Thursday, December 27, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Wiped out from the holidays? Kick back with the most relaxing song ever. If eight minutes aren't enough for you, give it a try on infinite loop.
How tongue twisters work
The University of Chicago received a mystery package - for Indiana Jones. Mystery solved, thanks to the internet. 
Google - Mad Men style. This is fun to play with but only reaffirms my amazement at the thought that anyone got anything done before the internet.
Folding origami house. For people who want to take redecorating to a whole new level.
Creepy critter close-ups. Nature is insane.
Meet Peggielene Bartels - the secretary who's also a king.
American Girl doll music videos. Kind of creepy, also kind of cool. Check out the Ke$ha video in panel 6.

And here's a kitten playing ping-pong:

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Story

Ah, Christmas at home. The house smells all spicy, the tree is covered with lights and sparkles, and the air is filled with carols, courtesy of the Christmas music channel on Mom's TV. For visual interest, in addition to the album information for each song, the channel has a "Did U Know" box with holiday-related "fun facts". Most of them are so obvious and banal that they scarcely qualify as fun and have little educational value, though I suppose they are still technically facts. However, one piqued my interest. It said something like "when Parliament banned Christmas, mince pie was forbidden." The mince pie bit is of no consequence, especially since I hate mince pie, but what about this banning Christmas thing? "Did U Know" declined to elaborate on the subject, preferring instead to next inform me that Natalie Wood starred in Miracle on 34th Street (well DUH), but that's what the internet is for.

(The following information and quotations are all pulled from Wikipedia, because that's the highest level of scholarship I'm willing to go to for a blog post during my R&R.)

Turns out Christmas was banned in England from 1647 to 1660, as the Puritan Parliament ruling at the time objected to it as "'a popish festival with no biblical justification', and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior." They felt that the holiday was so hopelessly tainted with pre-Christian winter solstice rituals - yule logs, wassailing, holly and mistletoe, etc. - that it was better to ditch it entirely and replace it with a day of fasting. This led to pro-Christmas riots in Canterbury, with protestors carrying holly and shouting royalist slogans.

Colonial Puritans were no less Grinchy; Christmas was banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Though most other Protestant sects didn't take things to the same extreme, the holiday's pagan associations led some groups to reject some aspects of traditional Christmas celebrations and/or de-emphasize the holiday in favor of Easter and Epiphany, which had more obviously Christian themes (easter bunnies aside). "Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans." Congress didn't recognize Christmas as a federal holiday until 1870.

Christmas in its modern form is largely a result of a mid-Victorian Christmas revival led by Charles Dickens and exemplified by A Christmas Carol,  in which "Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries." American celebrations followed suit; "[h]istorian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to refocus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one centered on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response." (How did that work out?)

So there we go. I did end up learning something interesting from the Christmas music channel, despite its best efforts. I also have new respect for Dickens, who I had no idea was so instrumental in rescuing my most favorite holiday from the grasp of dour papists and Puritans. I'll raise a glass of eggnog in his honor.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Pack Rat

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of cat like a suitcase being pulled out of the closet. Its appearance can mean only two things, both more or less unpleasant. He may be stuffed into his loathed cat carrier and dumped unceremoniously with his mean Uncle Seamus*, who doesn't let the cat interrupt his sleep or claw his leather recliner or do anything else fun. Or, even worse, he'll be jammed into the reviled carrier and brought to that horrible crowded place where he'll spend forever waiting in lines, get manhandled at security, and then be forced to spend hours and hours and hours in a noisy tin can with no leg room. (Jabberwocky and I have similar feelings on air travel.) It's the lesser of two evils in this case, not that that makes it okay.

I am much happier than he is to have the suitcase out, though deciding how best to fill it is turning out to be a bit of a challenge. I am trying to pack for a travel itinerary that will require a bikini, a parka, and just about everything in between. T-shirts and sweaters. Heels and hiking boots. I will need clothes to ride horses in and clothes to wear to fancy restaurants. Clothes for clubbing and clothes for spelunking. And since I don't yet have a lot of necessary pieces (not much call for ski pants in Conakry), there needs to be plenty of space left over to accommodate new acquisitions. It's like fashion Tetris, and it reminds me why I hate fashion in the first place. However, attempting to pull together 3 cubic feet's worth of flexible travel outfits out of my pathetic excuse for a wardrobe is as good a way as any to pass the time until I can finally, joyfully, get in that noisy tin can with no leg room and go home. THREE DAYS. Can't wait.

*Not his real name, but he picked it out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ejusdem Generis

I know a lot of lawyers. I've always known a lot of lawyers. And when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, a lot of lawyers said to me, "Meredith, you'd make a great lawyer." So I thought about it. In college I took a constitutional law class, for undergrads but taught by a law school professor with the law school casebook. It was a fascinating class and the hardest-earned A-minus I ever got. At the end of it I knew for certain that I did not want to be a lawyer.

I decided that I did not want to live my life entombed in paper, surrounded by piles of files and giant heavy law books. I didn't want to spend my working hours painstakingly picking through page after page of dull legalese and dense contractese and other uninteresting -eses (all in tiny print, of course) to find the one phrase, or sometimes the one word, that the whole case was hanging on. I didn't want to put the results of my research into bland but thorough letters to send to other lawyers or bureaucrats in an attempt to get them to do things. None of that sounds like fun.

Guess what I did all afternoon. I sat at my desk, surrounded by piles of files and the consular officer's bible - Bender's Immigration and Nationality Act Pamphlet. It's 1900 pages long. I spent my working hours painstakingly picking through page after page of dull legalese like:
"A spouse or child (as defined in section 101(b)(1)(A), (B), (C), (D), or (E)) of an eligible alien who is granted asylum under this subsection may, if not otherwise eligible for asylum under this section, be granted the same status as the alien if accompanying, or following to join, such alien."
to find the one phrase the whole case was hanging on so I could put the results of my research into a bland but thorough letter to send to bureaucrats in an attempt to get them to do things.

Looks like I haven't escaped the lawyerly life after all. But at least I managed to avoid going $150,000 into debt for the privilege.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Festive, right?
Achievement unlocked: Christmas Spirit!

My little Christmas party was just what I needed, thanks to a little help from my friends. One donated a tabletop tree (as seen at left); another provided cookie decorating supplies; a third brought an iPod stuffed with Christmas tunes. I handled the food, of course. There was mulled wine and gingerbread and pumpkin pie and assorted savory snackables. The hand-imported Texas beef tenderloin morsels were particularly well received. Things in general are beginning to look a lot like Christmas, in a way that they absolutely were not a week ago.

On the other hand, Christmas is now pretty much all I can think about. In particular, my Christmas R&R. With nine days to go I cannot stop thinking about the amazing food to eat, people to see, tasks to accomplish, and things to buy in the States. I'm even dreaming about it. The other night I had a terrible nightmare that I got to the airport to go home and found that I didn't have my passport or a suitcase with me. TOTAL PANIC. I have (so far) resisted the urge to actually start packing my bags, though that doesn't mean a fairly detailed mental packing list hasn't been made.

I don't remember being this obsessed last year. A cursory perusal of last year's writings suggests that I was not; while plenty of holiday enthusiasm is displayed, the gnawing hunger for America that's been creeping up on me lately is nowhere in evidence.  Last Christmas I has only been here six months, so Conakry was still fresh and exciting. I was also wrapped up in work, whereas this year the comparatively relaxed and predictable pace of consular has left me with more time to daydream about Tex-Mex and high-speed internet.

But I only have to obsess for nine more days, and then I can hop on a plane and make my American dreams come true. And in the meantime I can try fending off that gnawing hunger with leftover gingerbread and pie. It's worth a shot.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

We Need a Little Christmas

I love Christmas. LOVE IT. I love the lights and the sparkle. I love the wreaths and the tinsel. I love Christmas carols. I love how everything smells like pine and cinnamon. I love Christmas cookies and peppermint hot chocolate. I love the surprises and the anticipation.

Unfortunately, Guinea can be a difficult place to get your Christmas fix. It's a Muslim country so for most people Christmas isn't on the radar. Those who do celebrate Christmas generally do it pretty quietly - being one of the poorest countries in the world, Guinea certainly can't support the insane levels of commercialization of the holiday you see in the States. After paying for food and shelter and school fees, for most people there's not a lot left over for Christmas light extravaganzas (or reliable enough power to make them run).

I know, I know, the decorating is not the point. But dammit, I LIKE that stuff! The weekend after Thanksgiving I got out my Christmas box. I clipped the stockings on the freezer and put out a tablecloth and a centerpiece on the dining room table. And then I thought, crestfallen, "oh. I guess that's it." After last year's incident I am without a Christmas tree, which represented the majority of my seasonal decorating, and it just doesn't feel like Christmas without one. Dipping into my arsenal of Christmas movies has helped a little, but it still feels a lot more Blue Christmas than Jingle Bells around here.

So I have decided to take charge. I will find a tree - any kind of tree - and put in in my living room and cover it with lights. I will have a Christmas party. We will decorate cookies and listen to Bing Crosby. We will eat gingerbread and drink mulled wine. I will drum up some holiday cheer if it kills me, because I, for one, need a little Christmas now.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

At face value: what people can (and can't) tell from your face alone
Recreating Thanksgiving overseas can be challenging enough; how would you like to try it on Mars?
Ever wonder what brain activity would sound like as a piano score? No? Someone did.
Dancers +  powder = amazing photos
The patron saint of the Internet: St. Isidore of Seville
The cyborgs are coming
The world's greatest screenplay was written more than 30 years ago - the movie still hasn't been made.
Fun with fancy paper folding: origami zoo and Starwarigami 

Living bridges made from the roots of fig trees. Just more confirmation that the world is an incredible place and I haven't seen nearly enough of it yet.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Philanthropy for Cold-Hearted Hard-Nosed Realists

With the day of giving thanks behind us, the season of giving has arrived.

Dad sent me a link to this great TEDx talk on a series of studies that illustrate how spending money on other people makes you happier than spending money on yourself. Science! I recommend watching the whole thing, but I'd particularly like to draw your attention to the part around 06:15, comparing buying your mother a scarf (in Canada) to paying medical bills for a friend's kid with malaria (in Uganda):



From the giver's perspective, how much you give or what exactly your gift buys doesn't seem to matter very much - when you feel like you have done something nice for someone else the psychic payoff is about the same. This is great for encouraging everyone to give a little bit, but it also means that sometimes well-intentioned people who give without thinking end up getting their warm fuzzies by giving gifts that are suboptimal, ineffective, or even counterproductive.

I saw some pretty dramatic examples of this in my last job at the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, during the response to the earthquake in Haiti. Thousands and thousands of people saw the footage of the devastation on the news and gave with their hearts instead of their heads, so they donated things like old winter coats and frozen microwave dinners to people who live in the sweltering tropics and who never had access to freezers or microwaves before the quake, let alone afterwards. Those gifts did no one any good at all, and in some cases did harm by using up limited resources (like shipping containers) that could have been put to work providing more useful assistance. But the givers still got to feel good about themselves, though they probably wouldn't have felt that way if they knew how utterly useless their gifts were to the people they honestly did want to help.

How do we fix this? Information! Research! Knowledge is power! (And cash is best.) Charity Navigator is a great place to find out how efficiently charities use their donated dollars and how transparent they are about where that money goes and what effects it has. You can look up organizations that you know to see how they rank, or browse by category to find groups that are doing good work for a cause that you care about.

But what if you are a detached, disinterested Homo economicus who cares neither more nor less about spotted owls than baby seals? What if you have no inherent preference to fight breast cancer rather than prostate cancer, or to fight cancer at all rather than saving the rainforest, ending child hunger, or protecting women's rights? What if you just want to find the single activity that maximizes the global increase in human happiness and well-being per dollar spent and put your money there? That's a much more challenging question, but fear not! Cost-benefit analysis is here to help!

Earlier this year a crack team of five economists, including four Nobel laureates, plowed through the most up-to-date research on how to best tackle the world's most pressing problems for the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 Project. They weighed the evidence and distilled all that data down to a ranked list of the 16 actions that provide the best overall bang for the buck. And the winner is...bundled interventions to reduce undernutrition in preschoolers! Sexy, right? Other highlights include subsidizing malaria treatments, deworming schoolchildren, investing in early-warning systems for natural disasters, and getting people to consume less salt. The project even has a handy Guide to Giving to help individual donors like you or me funnel their charitable gifts in ways that will help meet these goals.

So there you are. Go forth and give - generously, intelligently, effectively, and efficiently! It'll give you those warm fuzzies you've been wanting, and help save the world too. However, if these carefully reasoned rational arguments have failed to sway you, go give some money to the ASPCA. Because KITTENS!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Things For Which I Am Thankful

Pork sausage. Travel books. Kitty snuggles. Cushy white Land Cruisers with good shocks. Beaches. Beach umbrellas. Waterfalls. Savings accounts. Decongestant. Comp time. Internet. Surprise mushrooms. Stamps. Patience. My sunroom. The student loan repayment plan. Pumpkin caramel tea. Support networks. Feeling pretty sometimes. Mail day. Dinner invitations. USB. Magic cleaning elves. Breaks in the routine. Friends who know all my flaws and like me anyway. Lazy Saturdays. Learning new things. Chocolate pecan pie. Family who are always there when I need them. Employment. My Kindle. Sunshine. Something to look forward to.

Etc., etc., etc.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

DiploSkills: Bucket Shower

As I've noted before, upcountry hotels in this part of the world can be a bit basic. However, these accomodations are much easier to deal with if you pack appropriately (bring EVERYTHING) and know a few simple tricks. One of those is how to take a bucket shower:
  1. Gather supplies. You will need: a large bucket, a scoop/cup, a washcloth, soap, shampoo, flip-flops, a towel, and a flashlight. Forget the conditioner. You're not going to look like you just stepped out of a hair product commercial anyway, so save yourself the trouble.
  2. Fill your bucket with water. This may be accomplished by ladling it in from the larger water reservoir in your room or, failing that, at the pump outside. The water will probably be on the cooler side of lukewarm but that's okay - you're sweaty from your night in a hot humid unairconditioned hotel room.
  3. Turn on your flashlight and find a strategic place to position it. The hotel turned its generator off half an hour ago and your bathroom is pretty dark.
  4. Strip down except for your flip-flops. These are all that stand between you and god-only-knows-what on the floor. Treasure them.
  5. Use the cup/scoop to ladle enough water over your head to get wet all over. Dip the washcloth in the bucket and fill in any spots you missed.
  6. Ignore the writhing death throes of the cockroach on your bathroom floor. He's too far gone and is no threat to you. Keep calm and carry on.
  7. Lather your hair up with shampoo and your body with soap. Ladle more water over yourself until clean. I hope you put enough water in your bucket at the beginning or you'll be a little sudsy at the end.
  8. Congrats! You're clean! Towel off and get ready for your day!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Observation

Democracy in action
Although some Texans are apparently not too keen on the concept of international election observers, this Texan is a fan. As such, I gave up my customary weekend loafing to serve on a joint U.S./U.K. team observing Saturday's presidential, parliamentary, and local elections in Sierra Leone. Our embassy in Freetown is a small one, so Embassies Conakry and Monrovia each sent a few teams to cover the voting in their respective border areas. My team was working in Kambia District, right up against Sierra Leone's border with Guinea.

Holding an election in a country like Sierra Leone is a completely different proposition from holding an election in the United States. Most of the population is illiterate, has relatively little experience with voting, and lives in tiny villages with no electricity located miles and miles of unpaved road from the nearest town of any substance. The logistics of the whole process - registering and educating voters, training staff, transporting supplies, and counting and verifying the votes to make sure that the election results are a true representation of the will of the people - are daunting, to put it mildly. It's a huge task, but especially in a country that's still fragile from a decade-long civil war it's vitally important to get it right.

It'll be a while before the final results are tallied and verified and the observer organizations make their official declarations on how things went, so there isn't much I can say about what I saw in making my rounds on Election Day. What I can say is that it was a treat for me to get out to some of those remote villages and see the people - old men, pregnant women - who were willing to walk for miles and stand in line for hours in the blazing tropical sun for a chance to make their voices heard.

The increasingly exhausting and exasperating multi-year marathon the American presidential election is turning into gives one plenty of reasons to be cynical about democracy: red states and blue states, zillion-dollar campaign budgets, a cacophony of negative campaign ads, endless statistic splicing, Super PACs, gaffe-watches, vitriolic Facebook messages from normally pleasant people, and spin, spin, spin. But seeing all the Sierra Leoneans lining up to give their thumbprint to the candidate of their choice reminded me that none of those things are what democracy is all about. No matter who wins this particular election, no matter what the final verdict is on its fairness, just seeing the commitment of ordinary people to the democratic process gave me new hope for the whole concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

It sounds corny, I know, but it's true. So thanks Sierra Leone, and good luck!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

No Nomad

I am overdue for a vacation. I haven't left Guinea since my long weekend in Dakar in July, and I haven't been gone for a significant amount of time since my trip to South Africa back in March. My next trip will be back to Texas for Christmas, but it feels so far away (37 days and counting!). It's at times like these, when I am desperate for a change of pace, when my alarm goes off on Monday morning and every fiber of my being recoils from the thought of going in to work AGAIN, ALREADY, that I think enviously of people who ditch the daily grind and just go travel.

I have a couple of friends who have dumped unsatisfactory corporate jobs for a few months to a year of globetrotting before settling back down into something new. And then there are the people, like this guy, who go a step farther and make a new life and identity for themselves as global nomads; they live cheaply, own only what will fit in a backpack, and stitch together short-term work and writing assignments for enough of an income stream to keep themselves going. And going, and going, and going.

Why don't I do this? Why am I not on a beach in Bali right now, gazing at a perfect sunset while wrapping up a brilliant, poignant article on pearls of wisdom gleaned from the local fishermen? I am not doing this because, fundamentally, I don't want to. I do love to travel, but that's not the only thing that makes me happy. I love going places, but I also love coming home. I love having a kitchen to cook in. I love eating at fancy restaurants. I love spending time with my friends. I love my cat (and he does NOT care for travel). I also love structure and planning. I love my emergency fund and my 401(k). A transient life of couchsurfing, backpacking, and hustling for the next gig would not be fun for me, just lonely and stressful.

So I joined the Foreign Service instead. "Home" will change every 2-3 years but I'll have one, a place for my kitchen and my cat and my stuff.  Friends will move in and out of my life, but over months or years, not days or weeks. I won't have the total freedom to just go wherever I want, whenever I want, but I will have plenty of travel opportunities and the money to enjoy them. It's not perfect. I could definitely use a few more vacation days, better air connections. I do not spend every minute of every day overjoyed with my chosen life and career. But then, who does? Even when I'm not thrilled with the Foreign Service lifestyle it's hard to think of another one I would really prefer, all things considered. Perhaps I'm in the right place.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Empire State of Mind

The universe made it quite clear that I was to make bagels this weekend. Anne made bagels. Another friend posted this link on how to cut linked bagel halves. I stumbled across this recipe for everything bagel bombs. Fine universe, I can take a hint. I made bagels.



I used this recipe, and they came out pretty nicely. A little lopsided, could have used a bit more crispness on the outside, but I'll call it a success. (Side note: although the recipe claims to make "8 medium-sized bagels" it actually makes 8 ginormous, no-one-person-really-needs-to-eat-this-in-one-sitting bagels. I'll try ten next time.) I whipped up a little garlic-scallion shmear, popped in a Woody Allen flick, and pretended I was in Noo Yawk. Except for the tropical sun and coconut palms outside it was pretty convincing.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

It's a Scholarship Program

Samples from the traditional round


Guinea is crazy for beauty pageants. I'm from the South, where pageants are a big deal, but I have never seen anything like this. Every high school and university, every neighborhood, has an annual pageant. You can't drive down the street on any given day without seeing banners for at least one. So naturally I was excited to get an invitation to the Miss Conakry pageant at the Novotel on Saturday and to have an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. Seamus* and Anne and I went, and it was quite an experience.

Formal wear, Guinea-style
The format was pretty familiar. The contestants did three runway walks - traditional dress, swimsuit, and formal wear - and each had one question to answer about the challenges facing Guinea as a country and society. There was no talent portion. I was actually very impressed with the questions, which covered topics such as HIV/AIDS, corruption, female circumcision, judicial reform, national unity, and the candidates' messages to Guinea's political leaders. Not a softball in the bunch. The answers were similarly impressive; while one or two contestants stumbled a bit, the majority came across as intelligent, articulate young ladies with a clear vision for the future of their country. Every one of them comported herself better than some American beauty queens.

A tearful transition
This year's winner was Kadiatou Bah, who was my personal favorite. I may be slightly biased, but I thought her answer to the question she got on illegal emigration was spot-on, and she seemed the most relaxed and personable onstage. Of the 16 contestants, the new Miss Conakry and seven other finalists will move on to compete in the national Miss Guinea pageant in a couple of weeks. Seamus, our resident beauty pageant expert, had the honor of pinning the sash on the first runner-up. So congrats to Miss Bah and the other finalists, and good luck!

(Also, I really want to watch Miss Congeniality right now.)


*Not his real name, but he picked it out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Diversion

A fairy princess applies for a visa
On Wednesday afternoon the embassy took a little break from our usual tasks to host a Candyland Embassy Tour for our FSO kids and some kids from Mercy Ships. Halloween meets Take Your Child to Work Day. In consular we decided it would be more fun to show what we do than talk about it, so we did what we do best - visa interviews.

Each child got their very own personal visa interview, during which they were asked such daunting questions as "how old are you?" and "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Those determined to be qualified (i.e. all of them) got a single-entry visa to Candyland with their name on it and a pack of Twizzlers. That's not a bad deal, considering that a normal visa interview costs $160 and does not come with candy.

Our visitors took the interviews very seriously, especially the younger kids, who stood on a chair at the visa window and gravely told the interviewers the names of their schools and their favorite colors as if the fate of the universe was hanging in the balance. Just like real successful visa applicants, they were all relieved and elated to pass the test and get the visa, though I think perhaps the candy was the real draw in this particular case.

Everyone had a good time, including our local staff, who got to step up and do the interviewing for a change. I have it on good authority that ours was the most fun section on the tour, except maybe the Marines, who let the kids play with their target practice simulator. How's a mere paper pusher supposed to compete with that?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Not gullible enough to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? How about the Eiffel Tower? You wouldn't be the first. (Or the second.)
Nobel-winning economist on horse meat and dwarf-tossing - and they call it the dismal science.
Bored heiress + dollhouses = CSI
For the lawyers and/or Harry Potter fans out there, The Magic of the Law
Two nifty ways to make new technology the natural way - bacterial power cables and spider-silk computer chips
Pictures of kittens improve your concentration. Seriously.
Bored? Try an online jigsaw puzzle. (Sure, it misses some of the key joys of the real thing - like not finding a place for a piece because you've been holding it upside-down the whole time; mashing the little nubbin because you're so convinced that THIS piece MUST fit HERE no matter what the laws of physics and geometry have to say about it; and everyone's favorite, the missing piece - but it's still pretty good.)

Paris vs. New York


Paris vs New York from TonyMiotto on Vimeo.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Export/Import

While enjoying my evening meal (creamy polenta with spicy Italian sausage, onion, and green peppers) it occurred to me that I have never shared with the internet one of my greatest triumphs, the one single action that has done more than anything else to make Conakry a more pleasant place for me to live: last Christmas I brought more than 40 pounds of meat home with me in my suitcase on the way back from my R&R.

After six months of struggling with stringy beef and gristle-filled sausage obtained on the local market, trying desperately to turn it into something remotely palatable, I was running out of hope. I was on the verge of becoming a geographical vegetarian, but this single shipment - carefully, reverently rationed - has kept me in quality meats for almost a year now. I brought a whole beef tenderloin, a whole sirloin, five pounds of Italian sausages, six pounds of breakfast sausage, and assorted smaller amounts of boudin, chorizo, and pre-cooked chicken sausages. And it was good.

I am a simple creature with simple needs. I have come to the conclusion that I can put up with an awful lot as long as I'm well fed. In this regard, a freezer full of USDA-certified Choice steaks and Jimmy Dean maple breakfast sausage (the candy of meats) has done things for my long-term morale that nothing else ever could. There's still quite a lot left too, so I won't be repeating this feat on this year's R&R, though a small top-up on essentials might be in order.

If you too have an unmet need for higher-quality meats than are obtainable in your country of residence, here are some tips you might find helpful, the Four P's:
  1. Plan. See how your local customs officials are likely to feel about this little project. Think about what you want to buy and how much to bring back; remember that meat is heavy, so you're likely to rub up against weight limits long before your suitcase is actually full.
  2. Purchase. Buy the biggest cuts you can - minimizing surface area keeps things frozen longer, and you can cut them down into more manageable pieces once you get home. Accept that your airline might lose your bag for a week, turning this investment into money down the drain. Be sure you are okay with this risk before handing over your credit card.
  3. Prepare. Freeze everything solid - for larger cuts this might take a couple of days. Invest in some quality insulated tote bags and pack them as tightly as you can. Put the tote bags inside your suitcase(s) for additional sturdiness and to allow your clothes to do double duty as extra insulation.
  4. Pray. Ask whatever deity(ies) you see fit to protect your suitcase and its precious cargo from negligent baggage handlers, suitcase thieves, and overcautious and/or greedy customs officials. It might help, and certainly couldn't hurt. 
Good luck!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I Love to Cook

My job involves a lot of paper pushing. My ultimate goal at work, the thing I strive for all day every day, is essentially an absence of work - a clean desk, an empty inbox, a to-do list with every item checked off. But I never do quite get there, and even if I did it would only be for a brief shining moment before the next avalanche of paper descended. It can feel a lot like the first thirty seconds of this Futurama clip (though I have to admit, stamping things never really gets old):



And then I go home and cook dinner. I take raw ingredients, useless in themselves, and make something out of them. When I'm done I have created a physical, tangible object that did not previously exist. Something I can point to and say, "look what I did!" And then I get to eat it. Not only did I make something, I made something useful, something with a purpose. Something that satisfies my stomach and tingles my taste buds, and lets me know that the last hour or so of chopping and grating and mixing and sauteing was not in vain. It's also something I can share, and when I do people tell me how awesome it is - and by extension, how awesome I am. I had some Peace Corps Volunteers over for dinner last week, and the praise and appreciation they lavished on a humble eggplant parmesan far exceeded anything ever inspired by, say, a correctly-processed passport application. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

After eating my cooking people not infrequently ask me why I don't open a restaurant or a bakery or a food truck or whatever. The answer is that I don't want to lose this. I want to cook what I want, when I want, for whom I want. I want cooking to be a choice, not an obligation. I don't want it to turn into just another item on the to-do list. I have enough of those already.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Les Cascades de la Soumba

One of the very few practical day trips from Conakry is to a waterfall near Dubreka, 1 1/2 to 2 hours' drive out of town, depending on traffic. This is pretty much exclusively a trip for the end of the rainy season (like now), as I learned to my peril when I took the family there when they visited in March. Can you spot the difference?


As tourist attractions go it's not much. There's a restaurant run by a Lebanese guy where you can get lunch and a beer, if you're patient. There are some nice ledges where you can sit behind the waterfall. You can swim and climb around - if you dare. This is Africa, so there are no rules but also no lifeguards. A little girl almost drowned while we were there, but fortunately a brawny Russian jumped in and rescued her.

We were willing to take our lives in our own hands, so we passed a couple of pleasant hours clambering around, using the current as a water slide, and graciously appearing in pictures with random Guineans who wanted a foté photo as a souvenir. We ended up with a couple of minor cuts and bruises and some great photos, so I'll call it a success.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reprieve

When we last saw the Kipe Compound chickens, they had just been abandoned by their father while in the throes of awkward adolescence. I am happy to report that, thanks to the united efforts of the whole compound, they both thrived and made it to adulthood. Male adulthood.

Zoom Zoom and his new owner
While the chicken-farming project was originally undertaken in the hopes of getting eggs, we now found ourselves with two completely unproductive roosters on our hands. And not only were they utterly useless as egg-layers, they were LOUD. They seemed to have a special fondness to park themselves outside my or Seamus's bedroom windows and trumpet the coming of the new day, often at four o'clock in the morning. Particularly on weekends and holidays. Once the crowing started it did not take us long to conclude that these chickens had to die. Soon.

We started looking at various methods of killing chickens - the throat slit, the head chop, the neck wring - and to make plans for how we should cook them after they shuffled off this mortal coil - breaded and fried, roasted with potatoes, or boiled in soup. There was only one problem: they're still pretty skinny. They look fabulous all puffed up walking around the compound, but it's all feathers. It seemed like a waste to kill them when they wouldn't make good eating, but with every early morning wake-up call it became more and more clear that the chickens had to go.

Fortunately, our conundrum was solved by the timely intervention of some Future Farmers of America. Our Marine detachment commander's kids took a liking to our feathered friends and their indulgent parents graciously agreed to adopt them. This evening the newly rechristened Zoom Zoom and Zoltar left their childhood home to join the Marines. Those they left behind may shed a tear or two, but it's for the best. And we'll certainly sleep better knowing they're happy in their new home, safely out of earshot on Saturday mornings.

Friday, October 12, 2012

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Sometimes I wonder if consular work is making me a worse human being.

I refused a lot of visas this week, as I do every week. I denied people opportunities to go to school, to go on vacation, to visit their families, to get medical treatment. Some I refused dispassionately. Some I refused happily. Some I refused regretfully, then mentally seized and rooted out that regret as soon as I noticed its clinging tendrils creeping up around the edges of my consciousness. I am getting better at this.

It's a defense mechanism - consular work is about implementing U.S. law, not about doing nice things for my fellow man. Sometimes the two are the same thing, but not that often around here. In the visa window you have to learn to take a step back, to not get personally involved, to not care, for your own protection. Empathy can be a liability in this job sometimes, but in normal life people who lack empathy are called psychopaths and generally considered menaces to society. That's not really the kind of person I want to be. On the other hand, feeling guilty when I know my decision was right only serves to make me miserable, and I have more than two years of visa processing still to go. That's time for a lot of misery, if I let it be that way.

Perhaps the optimal solution would be to turn my heart to ice every morning when I come to work and thaw it out again every evening when I leave. My office gets pretty chilly, I'll grant you, but probably not cold enough to pull that off. Until I can get my hands on a freeze ray I'll have to toughen up as best I can, and suffer through the occasional pang of regret in the knowledge that I haven't gone fully over to the Dark Side yet.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Bel Air

A pleasant change of scenery
Now this is the story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down...

Okay, no, it's not. It's a story about how I had a nice long weekend at a beach resort about 4 hours' drive from Conakry. The Hotel Bel Air was built under the Lansana Conte regime on what must be the only stretch of Guinea's coastline that has actual sand instead of rocks and mangrove swamps. You should take the use of the word "resort" with a grain of salt - this is still Guinea after all. Power and water availability were erratic and there may or may not have been rats living in the attic of the villa we stayed in, but it was clean and relatively comfortable. They even provided towels and toilet paper! The food is fine, though somewhat lacking in variety; bringing your own supplies in a cooler is a good idea. The swimming pool resembled an experimental aquaculture tank, but the beach and the ocean were clean enough, much better than anything in Conakry besides the islands. There's no internet and minimal phone coverage, but that's more of a feature than a bug.

I went up with some friends from the embassy and spent a couple of lazy days lying on the beach, picnicking, floating in the ocean, playing with rocks and sand, taking languorous walks, and toasting marshmallows over a blazing beach bonfire beneath a sky full of stars. Delightful. I hadn't left Conakry since July's trip to Dakar and was starting to get stir-crazy, but I now feel considerably more refreshed, albeit a little more sunburned and mosquito-bitten. Worth it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On the Road

Having finished the second season of Game of Thrones, my current TV show of choice is An Idiot Abroad, a travel show hosted by Karl Pilkington, an insular Englishman who had never been anywhere but Wales and was perfectly content with that until his "friends" and producers of The Office enlist him to visit the Seven Wonders of the World. It's amazing.

There are no pressed linen suits and Panama hats. No luxury accommodations, no "hidden gem" restaurants. No inside tips on the hottest clubs or chic boutiques. There are lots of squatty potties, fleabag hotels, and cramped overnight buses. Karl eats lots of weird stuff, but not out of an extreme sense of adventure à la Andrew Zimmern - he does his earnest best to choke down toad and lamb's eyes because that's all there is and he wants to be polite, while hating it the whole time. His so-called friends engineer all kinds of uncomfortable surprises for him - making him spend all day on a camel in Jordan, take wrestling lessons in Mexico, and get waxed in Brazil - and while he does a fair bit of complaining he mostly goes along with it. Here's a sample:



I love this show for its total honesty. Travel can absolutely be rough, especially outside of Europe. The facilities and infrastructure can leave much to be desired. And travel is disorienting. The rest of the world is so different, in ways you don't expect because it's never occurred to you that there is any other way to do X than the way you do it at home. It's not that Karl is never touched or fascinated by his new experiences, but he feels like a fish out of water the majority of the time and he's completely upfront about it. I do believe that travel is enriching - I wouldn't be in this job if I didn't - but no one said it was always easy. No matter how open you are to new cultures and new experiences, sometimes you just want to go home where things are comfortable and make sense.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Interactive migration map shows how Americans are moving.
Surprisingly beautiful broken Kindle screens.
How a new format threatened to destroy the publishing industry but transformed it instead - not the e-book, the paperback.
Glow-in-the-dark mushroom rediscovered after 170 years. Nature is insane.
Weird and creepy deep ocean creatures. Nature is insane.
How cats purr
Indiana Jones movies that could have been: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3
Costumed actors out of character
MIT paper solves the "grandfather paradox" of time travel
Ben Folds Five + Fraggles = awesome:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Flying Solo

I have survived the first week of my Reign of Terror as acting consular chief. So have all the other U.S. citizens in my consular district, for which I am grateful. It's so much better than last time (though it could hardly have been worse), since now I'm only running consular and not consular and pol/econ simultaneously. I also have some idea what the hell I'm doing this time around, which is certainly helpful.

After three months in consular I'm getting the hang of the routine stuff, so now being the sole consular officer at post is giving me the chance to learn more about the non-routine things consular officers do. I sent out a warden message about some protest marches planned for today (we're all fine Mom!), researched the law on some especially complicated visa cases, learned a little about some of the management responsibilities of a consular section, and started on a child welfare case. There's still plenty of visa interviewing and passport processing, but it's nice to have some variety to keep things interesting. Not TOO interesting though - let's try to leave the death cases and emergency evacuations for when the boss gets back.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wildlife

(Photo via Wikipedia)
Other parts of Africa have lions and elephants and zebras and gorillas, the kind of wildlife people travel halfway across the world to see. We have Gambian pouched rats.

According to Wikipedia, Gambian pouched rats can grow up to three feet in length, only half of which is tail. They have pouches in their cheeks like hamsters (hence the name) to fill with food that they can carry home to their lair.

A day or two ago one of them decided to make its lair under the hood of my car, where it got stuck, died a grizzly death, and remained there until the guards pulled it out, reeking, this morning. Joy. It wasn't quite as big as the one in the picture, but close. I had hoped we were rid of these things a few weeks ago once we caught the one who had been living in Seamus's attic and driving him crazy by slowly, slowly, night after night, scratching down through the drywall.

Clearly we have a little more pest control to do. On the other hand, Wikipedia also says Gambian pouched rats can be trained to put their excellent sense of smell to work, detecting landmines and tuberculosis. Maybe instead of exterminating ours we should collect them and start an NGO instead. Or maybe not.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Field Trip!

Today I got to get out of the office for a change and give a consular services presentation for the fine folks at Mercy Ships. They have a hospital ship docked in Conakry for the next nine months or so where they will do free surgical procedures for people who desperately need it - cleft palates, facial tumors, cataracts, burns, orthopedics, you name it. The ship is manned almost entirely by volunteers who travel to Africa on their own dime and donate their time and expertise to help improve people's lives in a uniquely dramatic way.

But I am ashamed to admit, that's not the main reason I'm excited to have them here. This is why I'm excited:


Starbucks people. STARBUCKS. Everyone's favorite love-to-love or love-to-hate giant corporate caffeine dealer is one of the organization's sponsors and as part of the deal they keep the ships well supplied with sweet, sweet coffee drinks. I was rewarded for my visit with a toffee nut frappuccino and a giant platter of chocolate chip cookies to bring back to the embassy with me. It tastes like home. I'll have to see if I can come up with some more excuses to head down there...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

End of an Era

The lady herself
With the embassy attacks across the Middle East these last few days it has been a tumultuous week for all of us. Here in Conakry things have been calm and peaceful, but here too big changes are on the horizon: Ambassador Moller has left post.

At this point in my brief career, Ambassador Moller is the only ambassador I have ever worked for. As such, she has been not just an ambassador but THE ambassador. Everything I currently know (or think I know) about what ambassadors do and how they do it, I learned from her example. For me she is the default, the standard against which all future ambassadors (and specifically, incoming Ambassador Laskaris) will be judged. And I have to say, for a tiny woman she's leaving some pretty big shoes to fill.

From Ambassador Moller I learned that the most important part of communication is not speaking, but listening. I learned that patient persistence pays off. I learned that the theory of diplomacy may be about policy, but the practice of diplomacy is almost entirely about people. I learned that hospitality is an essential tool of the trade: it's amazing how much gets done over lunches or dinners, and how more open people can be on a couch with a cup of coffee than in an office. I also got the recipe for her outstanding oatmeal bars.

Especially in a small post like Conakry the ambassador sets the tone for the whole mission, so a new ambassador can mean a whole set of new procedures, new relationships, and new quirks to adjust to. More experienced officers have told me that Embassy Conakry under the Moller regime was unusual in many ways, and not an accurate model for how things work at a "normal" embassy.  But for the moment it's the only model I know, so it will be interesting to see how things change when the new guy arrives.

In any case, it's been a pleasure and a privilege to serve with Ambassador Moller, and we'll all miss her warmth, her energy, her decorating flair, and her famous punch. Au revoir excellence, et bonne chance!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Requiem

As I'm sure you know by now, four American diplomats, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, were killed yesterday in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Over a movie. A movie that had absolutely nothing to do with them or the State Department or the U.S. Government, but they happened to be the most convenient target for misplaced rage, and they died for it.

This morning I came into work. I read the news. I raced through my mental list of FSO friends; I didn't know anyone in Libya yesterday, but many of my colleagues are not so lucky. It could have been my friends. It could have been me. I watched the footage of the consulate building in flames, and I felt sick. And then I went to the window and adjudicated visas, because that's my job, and even for a tragedy like this the work doesn't stop. All around the world FSOs did the exact same thing: they watched, they grieved, and they kept doing their part to represent our country abroad with dignity and honor, no matter what. This is what we signed up for.

When you join the foreign service they tell you that you are now the face of the United States of America, on duty or off, in the office or at home, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And we are expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects well on our country. Well, guess what America. You are - all 314 million of you - the face of the United States of America. In this interconnected modern world you don't even have to leave your house for a foreigner to meet you and judge you and your country by your words and deeds.

No one, especially not me, is going to argue that these killings were in any way justified, or that the individuals who perpetrated the attack do not bear ultimate responsibility for their actions. Nevertheless, those of us who are, knowingly, voluntarily, the most convenient targets would sleep a little better if some of our countrymen remembered that they are ambassadors too and conducted themselves as such. It's hot enough out here already without our fellow Americans fanning the flames.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ambigudextrous

True confessions: I've never been good at the whole left vs. right thing. I was one of those kids who found the left-hand-makes-an-L trick to be a lifesaver. Okay, truer confessions: I still do, and I pity similarly confused folks who grow up in languages where the word for "left" doesn't start with an L. How do they ever figure it out?

A lesser-known side effect of consular work is to exacerbate this confusion. When you're walking people through the process of getting their fingerprints taken and you say "put your left hand on the green light" you demonstrate with your right hand, because the applicant will mirror what you do and use their left. Then when you want to print their right hand you raise your left hand. Works like a charm.

However, raising the left hand when I say right and the right when I say left over and over again, day after day, week after week, is completely destroying any tenuous grasp I ever had on what the two sides of my body are called. Be warned: I can no longer be trusted to give accurate directions. When trying to explain where to turn I will say whichever of those two words first comes to mind, and it will probably be "left" because that's the hand we always fingerprint first. Stick with GPS, or ask somebody else.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Signature

The optional theme for this month's FS Blog Round Up is the "signature." When I read that it took me a few seconds to figure out that she means the mini posting history some people in the FS use as an email signature - mine would be "Conakry 2011-2013, Dublin 2013-2015." Wow, 2015. Seems so futuristic. However, as a devoted viewer of cooking reality shows, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read the prompt was the "signature dish", a single plate that is supposed to encapsulate a chef's personal approach to cooking, show off their skills, and also taste delicious. I have one.

(Photo, like the recipe, from Epicurious.com)
My "signature dish" is Gingerbread Puddings with Candied Apples. Unlike the chefs of TV fame, I didn't come up with this all by myself - you can get the recipe here (though I may have tweaked it a tiny, tiny bit). I just made it, loved it, and kept on making it. I serve it every year at Christmastime, at a family celebration or a dinner party with friends. It's not a terribly difficult recipe but it does require commitment and lots of advance prep. To make the puddings you first have to make the gingerbread, then dice it into little cubes, make a ginger custard, soak the gingerbread in the custard, and bake it. The apple garnish requires a lot of time at the cutting board and hours to simmer. If you're in Conakry or someplace like it, you'll need to make the ice cream to put on top of it as well. When serving it's important to get the timing right and have a quick assembly line, because these things have to be eaten right out of the oven.

But my friends, it is worth it, because this dessert is a SHOWSTOPPER. Every spoonful is warm and spicy, cool and tangy, and cold and creamy, all at the same time. Men (and women) have proposed to me after tasting this, only mostly in jest. If I ever meet a guy I'd want to take up on such an offer you can guess what I'm going to feed him. So now you too have the secret to my signature dessert. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Paradigm Shift

Getting a new assignment changes things. The second you read the email that says "congratulations, you're going to Whereverstan" your entire outlook shifts, and not necessarily for the better.

For me, ever since that fateful day when the word "Dublin" suddenly took on new significance, it's like Conakry has just faded into the background. I don't care anymore. I'm not really following the local news. The city's vivid and bustling street scenes, which I always found fascinating before, can't hold my attention. I have lost interest in finding new restaurants and going on day trips. I don't really feel like doing anything anymore but holing up in my house with a mountain of DVDs and a vat of chocolate chip cookie dough until it's time to go to Ireland.

Things that didn't bother me that much before, things I considered part of the Grand Guinea Adventure, are now strangely upsetting. When the power keeps going out when I'm trying to cook dinner or my radio starts beeping at oh-dark-thirty or the grocery store doesn't have what I want or I can't download a software update or a fender-bender blocks off a main road for an hour, where I used to shrug and take it as part of the West Africa Experience I now turn suddenly peevish and think "this time next year I won't have to deal with this crap." You won't believe how often crap happens in Conakry that I won't have to deal with in Dublin (both figuratively and literally).

I don't LIKE this. I don't like being snappish and irritable all the time. I don't want to waste the next nine months of my life imagining being somewhere else. And I especially don't want this to become a pattern. Once I do get to Dublin I'll be there for a year or so, and then one day I'll get another email - "congratulations, you're going to ________." Will that email ruin my second year in Ireland too? And what about the post after that, and the post after that?

Clearly I am desperately in need of some "living in the moment" lessons. And after a lazy long weekend I'm running out of TV shows, so I'd better figure this out quick.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

That Was Then, This Is Now

A few weeks ago a mysterious envelope appeared on my desk – it turned out to contain photocopied pages from Guinea Weekender: A Collection of Essays on Travel to the Interior of Guinea. This series of travel vignettes was written in the mid-‘90s by Paul Pometto, then Embassy Conakry’s Management Officer and now back at the Mothership after a stint as DCM in Djibouti. The copy I have (posted with permission) seems to be missing the verso pages so some of the stories are incomplete, but it's enough to get the flavor of the place.

It was fascinating to compare Pometto’s Guinea with the Guinea I know today. He was a much more adventurous and wide-ranging traveler than I have been so far, but many of the places he wrote about I have been to as well. Some things have changed, both for better and for worse. Inflation has eroded the Guinea franc to the point where Pometto’s prices all look like they could use an extra zero. Many of the hotels and restaurants he visited are now long gone, but others have arisen. The roads have probably improved overall, though perhaps not by much, especially during the rainy season. Electricity supplies have probably declined, at least in Conakry. My friend Alfred* has a photo book of Conakry from the same period, and it’s amazing to see photos of places that I know, but with the buildings brightly lit, freshly painted, and standing tall instead of dark, mildew-stained and crumbling at the edges as they are today. 

Other things haven’t changed at all. The beaches, mountains, and waterfalls are still much as Pometto left them. The stories he tells of rattling over washboard roads and camping out in upcountry hotel rooms still resonate. Mali still has an annual potato festival, and Kindia’s market still bustles. In Conakry local pirogues still ply the waters to the Iles de Los, where drumming lessons and fish kebabs are still on offer, just as they were 15 years ago. And Guinea's people are still every bit as friendly and generous as Pometto describes.

It's strange to think that when I leave Guinea next summer I'll probably never come back.  It's not the kind of place you tend to find yourself without a really specific reason. I'll be gone but time will go on, as it always does. Who knows what Guinea will look like 15 years from now?


*Not his real name, but he picked it out. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Cookie Monster's actual cookie recipe. I have to admit, I'm dubious - I always thought he was a chocolate chip kind of guy.
More Muppets: A detailed analysis of the Swedish Chef's accent. Apparently he's secretly from Norway?
Bic "For Her" pens + Amazon reviewers = comedy gold.
A 6-year-old judges books by their covers.
Dr. Seuss: adman
How Great Lakes cities are changing English
The latest thing in computer controllers: plants
Long-lost ancient monuments found with Google Earth

The slowest slo-mo ever: one TRILLION frames per second

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Footnoted

I awoke this morning to find this in my email queue:
Dear Foreign Service Blogger:

On behalf of the State Department Recruitment Team, I wanted to thank you for allowing us to feature your blog on careers.state.gov.  We believe your writings help those interested in a State Department career gain a better understanding of the realities of Foreign Service life, from the thrill of A-100 Flag day to the agony of pack-out.

Due to limited space on the Forums page of our careers site and to broaden the list of blogs available, we will now offer a link directly from our Forums page to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) webpage for Foreign Service-related blogs.  Through the AFSA website, you may continue to share your rich experiences with those interested in State Department careers.  If your blog is not already included in the AFSA Foreign Service Blog List, please contact Shawn Dorman at AFSA at Dorman@afsa.org.   

Again, thank you for your interest in improving understanding of the Foreign Service. 

Best regards,

Terry  

Terry R. Davidson
Diplomat in Residence Coordinator 
Recruitment Outreach Branch Chief
This move is pretty clearly State's reaction to Nipplegate, when a pruning of State's official blogroll earlier this summer ruffled some feathers and wound up in the Washington Post. Oops. The course of action The Powers That Be chose in response is clean and simple: to avoid the possibility of any similar events in the future, simply abolish the blogroll altogether, leaving the curation and promotion of the FS blogosphere to AFSA instead. Problem solved.

I completely understand where this decision came from. One of the first things they tell you in A-100 is to think to yourself before any new undertaking, public or private, professional or personal, "how would this look in the Washington Post?" If the answer is "not so great," DON'T DO IT. So if the goal here is to avoid future critical blogroll-related attention in the Post, this approach is perfect. On the other hand, if the goal is to help people who are interested in the Foreign Service find out what FS life is like, trading in the prominent official blogroll for an inconspicuous link all the way down at the bottom of the page (keep scrolling) is probably not the best way to go.

Maybe it is for the best that State is no longer in a position to play favorites (or to appear to be doing so) among the dozens and dozens of FS blogs out there. However, I think it's sad that the overall effect is to diminish bloggers' impact as resource for potential hires in favor of a set of moderated forums which I'd describe, if you'll permit me to steal a criticism from Charlotte Brontë, as "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers, but...no open country." We, the bloggers, are still here of course, still doing our thing, and those future FSOs with the determination to look outside official channels or the luck to scroll all the way down can still find us and come take a walk on the wild side. I just think it's a shame to make them work for it.