Monday, February 28, 2005

aluminum welding in the developing world

When we first arrived here, I asked my bosses where the good machine shops were in town - you know, where we can get good work done. They pointed me to our machinist, KC, who runs the Jai Bagalamuki Engineering Workshop, and to the Balaju workshop, which was founded by the Swiss something like 25 years ago. I was informed there was no aluminum welding available. Aluminum welding became topical in the last couple of days because our current pedal-generator frame is too heavy.

About two weeks ago, Ewan and I were at the western-grade bike shop around the corner. One of their frames had a cheesed-up seat stay where the paint had been scraped away and there was an aluminum patch weld that must have been covering a crack. Two days ago, Ewan talked to those guys and they said there's this one place where you can get aluminum welding done in Kathmandu.

This morning, we set out to find that one place. We started by asking the bike shop guy where the shop was. Wouldn't that be easy if he could tell us an address, and then we could go there? Well, there are no street addresses in Nepal - none, so don't bother asking. About 5% of the streets have names. So navigation is via landmarks and neighborhoods' names. We went to the movie theater the bike guy said the shop was near, and started asking around. Every shop we went up to we said "aluminium welding?" and they pointed, like they were directing us on a mission.

Finally, we walked past a shop that had those distinctive aluminum welding rods against the wall. And then guy walked up. He was about 25; he wore hipster pants, polished black shoes with those long flat ends, an army jacket, and aviator sun glasses. This is the only man in Nepal that can weld aluminum, so we're told, and he's a 25-year-old snappy dresser. And get this, he does it with an oxy-acetalyne torch and mean flux, WWII-style.

We walked down the road, bought some aluminum e-channels, drew a box on a post-it, asked him to weld it together, got told it'll be 320 rupees since we're white, and that was the deal. Then we went down the street to get some potato chips and a cigarette from a 6-year-old kid running his mom's street stand. We came back to watch the welder since they'd done the fit-up by then, and a half-hour later, we had these welds:

Cheesy - for sure, but for now they hold. He had a guy holding the e-channels together when he welded them - this is a country where fixtures cost rupees, but there's a 47% unemployment rate, according to the CIA factbook.

The stick welding in Nepal is lousy - they don't hot-box their electrodes and there's a monsoon season, so the sticks are rusted before they're used. The training and machines are about as bad. About 10% of the welders use masks, the rest close their eyes and go for it. And the electrodes are Indian to begin with. So let's say a stick-weld done at a good shop like KC's is about 50% the strength it could be ideally. I wonder whether these aluminum welds are 50% of the strength they could be under ideal circumstances. Probably not. I don't think he got any penetration at the root - looks like he bridged the two legs together.

Monday, February 21, 2005


This weekend, we went to Bhaktapur. There are new pictures of the trip in the Around Kathmandu section of the photo gallery. Bhaktapur is the third major city in the Kathmandu Valley, besides Kathmandu and Patan. Wow, was it calm and pretty. It wasn't any more striking than, say, Patan, but it was just so much calmer that it was decidedly different. The brochure you get at the tourist office includes the statement, paraphrased here, 'If you travel to Asia and visit not a single other place than Baktapur Durbar Square, then the journey is well worth it'. Laying it on a little thick, guys.

It costs 750 rupee to enter the city, as it's considered to be 'a historical city' for busloads of tourists. That's about USD10. This is pretty funny, because the tourist gates that enforce the ticket thing are only at about five of the 100 roads into the tourist part of the city. They say there are random spot checks of tourists for passes,but we never got shaken down like that. Nice paper:

The Bhaktapur Durbar Square was very nice. Nini's guidebook, The Rought Guide to Nepal, which I think is much better than the flashy Lonely Planet book I have, said part of the movie Little Buddha was filmed there. The movie made a bunch of false-fronts to obscure modern buildings and paid the whole city off to close their businesses for a few days and 'look ancient'. We rented the movie last night - Keanu Reeves is the Buddha. This is not an endorsement of the film.

When you pay your 750 rupees, you get a pass that's good for one day. If you ask the man at the gate whether that can be extended, he says yes - it can be extended for up to one week on the spot. He then asks how long we would like it to be extended. We looked at him a little puzzled and said 'how about one week then?'. So he stamped it as good for one week instead of one day. Then we ask if it can be extended for longer. He responds that if you bring your passport and two passport-sized photos, you can fill out a one-page form and have it be good for one year. But neither the one-week nor the one-year no-cost extensions are advertised or offered - you have to ask.

This sort of system reminds me of getting a visa for Russia. When you get a visa for Russia, you have a number of option before you for how long the processing will take. The options are worded like 'no less than two weeks' for something like USD30, 'no more than three days' for around USD150, and 'next business day' for about USD280. Notice that the first option is not 'within two weeks', it's 'not less than two weeks'. The processing might take fifteen days, but then again, you might not get it until the Rapture - either one would be more than two weeks away. Gets you a little scared, doesn't it? Thinking about the three day option, aren't you?

We also went to the National Art Gallery, right off the Durbar Square. The brochure begins with the statement that "This museum has not been able to function as National Art Museum due to lack of space and management':

Friday, February 18, 2005

it's Democracy Day - celebrate it, now!

If one said that I write a lot on the blog when the blog's not available, then one would be correct. Such a metaphor, such a cliche. Today we have no communication lines. It's Democracy Day - three day weekend. This holiday's existed since 1950 when the (then) king granted a parliament be formed. The holiday is being celebrated with a military parade at the Tundikal, which is like Central Park in Kathmandu. The king is there, and it is quite an event for him to be seen in public - at least since I've been here. I biked into Kathmandu to get some electronics parts, and saw it. Boy were there a lot of soldiers. I assume the phones being cut is part of the heavy security.

On the bike ride into town, traffic was at times sparse, and at other times incredibly gridlocked. A bike is always a great way to get around Kathmandu. Since there are, for practical purposes, no traffic laws, a bike is just the kind of maneuverable thing to have. Today a siren blipped behind me. That's the cue to get to the side of the road as soon as possible because there will be two truckloads of bulletproof-vest wearing soldiers with a car in the middle with blacked out windows and - I assume - someone very important. Those convoys don't stop for anyone. Later, a bus with a bad clutch kept rolling forward downhill behind me in a traffic jam and began to push my bike over and crush the rear wheel under the bus's bumper. I got off and pulled the bike out as soon as possible. The wheel seems okay.

For the last ten days, we've had all internet communications up. Cell phones are still down, and will stay down for quite some time, it's said.

My last posts alluded to the US Embassy doing a shoddy (non-existent) job for its citizens during the one-week coup and communications cut. But, to my surprise, I got an email on the 9th inviting me to a 'town hall' meeting with the US ambassador on the 10th. It was scheduled to be held at the swanky US fitness club, which is across from the royal palace - oddly. I can't get in there normally, but I'd gone twice before with my bosses who are members. The Pakistani ambassador was there then. It's swanky.

I went to the meeting, and boy was I underwhelmed. When you think about the heavily-guarded US embassy you walk by, and how that building is an agent of the most powerful government on Earth, you assume there are some people in there who've really got it together. That was the same kind of assumption I carried into working at NASA. In actuality, these organizations - like any large group - have their fair share of the underwhelming and undermotivated. Now let's imagine you're the US State Department. How much can you really tell about future performance when hiring people? So you get your fair share of the underwhelming and undermotivated, like everywhere else. But the thing about being the US State Department is that you can put these people very, very far away. They call it 'stationing'. You could put them where they can't do much harm and where you will surely not have to deal with them very often. How about, say, Brazil? No, no... way too important - G8 and everything. I know, how about we put them in the developing world: Nepal.

From what was shared at the town hall meeting of about two hundred American expatriots, it looks like the US embassy doesn't have any more insight on what's going on in the country than the BBC does. They do, however, have a good deal of insight on the king's actions, as the ambassador and he speak often. One rather large thing the ambassador did not mention was that, in five days, he would be recalled to Washington. India, the UK, the EU, and the US have all recalled their ambassadors in response to the king throwing out democracy. I do not know much about international deplomacy, but that seems like a very big deal.

Work has been good. Since our bosses left, Ewan and I have both been working on the human-powered-generator / LED-lighting system. I've been designing a two-stage 6V batter charger that can take a lot of abuse. We hooked the 6V battery backwards yesterday, and the charger cut-out as planned in about two seconds, without damaging the electronics. It even lit up an LED to tell you it's in backwards. You can also leave the batteries in the charger indefinitely without damaging them, and the input voltage can be pretty dirty. I'm pretty happy with the circuit, but it's taking longer than I'd anticipated.

Monday, February 07, 2005

back in it

It's been a week since the international phone lines and internet access were cut, with no word on when they'd come back. But tonight we came back from dinner, and the internet connection just worked. Today was the first day that the domestic phone lines were up all day. I guess the King-imposed communications-blackout is over. A friend of mine over at noted an article from India that was published on February 1st about the lockdown.

We'll never know the story of the US embassy shooting me down about a satellite phone call home. The last four posts were written off-line and back-dated when I uploaded them (which is right now).

Sunday, February 06, 2005

US embassy, on the ball

I went into town today for some electronic parts and to see the US embassy. I found out yesterday that the British embassy was letting UK citizens use their satellite phone to call home. Talk about upping the game: satellite phones. They're around USD1.5 per minute to use, and the phone itself is pretty big and costs something like USD1000, but a king can't shut them down. I doubt the US embassy is remotely as magnanimous as their British counterparts, but my mother's probably freaking out I've been incommunicado, so it's worth a shot. Hey, I have a better chance than if I were a citizen of some country that doesn't have an embassy here - say, Tonga. But when I got there, the place was locked up tight, with a sign that said citizen services are 1:00PM-4:00PM Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There was a notice on the door addressed to all US citizens, dated February 1, that said US citizens should maintain a low profile and stay updated on the news by going to the State Department's website or by calling the embassy's Kathmandu hotline phone number. Way to go US embassy, real helpful. There's no internet and no phones and there haven't been since the notice was put on the door - that's why I'm standing here, jackass.

The electronics store was a better experience - the guy who speaks Russian asked if my circuit worked, and whether I needed a few more parts to tune it up. Nice place.

A couple days ago, looking through the tools cabinet at the office, Ewan found a bathroom spring scale. We both weighed ourselves, and it said I'm 93 kg [205 lbs.]. Now who knows when the last was the scale was sent to NIST for calibration, but give or take two kilos, I've still lost a lot of weight. Last time I weighed mysefl was mid-October when we got back from our trek to Annapurna. Our machinist, KC, told me I had gotten thin, and put me on his foundry scale. It said I was 99 kilos [218 lbs.]. I bet when I came to Nepal, I was around 105 kilos - that's was a big fine 231 pounds. Have I lost 12 kilos? Best shape of my life.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Nagarjun and kids playing doom

Today was a good day. There are still no phone lines, and I'm still writing off-line. I got up early, for a Saturday, at 9:00AM and listened to the BBC. The Iranian vice-president was giving an interview. Wow was she articulate (in English). She made George Bush Junior look like a bad high school speech-and-debate team member. Her argument for an Iranian nuclear power was that currently their country is using half of its oil production for domestic power, and that this oil would be far more valuable on the international market. She claimed Iran is a democracy and the US is against any democracy that isn't pro-America. The interviewer had some reservations about calling Iran a 'democracy'. The VP also stated that she believes the US is still sore with Iran over 1979, when the US embassy in Tehran was taken over and its occupants held hostage for 444 days. She was one of the organizers of that situation, and claimed they held the embassy because they believed the US was going to try to reinstall the previous government, using the embassy as a point to do that. She dodged the interviewer's questions about any feelings of remorse about that, saying it was a political movement, and didn't have anything to do with the comfort, or lack thereof, of the hostages for over a year. Kind of bone-chilling.

I went out to get bread this morning, and thought the phones may be back when I walked past the phone/internet/VCD store around the corner and saw there were people in it. I went in to find out that, lacking any internet hookup, the guy who ran the place was letting the local kids use the computers to play a big game of doom or quake or half-life, or whatever the kinds are playing now. I guess the computers weren't making money otherwise. I bet the kids were getting a good hourly rate.

We went to Nagarjun today. It's a hill-top temple 1000 meters above Kathmandu. I don't have any pictures, because there was a 3000 rupee (~USD45) charge for bringing a camera. I make USD5 per day. Without a camera, the admission was just 10 rupees. The sign said if you ride an elephant, it's 400 rupees. It's a strictly BYOE situation, which makes me wonder how often that comes up. We walked up the path that Ewan biked up last weekend with a Norwegian guy he met the previous week named Tron - like the movie. I was given a flower at the top by a Nepali guy who pointed out it was a rhododendron, which is Nepal's national flower. I thought that incident was a little odd. The forest on the way up was mostly rhododendrons, which will be flowering in about a month. The view was great, and so was the air. You could see all of Kathmandu and Patan. It was hazy enough that you couldn't see the Himalayas though, which is too bad, because at that altitude, the other foothills don't obscure the mountains as they do in Kathmandu.

The airport's open. We saw the Thai Air flight taking off at 2:00PM, like it usually does every day.

Friday, February 04, 2005

no communication, no news of situation in press

So the King threw out the government and cut all phone lines on Tuesday. It's Friday, and we still have no communication. I considered writing a blog post last night - to no one in particular since I'm offline, but I think such a post would have just said "everything's the same as it was on Tuesday". I'm sure my parents are worried about me. I would call to say I'm fine, but I can't. For the record, I should note that I believe I'm in no more personal danger now than I've ever been here (which is less danger than assumed on a night out drinking back home).

The last two nights, the king's allowed the phones to come online for an hour in the evening. 'So why haven't you called your parents or emailed them then?' you may ask. Well, even though the phones come up, the internet service providers stay off. So no email. I can't say whether international phone calls are possible or not, because the system's always busy when you try to dial internationally. Either everyone else is trying to make international phone calls during that one-hour window each night, or only domestic calls are possible. If I was with the UN or an INGO, I could probably swing a couple minutes on a satellite phone. I hear they have those kind of things. The rumor is that the land-line phones will come back 100 hours after the king threw out the government and cut communication - that would be in the morning if it's true, but who says it is true? That same word on the street says cell phones will stay off for a month - I guess cell phones are considered more a tool of political dissidents than are land lines.

The last couple of days have been pretty normal - routine wise - except for there being no phones or internet access. My bosses left the country on Monday for America. They're going to see their grandchildren and the rest of the family for a month. Did I mention the international airport's been closed since Tuesday as well (it may have opened today, I haven't checked)? So they got out in the knickerbockers of time. The boss's parting words upon leaving was that he wanted the pedal generator and white-LED lighting system to really move along, so now I'm on that in addition to Ewan. Building these circuits is pretty rewarding, you know - making them robust. The good electronics store in Kathmandu is open, and the guy who works there speaks English very well (and also Russian, oddly). So I've been doing that at work: building circuits in the garage, collaborating with Ewan, running some numbers, and repeating. It's good.

The newspapers don't have anything to say about the current political situation. I hear a number of television stations have been cut in the last two days, as have the Nepali-language radio news stations. They've left the music stations on, including the grating Hindi music and ubiquitous station named "Hits FM". I've been listening to the Nepali BBC for news. The word on the street was that it got taken off of FM for a while yesterday, but it worked tonight. Even if it's taken off of FM, it's still there on shortwave - I think that may come in from India. Listening to shortwave is an exercise in walking around looking for place where you can get the signal, and then gyrating the antenna while fiddling with the tuner. I need to look more into how shortwave works, but it seems to go a very, very long distance. I picked up a station in Russian on Wednesday - I assume that's coming from one of the stans.

I think this political situation is going to make me miss calling Margaret Mason on her twenty-first birthday, which is tomorrow. Even if the phones come back, the phone call's a no-go. The only place I have the phone number stored is in a message on gmail. This is a downside of centralized data storage - no provisions for the loss of infrastructure.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

King Throws Out Democracy, All Communications Cut

What a disconcerting last post I made. It was around 11:00PM last night that I posted about the embassy wanting our apartment's GPS coordinates 'in case of earthquakes'. I noted that the request being about earthquakes probably had the same amount of truth as the statement 'terrorists attack us because they hate our freedom'. This morning, February 1st, the king fired the government and imprisoned the ministers. I overslept and missed it. Two nights ago there was a mouse keeping me awake in my room, running around the floor and headboard and once across my face. Then last night there was something eating at the cardboard we stuffed under the kitchen door to stop mice from getting in and I heard that all night. Anyway, I overslept.

I got up at 11:00, and decided I should call work because I hadn't shown up. There was no water and the phone was dead, but we had electricity. I thought that was odd. Sometimes we don't have electricity, or we need to turn the water pump on. But the phones haven't gone out before, and there was no water in the underground reservoir outside. I left the apartment to go to work, and the weather was strange - it was bright and the air was crisp, like it would rain. I went down the street to the internet/phone place, and their phone was dead too. When I got to work, I heard the government had been thrown out and the king has declared a state of emergency. Our manager filled us in and told us to go home. So we'll be home for a couple days. On the way home, there were the same number of soldiers as usual, but there were also two tanks on the main road between work and home. I should note that I'm writing this post offline - I'll put it up whenever the phones come back.

It's not just the land-line phones that have been cut, the cell phone system has also been shut down. All but one of the internet service providers have been shut down (cutting the phone lines already cut-off 95% of people's internet access, but there also exists high-speed cable/wireless access that only internet cafes can afford). We're expecting this last ISP to be shut down shortly too. This is a lot more concerning to me than anything else that's happened while I've been here. I'm told CNN and the BBC were cut-off for parts of the morning, but other than that, the television and radio stations are still working. I have a hand-held radio and tuned into the BBC, but it's all in Nepali today (it's usually half Nepali, half English). Our landlord's filled us in on what the radio's saying. Cutting all lines of interpersonal telecommunications is a real strong-arm move. It will squelch the organization of protestors, but it's also the first thing you do when you start a war to throw off opposition forces.