atmosphere of a bunch of adults (I think...) playing with what, for all intents and purposes, were giant walkie-talkies in the classroom. Part of this was because the instructor was quite entertaining and part was because the course material (at the depth we were going) wasn't incredibly difficult, but either way, we had a good time. Oh yeah, and everyone passed, so we couldn't have been goofing off too much! 

PS: The picture is of a (mostly) unidirectional yagi antenna. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Chennai Consulate Attack

(Photo from AP)
Midway through my current class, "Local Emergency and Evacuation," seems like a great time to talk a little about... well, emergencies. In one of our many crisis management briefings, the instructor noted that one in three Foreign Service Officers will be evacuated from a post over the course of their career. At first I thought this was an exaggeration, but the more I hear, the more I believe it. It's important to remember that the State Department's number one mission overseas is to keep Americans safe.

To that end, it isn't just major events like the Arab Spring or Fukushima that cause evacuations. Often, evacuations are preemptive and very temporary. Anyway, this point really hit home in one of our briefings when the instructor referenced the Chennai consulate attack in 2012. The event was barely (if at all) reported in the US, because of the more serious events taking place in Benghazi and Syria at the time, but I found a couple Indian papers that reported on it. Essentially, a mob formed to protest the release of a movie (made in the US) criticizing Islam. In Chennai, the consulate was surrounded, there was some minor vandalism, and a few hours later local riot police broke up the mob. The chancellery wasn't breached and no one was hurt, but I'm sure it was no picnic for everyone inside. I'm a pretty level headed guy... but I still think I'll pass on experiencing this first hand, you know, if at all possible.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Week 9 of Training: FAST Backup Communications

I should start off by saying, while this is the course title pulled from the FSI catalog, I think they called it something else when we were in it. Anyway, this week was fairly general, if still important. We touched on the organization of Information Resource Management at post (the various position titles and their functions), processing the Diplomatic Pouch, how to destroy things at post and some basic security principals. Sadly there was a lot of review in this class from things we'd learned in previous classes. I think this is because these classes are all offered individually, not exclusively in our core training.

Anyway, we did get another field trip to break up the week and we got to learn how to smash computer-y things! What could be better than that?! A brief note on the picture: This actually isn't considered effective for destroying a hard drive... you have to degauss it first. Of course, I wouldn't want to do this to my own hard drives and expect to be able to recover anything worthwhile.