Sunday, March 27, 2011


I was good and productive yesterday. I ran all the needed errands and completed the week's grocery shopping, so I declared today a Pajama Day. The rules for Pajama Day are simple: no leaving the apartment for any reason short of life-or-death situations, like a fire or something. Spending all day in one's pajamas is optional, but if you aren't going anywhere why wouldn't you?

Anyway, I neglected to make any plans for today's lunch in the grocery shopping and going out was out of the question due to the aforementioned Pajama Day regulations, so I had to root around in the fridge and see what I could come up with. What I could come up with was a concoction I'm calling Panini Florentine: toasted bread with melted fontina, sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers, bacon, a smear of pesto and a still-runny-center fried egg in the middle. It was damn delicious and I'm pretty pleased with myself. Maybe I should reconsider my no-brunch-party policy.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Everything's Better With Puns

This week of consular training (ConGen) isn't quite as interesting for me as last week was. This week we're learning about immigrant visas, which involve lots of legalese and paper-pushing. (Yeah I know, I work for the government, I should get used to it.) But more importantly Embassy Conakry doesn't process immigrant visas - prospective Guinean immigrants have to go to Senegal - so it doesn't have much to do with my future actual job. I still have to pass the exam at the end of the section though, so I'm doing my best to pay close attention.

One thing I really like about ConGen is the combination of serious content and whimsical structure. Deciding who can enter the country and who can't is a big responsibility. There are plenty of laws and other resources to advise our choices, but in the end someone has to make a call and frequently that someone will be me. It's a sobering thought. And so I really appreciate it when ConGen breaks up the tension by naming a fictional visa petitioner Ivan A. Knicewyfe.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Guinea Update

Remember that country I'm supposed to move to in two months and a bit? The one I haven't blogged about since December? What's it called again? Oh right, Guinea.

When we last saw our heroes, they had just wrapped up their first democratic elections ever after 50 years of despoilment under one rapacious dictator or another. So how are things going now? As it happens, not so well. As a result of the aforementioned despoilment, the new government is broke and saddled with significant debt. The government has yet to come to an agreement with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to restart the flow of development dollars. The price of rice, the staple food of the Guinean diet, has risen by 60 percent since before the elections. The army is oversized and undisciplined. Ethnic tensions persist. While refugee flows from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire have been minimal so far, that may change at any time.

Given the state of the country President Conde inherited it's hardly surprising that Guinea hasn't become a terrestrial paradise over the past four months. However, I would have liked to have seen a stronger beginning than this. Democracy doesn't solve problems; it only provides a framework to help societies find solutions. But with many of Guinea's problems seemingly getting worse instead of better, how long before Guineans start wondering if this whole democracy thing wasn't really a mistake after all?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

A brief history of the Congolese space program. Yes, really.
Test your geographic skills with Globetrotter XL
Blind artist paints by touch. People like this make me feel inadequate.
How would you do in the Victorian Era? I did okay as a man but totally bombed as a woman.
Strandbeests: amazing kinetic sculpture
Printable kidneys. The future is now:

Why I'm single:

Monday, March 14, 2011

This Land Is Your Land (Maybe)

Today was Day 2 of consular training, where I will be spending the next seven weeks. I'm loving it already. Today we talked about U.S. citizenship and how to determine if someone is born a citizen or not, which is much more complicated than you might expect. Most of the confusion arises from children born to U.S. citizens abroad - the law is very complex and has changed several times - but even determining the status for children born the United States can be tricky.

As with all things legal, it all comes down to definitions. What is "The United States," exactly? Are you a citizen through jus soli if you're born in Guam? (Yes) American Samoa? (No) An airplane in U.S. airspace? (Yes) Guantanamo Bay? (No) A ship in U.S. territorial waters? (Yes unless it's a foreign government vessel, in which case no) A U.S. embassy or military base abroad? (No)

One case that came up in class that no one had an answer for was the citizenship status of children born to Haitian women on the USNS Comfort, a naval medical vessel moored in Haitian waters after last year's earthquake. Naval vessels are considered little floating pieces of sovereign soil in some other contexts, but how about citizenship? I did some research this afternoon and found a precedent: another Haitian woman gave birth to a child on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in the Bahamas in 1988. The child got U.S. citizenship, so that sounds like a yes to me.

[EDIT 3/15 - After getting to a library, I was able to find a comment on the case including a copy of a memo written the day after the article linked above in which the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) determined that the child in question was NOT eligible for citizenship, despite their earlier statements. The INS decision was upheld in the mother's asylum hearing in 1989.]

We also talked about citizenship issues related to both 2008 presidential candidates and learned the rules relating to sperm donation, IVF, surrogate pregnancies and all that sort of thing - for citizenship transfer purposes the "parents" are the people the egg and sperm came from. Isn't this fascinating? I'm going to rock at this.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

That Was Then, This Is Now

Today is a stunning spring day in Washington, but I am not enjoying it as much as I ought to be because there was an earthquake in Japan.

Until last summer I worked in USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Catastrophes were my job. And even now nothing sets off alarm bells and trumpet calls in my head quite like the word "earthquake." I took my turn working on the Haiti earthquake response last year - 12 hour days, 7 days a week for a month. I made spreadsheets and took meeting notes and wrote memos and talking points, so it's not like I can take any personal credit for anything good that happened in Haiti after the quake, but I still felt like I had made a contribution.

Nowadays earthquakes are not my job. My job is to sit in a classroom five days a week and learn how to be a consular officer. So when things like this happen I can't really do much more than watch the footage and send in some money (Cash is best!), like all the other people in the world in non-disaster-related professions. I miss feeling like I did something good for humanity. On the other hand, my friends at OFDA aren't enjoying this perfect spring day either because they're hard at work saving lives, alleviating human suffering, and so forth, and doing a fantastic job as always I'm sure. They get to be awash with happy do-good feelings but they'd probably really like to have a weekend as well.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Worst Case Scenario

Today's training entertainment was the Security Overseas Seminar, also known as Every Bad Thing That Could Ever Happen to You Overseas and Probably Will At Some Point, and How to Minimize the Damage, When Possible, Which It Isn't Always. I had taken this class before for my last job so I expected to be underwhelmed, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. There were lots of real-life examples, with video footage even, which was much more engaging than the usual PowerPoint slides. I even learned some new things about fire, rape, terrorist attacks, and explosions. Did you know that powdered sugar is an explosive material?

However, I did still find it a sobering experience, which is a major part of the reason we're required to take this course. Life is risky, and it only becomes more so when you take a job like mine and stop being Joe Schmoe and start being The United States of America.  When I got home to my Google Reader this vintage Calvin and Hobbes strip put in an appearance, which I felt was particularly appropriate:

Tomorrow: counterintelligence, WMD, and hostage survival! Oh boy!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wearing the Pants

Yesterday I took advantage of a Frenchless Friday and a good sale at the Limited ($100 off a suit, runs through tomorrow) to go shopping. This is always a pretty frustrating process for me as I am not built according to clothing industry standards, so everything I buy that's more complex than a simple T-shirt needs extensive tailoring before it actually fits properly. This means that clothes shopping is less about trying things on to see how they fit than trying things on to see how easily they can be adapted to be made to fit later, which requires much more imagination.

While I was at the mall I found myself casting longing glances at assorted pencil skirts and cute office dresses. I particularly love a good work dress - one piece and you're done, no tuck-or-untuck condundrums - but sadly Guinea's sartorial customs are apparently more conservative then ours. I'd rather not start my career off by sparking an international incident with my scandalous calves, so I'll have to limit myself to pantsuits. However, I now feel much, much friendlier to the pantsuit after reading this hilarious piece by fellow FS blogger Four Globetrotters. Seriously, laughing-so-hard-I-can't-breathe funny. Here's an excerpt, but you really must read the whole thing:

Ever tried to get into an SUV while wearing a too-small mid-calf skirt suit?  After trying in vain to lift my leg more than three inches off the ground, I looked around and, assured that I wasn't being observed, hiked up my skirt as far as I could and made it into the SUV.  I was met by the amused gaze of the Ambassador who had, unbeknownst to me, entered the vehicle while I was trying to figure out how to get in.  I stammered some sort of greeting at him and tried not to make further eye contact.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Judgment Day

Tomorrow is my French exam. The one for all the marbles. I'm a little nervous but not terrified. At this point I feel like I do have 3/3 French; I just don't always have it on me. As long as I remember to pack my 3/3 French and bring it with me to the test tomorrow everything should go fine. And if not, the worst that will happen is that I'll have to spend another month in DC getting paid to go to school. Quelle horreur!

EDIT, March 3rd:
3/3+! Huzzah!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
- James Nicoll

This is one of the things I love best about English, but I must admit there there is significant pillaging left to do. Other tongues still have wonderfully useful words and phrases that we should hunt down and graft onto English, the Borg of modern languages. We've stripped a lot of good stuff off of French since 1066, but even after all this time there are a few gems left in French that English has not yet absorbed. My primary candidate for immediate assimilation is "si."

If I were to say to you, "the Packers didn't really win the Superbowl this year" in English you have the choice of two brief responses to correct my shameful ignorance: yes or no. But both of these have a clarity problem - yes they did win the Superbowl, or yes, I'm correct, they did not? No they didn't win or no they did? In French the proper response to this question is "si," which says in one very short syllable, "the negative statement you have just made is incorrect and its opposite is true." Ripe for the picking.

I'd also like to annex "revenons à nos moutons," an idiomatic expression which means "let's get back to what we were talking about before" but translates literally to "let's get back to our sheep." I just think it's cute.