First Afghan female coders bring it on with ‘Fight against Opium’ game

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The Herat girls-only computer programming school, Code to Inspire, was the brainchild of Fereshteh Forough, who was born an Afghan refugee in Iran and only returned to Herat after the 2001 fall of the Taliban. (AP)
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Afghan female coders practice at the Code to Inspire computer training center in Herat province. (AP)
Updated 06 February 2018
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First Afghan female coders bring it on with ‘Fight against Opium’ game

HERAT, Afghanistan: A group of young Afghan women in the deeply conservative western Herat province is breaking traditional barriers as their war-torn country’s first female coders in an overwhelmingly male-dominated tech field.
The game they created at the Code to Inspire computer training center in the city of Herat, the provincial capital, underscores Afghanistan’s struggle to eradicate vast opium poppy fields ruled by the Taliban.
For 20-year-old Khatera Mohammadi, one of the students at the center, it was more than just a game: “Fight against Opium” was based on her brother’s real-life experience years ago as a translator for US troops in Helmand province and the stories he told her.
“Each time he came back home, he would tell us about the poppy fields, the terrible mine blasts, battling opium traffickers and drugs,” Mohammadi recounted to The Associated Press.
She and her colleagues at the center thought that if they create a game, it would raise awareness, especially among the young. It’s not dropping bombs form planes or battling insurgent in the battlefields, but it’s a way to combat drugs — through a computer game.
In the game, with five supporting lives, an Afghan soldier mimics a real-life mission in Helmand to clear out drugs. The soldier encounters various obstacles in the process: the enemy hiding in tall corn fields, land mines, drug traffickers and hidden heroin labs.
Afghanistan is the world’s top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced. The country produces more opium than all other countries combined, according to UN estimates. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are where most of the poppy fields are and where the majority of the production takes place while Herat lies along a key smuggling route to neighboring Iran and beyond.
The Taliban, who have been waging war against the Afghan government since 2001, are heavily involved in poppy growing, which has increased in recent years, all but halting government eradication efforts.
Mohammadi says she and her teammates completed the game in one month and her brother was the first person she showed it to. She declined to give her brother’s name, fearing for his safety and the family’s because he worked with American soldiers.
Her dream, she says, is that one day the opium poppy would be replaced by the saffron crocus — so she put that in the game, having the soldiers encourage local poppy farmers to cultivate saffron instead.
“Saffron is more expensive and it would be better for the country,” she says.
The Herat girls-only computer programming school, Code to Inspire or CTI, was the brainchild of Fereshteh Forough, who was born an Afghan refugee in Iran and only returned to Herat after the 2001 fall of the Taliban. A former Herat university professor now living in the United States, she seeks to break gender barriers and empower girls to learn to code as a way to change their lives.
The school houses over 80 girls, both high school and university students. They learn to create their own websites, mobile applications, games and other web development projects.
“It’s not easy for a girl to find a job and go to work outside of her home in Afghanistan,” said Hasib Rassa, the CTI project manager. “Now, with just one laptop at home, she can work online and earn money and help her family.”
“The plan is to go big, to have more schools across Afghanistan,” he added.
As young Afghans increasingly use social media, 20-year-old Frahnaz Osmani, a student of graphic designer at the CTI, decided to develop Afghan female character stickers. Her stickers show a little girl in colorful traditional Afghan clothing, a red dress and a green headscarf, with the sticker messages in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages.
“I wanted the world to see that Afghan girls can do something, and that we can have our own creations,” she said.
For 18-year-old Samira Ansari, another student at the center, coding was an unfamiliar, strange word. Now, it’s a pathway to her dream of becoming a web designer — which she hopes to study after a two-year course at the center.
“When I first heard about coding, I laughed and wondered what it means,” she said.
“But when I found out that all these creative and skilled people designing websites had started from coding, I became very interested,” she said, breaking into a smile.


Game of Thrones reaches its end, with one or two shocks left

Updated 20 May 2019
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Game of Thrones reaches its end, with one or two shocks left

  • The last episode of the medieval fantasy based on the novels of George R.R. Martin ran roughly an hour and 20 minutes
  • The series had become the cornerstone of HBO’s primetime offerings, but its final season was also its most divisive

Warning: This story contains spoilers for the final episode of “Game of Thrones.”
After eight seasons and 73 episodes, HBO’s long-running smash series, “Game of Thrones,” wrapped up on Sunday, with one more shocking demise and an unlikely character named as king.
The last episode of the medieval fantasy based on the novels of George R.R. Martin ran roughly an hour and 20 minutes to conclude the storyline of more than a dozen characters and intertwining plots.
The fierce competition for the fictional Iron Throne — the seat for the show’s ruler, made of hundreds of swords — ended with a death and an unexpected choice to rule the fictional kingdom of Westeros.
The series had become the cornerstone of HBO’s primetime offerings, but its final season was also its most divisive, with both fans and critics finding specific plot twists, particularly the handling of one primary character, troubling.
HBO says the record-breaking final season drew 43 million viewers on average for each episode in the United States alone, an increase of 10 million over Season 7 in 2017.
Most notable in fans’ criticism was the malevolent turn by Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen, the “Dragon Queen,” who used her dragon to lay waste to the show’s fictional capital after her enemies had surrendered.
The move angered fans, as the episode, titled “The Bells,” now garners the weakest ratings of all episodes in the eight-season run on Rottentomatoes.com, which aggregates critics’ reviews.
Brutal acts by Clarke’s character in previous seasons were similar to those of other leaders, but many viewers saw the decision to kill tens of thousands of innocent people as too drastic, based on her previous actions.
The final episode features her death at the hands of Jon Snow, her lover (and nephew, among numerous incestuous relationships portrayed), played by Kit Harington, who kills her, fearing her tyranny merely mirrors that of predecessors.
Her last living dragon then burns the Iron Throne, melting it down with his fiery breath.
Without a ruler, numerous members of the show’s noble houses eventually make an unexpected choice of king, settling on Brandon Stark, played by Isaac Hempstead Wright.
In the premiere episode in 2011, Brandon was pushed from a high tower, crippling him, but awakening mystical powers that eventually allowed him to see the past and the future.
Some critics viewed the Sunday episode’s choice as odd, since Stark’s abilities implied he foresaw the events, including the deaths of thousands, that would leave him ruler.
“He’s got the whole history of Westeros stockpiled in his head, so how is he going to be able to concentrate on running a kingdom?” wrote Rebecca Patton on Bustle.com.
From its ragged beginnings — its original pilot was never aired, instead undergoing substantial re-shoots and recasting of several characters — the series became a cultural phenomenon.
Its budgets grew, with the last season’s cost running as high as $15 million per episode, Variety says. It also won numerous primetime television Emmy Awards, including three for “Best Drama.”
It became known for unexpected, nerve-wracking moments, including the first season’s death of Eddard Stark, the nobleman played by Sean Bean, highlighted in a marketing campaign, and Season 3’s “Red Wedding,” a massacre in fictional wars that author Martin based on medieval Scottish history.
HBO, owned by AT&T’s WarnerMedia, is already planning a prequel series, set thousands of years earlier, while creators Dan Weiss and David Benioff are scheduled to make the next series of “Star Wars” films.