Friday, May 27, 2011

Outside of a Dog

I am a book person. I love books. Love them. I love reading them of course, but I also love seeing them neatly and colorfully arrayed on my giant bookshelf. I love the crisp crack of a brand new hardcover opened for the first time. I love the gentle susurration of pages turning in a well-thumbed paperback. I love raised lettering and deckled edges and the velvet softness of well-aged paper. I love the dusty, musty smell of old books - breathe deeply on entering a used book store and you'll know the one I mean.

Thus it is with some remorse that I finally joined the 21st century and bought a Kindle.

In an ideal world I would have a house with a Henry Higgins-style library, with a fireplace and overstuffed armchairs and a second level reached by a wrought iron spiral staircase and the whole thing stuffed with books. In the real world this ain't gonna happen. Not only does junior officer-level government housing not generally come quite so well appointed, trying to move all the books every two to three years would be a total nightmare. I have already been advised that the upcoming packout of my half of our modest apartment is likely to take a full day primarily due to the sheer quantity of literature involved. Clearly I can't really keep acquiring books at my present rate. Hence, the Kindle.

My new Kindle will certainly lack some of the sensory joys of the old-fashioned paper-based format (it's also rather less well suited to reading in the bath) but for portability it's beyond compare, and portability is something I need. Perhaps I'll feel better about it if I spray the cover with a little paperback cologne.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Friendship of Utility

I've never been what one would call a "people person." People are tremendously complicated, unpredictable, and sometimes baffling and infuriating. However, I've now gotten myself into a career where dealing with people is a significant portion, perhaps the majority, of the job. (It seems like all jobs these days require dealing with people or very advanced math. Given the choice between the two I'll take the people any day.)

Fortunately, my pol/econ tradecraft class has a session for that. It probably ought to be called "How to Win Friends and Influence People" but is in fact entitled "Managing Contacts." We learned how many we should have (somewhere between 10 and 150) and were reminded to give them a card or a phone call every so often to keep them happy. We were informed as to how we might entertain them on the embassy's dime but advised that there were not so many dimes available so we should keep our plans modest. Apparently in diplomatic circles Americans are notorious for penny-pinching.

It reminded me of the social interactions system in the Sims: if two people spend enough time together and get enough little green plus signs they can do more interesting things. Things like nudging along negotiations or getting visa referrals. I'll have to work on this.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Life has been pretty dull around here for a while. My current training adventure is political/economic tradecraft, which has so far failed to excite. In any case, with departure in 21 days and counting I'm a little distracted, and that's why you get your TILOTI early this month. You're welcome.

Accent shifts. Bonus: an interview with Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors ever.
Applied physics: the buttered cat paradox.
Reading changes you (I).
Reading changes you (II).
NECROPANTS. Warning: if you had problems with last month's story on fig wasps, DO NOT click this link.
Robots evolve altruism.
The Death Star: a cost-benefit analysis
Religion as explained by science

Your '90s Childhood in Four Minutes:

Oscar Wilde does Jersey Shore:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Some of you have heard me say this before, but that's because it's true: going out to post is a lot like Oregon Trail. Unlike my previous international moves where I had to shrink my life down to two suitcases, thanks to the miracle of Uncle Sam-provided shipping I get to take everything I have, and then some. I am loading up the wagon with everything I think I might need to start a new life in a distant land, far away from shopping malls and Whole Foods.

The exact items are a bit different. I've decided to skip the extra wagon wheels and axles in favor of 220 volt kitchen appliances. I did buy some new clothes, but I'm not planning on trading them for help crossing a river. In a move completely against the Oregon Trail ethos I have elected not to bring any ammunition at all, mostly because I do not anticipate coming across many packs of Oreos and cases of Shiner Bock roaming wild across the plains. I'll have to bring my favorite foods with me.

I'm putting off the big Costco run until the very end since we don't have much in the way of extra space in the apartment, but I'm making up the list now. It keeps getting longer and longer but I'm still afraid I'll find myself in Guinea one day lamenting, "if only I had thought to bring some _______!" If you were moving to Guinea for two years what would you bring? For those of you who have spent a lot of time overseas, what did you miss? Difficulty: must be non-perishable and able to survive a long trip in a shipping container and at least a couple of days of tropical heat at the port.

Another way moving to Guinea may be like Oregon Trail:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust?

Another one of my favorite bloggers just got a book deal. I greet this news with foreboding. On the one hand, when someone produces content that I and a whole lot of other people like I am happy for them to be offered the opportunity to turn their content into cold hard cash. They do good work, and they should have a chance to get paid for it. Google ad revenue only goes so far.

However, in my experience a book deal means that the blog in question suffers. The author, with their time and attention occupied by new book-related things, starts posting a lot less and/or quits posting about whatever it was that made me like their blog in the first place and starts posting about their book: the writing process, the editing process, the publication process, going on book tours, etc. It's natural for them to be excited about these things, but I DON'T CARE. The blog slowly but inevitably turns from a source of happymaking content to just another place to promote their book, and I quit reading it. It makes me sad.

Fortunately, this is a problem my blog will never have.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Vicarious Tourism: San Marino

Between a certain wedding and a certain funeral I picked a hell of a weekend to go on vacation. I spent it in Bologna, eating, drinking, and making making merry with my grad school classmates. A good time was had by all. I had a couple of extra days on both ends of the reunion so I took a couple of day trips, including one to San Marino.

The tallest tower
The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is the world's oldest surviving sovereign state, having been founded as a monastic community in 301 AD. How did they manage to keep their independence through all the centuries of Italian great houses squabbling over territory? This becomes apparent when you see the place - it's essentially a very steep little mountain with a small town and a fortress at the top. I got tired enough just strolling around the old city for a couple of hours; I can't even imagine how much energy it would take to invade it with pre-industrial weaponry and transportation. It was also pretty poor until the advent of modern tourism so it was hardly worth the trouble.

The economy of San Marino is based almost entirely on tourism so there are lots of museums, public and private, to fill your time with. I mostly shunned them. I did pay the €4.50 to clamber around in two of the towers and look briefly at the small collection of historical weaponry. There wasn't all that much to see inside the towers but the views from the battlements were fabulous. The picturesqueness of the place is really probably the best thing San Marino has going for it, particularly in the spring when all the flowers are blooming. It's also a nice visit for micronation enthusiasts and completionist world travelers; there's no border control but they'll sell you a nice visa and entry stamp at the tourist office for €5 to prove that you have really been there. Yay passport bling!