Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

A compelling argument for the reordering of the Star Wars movies. I feel significantly geekier just for having read this to the end.
Don't get to sit next to enough creepy stalkers on planes? KLM is here to help!
Why do we love cats? Because their mind control bioweapons tell us to.  No, seriously, they do.
Why cats always land on their feet
Descriptive writing + law enforcement composite sketch software = literary mugshots
Creepy/cool integrated photos of Paris in the 1940s and today
"Antarctic Glacier Has Five-story Blood-red Waterfall of Primordial Ooze." The title pretty much says it all, but there's also a picture.
"The Three Little Pigs", Shakespeare-style:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Today I Don't Feel Like Doing Anything

Most of my posts over the past few weeks have been complaining about work. Sorry about that, it just seems like that's all I've been doing lately. Working, and complaining about it.

But no more! The consul came back on Thursday and I gratefully handed back the consular reins and went back to pol/econ, where I found myself completely unable to accomplish anything. After a frantic week and a half I was exhausted, but there's still more to do, so I prescribed myself a weekend of intensive nothing-doing. I ate. I slept. I cooked. I read. I wasted time on the internet. I watched TV. I played Wii. I spoiled the cat. Yes, I also went to the gym, did some tax research, added a new page to the blog, and did some ironing, but mostly I stayed true to the original dolce far niente intent.

And I think it worked. I feel refreshed and perky and ready to get back in the swing of things. Here's hoping that feeling keeps going on Monday morning. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In A-100 they tell you that the way to do well in your career - to become a well-respected and sought-after employee and colleague - is to say "yes" a lot. By this they don't necessarily mean to be a yes-man (although in the FS, as in other organizations, disagreeing with the boss can be a risky move) but to be willing to take on extra projects and to make the effort to look for solutions to problems instead of declaring the situation impossible from the outset. I have found this to be good advice so far, but in the last week I've also started to discover the virtues of saying "no".

Being a consular officer in Guinea requires you to say "no" more often than you can say "yes", no matter how much wheedling and pleading comes from the other side of the window. That's just how it works. This is something we practiced in ConGen, but refusing real people real visas is rougher than any simulation. I'm slowly getting used to it though. I am also bringing a new level of "no" to my econ portfolio; time management in a crunch means prioritizing, and prioritizing means being able to say "no" sometimes. Or at the very least "maybe later but most definitely not now". There's no point in saying "yes" and not being able to follow through. So for a while at least I am embracing my inner stubborn 2-year-old, and I'm finding it liberating and empowering.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Learning By Doing

When you're a brand-new baby diplomat in ConGen, just learning the basics of consular work, they throw a lot of information at you all at once. It can be a little overwhelming, but the instructors have some words of comfort to see you through. Don't worry, they say, no one expects you to walk in on the first day and just start banging out visas like you've been doing it your whole life. There's a couple of days, or in some cases weeks, of on-the-job training before you'll have to stand on your wobbly legs like an adorable newborn vice-consular lamb and do your very first solo visa adjudication. They say this because it's true. Most of the time.

However, sometimes it transpires that the consul and the vice-consul are unexpectedly both away from post at the same time, requiring the backup consular officer to step up to the plate and take over the section. And sometimes it so happens that the backup consular officer has never adjudicated a visa in her whole life and indeed has hardly even thought about consular work since she finished ConGen, just shy of a year ago. Sometimes the backup consular officer has her own busy portfolio and is already filling in for another missing colleague. But the Needs of the Service require her to square her shoulders, take a deep breath, and make it work, so she does.

The first day was rough. In fact, probably the roughest day since I arrived in Conakry with the possible exception of the day I had food poisoning but came to work anyway and disgraced myself by throwing up on my shoes outside the main entrance. But this is Africa, and that sort of thing happens. On the first day I was hindered not only by some system problems and not knowing exactly what I was doing, but also by feeling like I didn't know what I was doing. There are few things I dislike more than feeling incompetent. Day 2 was a little smoother, Day 3 smoother still. I'm getting the hang of this, sort of, but that doesn't mean I like it.

At this point I look forward to the return of my consular colleagues like Jews await the Messiah: I'm pretty sure they'll show up one day and I'll be really happy when they do, but I have no idea when. And in the meantime, I suffer.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Democracy in Action

Once upon a time, an American was having some difficulties in Guinea and wanted the U.S. Government to help. He wrote his congressman. His congressman (or his congressman's staff) wrote the State Department. The State Department funneled his letter down to the Guinea desk, who organized a whole bunch of people from a bunch of different agencies to get together on a conference call and see what can be done to help this guy out.

As a U.S. citizen, voter, and taxpayer, I think it's great that the system can (not always, but at least sometimes) work the way it's supposed to. You have a problem, you contact your elected representative, he goes to bat for you, and half a dozen little bureaucratic worker bees whose salaries you pay try to fix it for you. They may not always be able to, but they'll try. Just like in the government textbooks. Amazing.

On the other hand, as a slightly overloaded little worker bee, I am less than enthused.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Since I got back from vacation I have been unusually whiny about all the work I have to do. Partly this is from getting soft and lazy over the course of my nearly-month-long break, and partly because our political officer is taking his vacation, so there's some slack to be picked up. However, in the course of incessantly whining and moaning to anyone who would listen (you know who you are, and you're the best!) it occurred to me that I myself am at least partly responsible for my plight.

My job is very self-directed, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's a sharp contrast from my last job, which was entirely client-driven: whatever I was doing I did because someone told me to, and it came with precise specifications on the form and content of the final product and a strict deadline. I have clients in this job too, but their requirements are much less specific. Broadly speaking, my job is to know about the Economy of Guinea and to tell the folks back in Washington the Important Things They Should Know, while carrying out Activities That Advance U.S. Economic Interests. But who decides which Things are Important? Who decides which Activities I should devote my time and energy to? For the most part, I do. I'm not completely a free agent - I do get some mandatory assignments and I run everything by my bosses of course - but there's a lot of latitude there.

This much freedom was absolutely terrifying when I first started. I had a huge terrain to survey and absolutely no idea where to start. I eventually got the hang of it, and now I mostly really enjoy being able to have some control over what I do at work all day. But then when I find myself overburdened it's my own damn fault, because I gave myself too many projects and set the bar a tiny bit too high. No one's standing over me making sure these self-assignments get done; if they don't get done, it's quite possible that no one will notice or care. Except me, because I have professional pride. So I still have all this work to do but I can't really complain about it. The worst of both worlds.

Well, that was kind of cathartic. I guess I'll get back to work now.