Dushanbe (Tajikistan) –A New Jersey network engineer is on a mission to send some love and care – of the digital kind – to Americans stationed overseas. Going by his hacker handle ‘Deviant Ollam’, he’s been sending out hard drives filled with popular movies, television shows and music for over a year. Dubbed the Traveling Terabyte Project (TTB), the drives have seen action in war-torn countries and one set is now making a small contingent of Marines very happy in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
Like many projects, the TTB was created almost accidentally after Deviant lost many of his files from a catastrophic hard drive crash. He bought replacement drives and members of the Defcon hacking community came together to help replace some of the lost files. Deviant ended up with some drives and came up with an idea.
“I’ve got this extra storage and thought ‘what could I do with it?’. It didn’t really make sense to put the disks into my already hugely ridiculous raid array.”
In a flash of inspiration, he copied gigabytes of media files to the extra drives, packaged them inside an olive-drab Pelican case and shipped the whole thing out to a close group of friends stationed overseas. “You can’t really put the drives in bubble wrap and throw them in the mail,” said Deviant. And since the drives are going to war zones, it seemed appropriate to paint the hard drive enclosures olive drab green as well.
You can think of the drives, along with international power adapters and USB cables, as the ultimate care package. Some would consider it the modern day equivalent of what Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 owners used to do by swapping cartridges and disks through the mail. “It’s like sneaker net, combined with air transport,” said Deviant.
Deviant encourages users of the TTB to share their own pictures, music and other files by filling up the empty space on the drives. “I have a very open door policy about sharing. If there’s something interesting, and there’s room, feel free to share,” said Deviant. He adds that once people receive the drives they often have an “overwhelming and second nature” desire to add files.
But all that sharing has its price because Deviant will sometimes find horribly disorganized folders when the TTB eventually makes it back home.
“I tend to be and always have been big about data structure and arrangement. Sometime’s the drives come back with a folder just called Bob’s stuff, with everything crammed into it. I’ll spend all night categorizing all the extra content.”
All the extra files eventually filled up the drives, so Deviant procured some more drives and made a 2nd Travelling Terabyte box. He also split up the content into an educational and an entertainment drive.
“At first it was an even 50/50 split between entertainment and educational, but now the entertainment drive is more popular,” said Deviant. With all the new file donations, he might even have to split the entertainment box into drives containing television episodes, music and other videos.
One of those drives has made it all the way to the Marines stationed at the American embassy in Dushanbe Tajikistan. US Army Master Sergeant Robert McLaughlin delivered the drives to the embassy just to prove that the TTB project was real. McLaughlin, who is also the embassy’s Deputy Chief in the Office of Defense Cooperation, told us, “The guys here thought it was an urban legend.”
Despite the home-made nature of the project, the Marines at the embassy have been impressed with its construction. “It looks professional, like something from a company,” Marine Staff Sergent Jerel Swain told us during a crackly, two-second delayed, telephone conversation.
Unlike the United States where fast Internet connections and good phone service are almost universal, the technology infrastructure in Tajikistan leaves much to be desired. The Marines must deal with spotty phone connections that can cost up to five dollars a minute along with extremely slow Internet transfers.
“If I wanted to download my favorite album, like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I would just let the computer sit overnight,” said Swain.
Along with the slow Internet, embassy personnel have to deal with slow postal mail and an almost non-existent local electronics market. Swain told us that Amazon.com will deliver books and movies, but that it’s incredibly expensive and packages take about three weeks to arrive. There are no Costcos, Wal-Marts or Best Buy stores around and the one movie store in town only sells Russian language movies.
Compared to the slow Internet, the speed and convenience of the drives have proven to be a big morale booster. “There must be a couple thousand shows and movies on these drives. My favorites are all the classic James Bond movies,” Swain said, but he adds that he’s now become a big fan of Japanese anime cartoons that are also on the drives.
“It’s absolutely great, everything is all in one place and it’s unbelievably easy to use. I don’t have to go through the Internet. Everything is just a quick cut and paste away.”
Eventually, Deviant would like to deploy dozens of Traveling Terabyte boxes around the world. He also would like to set up a website and forum where people could put in file requests and even vote on material to add or delete. In true geek fashion, he thinks some type of routing system or protocol would be needed to give priority to people who want to upload files.
Sending out that many boxes would obviously require extra hard drives and cases and so far Deviant hasn’t asked any of the drive makers for help. “I’m not sure how they would react to this project, but I wouldn’t turn down free hardware,” he said.
Staff Sergeant Swain and his fellow Marines plan on keeping the TTB for a few more months and then they will send it off to another service member. Speaking on behalf of his team, he told us that the drives have made an insane place, just a little more bearable. He hopes that TTB concept takes off and that more people start making and sending their own versions.
“Some of these countries there's not a whole lot of technology and we don’t get many care packages. I think the majority of people do understand our situation, but there’s not a lot of action and not enough people doing something about it.”