Sunday, July 29, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Happy words are all alike; every unhappy word is unhappy in its own way.
A crocheted playground - I would have loved this as a kid.
Are dolphins people? Ask their lawyer.
Bladorthin the Grey? Hermione Puckle? Pansy O'Hara? Sherringford Holmes? Famous literary characters almost named something else
3991 AD is a "hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation," according to a decade-long game of Civilization II.
That's dedication: unemployed programmer kept sneaking into Apple to finish the job.
Researchers teach AI to recognize double entendres. That's what she said.

An abridged history of Western music in one song:  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Power and the Glory

I have completed my first week and a bit in consular. No one died. It was a little overwhelming, as the first week on a new job always is, trying to figure out where things are and how they work, what I'm supposed to be doing and when, but it shouldn't take me too long to get the hang of it.

Meanwhile we've had more excitement at the embassy - General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM, popped in for a visit. With a week's notice. During Ramadan. While the defense attache was on vacation. I don't know why the big shots always pick this time for last-minute visits to Conakry, but it's starting to become a pattern. Anyway, the whole embassy was in an uproar to make sure the visit was a success, except the consular section, which remained an island of tranquility. In consequence this visit was a very different experience for me than the last one; last time I was fully embroiled in the hubbub and this time it hardly affected me at all. (He did take the time to meet everyone, shake hands, and thank us for our service, which was very nice.) Was it nice to have a relaxing weekend free while everyone else was slaving away in the office and running around going to meetings? Yes, it was. But at the same time I couldn't help feeling a little left out, like I didn't matter.

The funny thing about this is that I'll have considerably more power to directly affect people's lives as a vice-consul than I ever did as an economic officer. Did anything I did last year - all the meetings, all the cables, all the stressing out over congressional reports and visit schedules - actually accomplish anything concrete? Did it affect anyone's actual life at all? Maybe? I'd certainly like to think so, but it's hard to say for sure. At best I was a small part of something bigger that may make a difference months or years down the line. But the crazy hours and fancy cocktail parties make you feel important, necessary, even when you're just a tiny cog in the big machine.

Consular work, on the other hand, can feel insignificant - sealed away from the rest of the embassy, shuffling papers and doing the same thing over and over, like working at the DMV. But the "same thing" I do over and over is to make decisions that directly impact people's lives in a very real and tangible way. When someone leaves my visa window they can go to America, or not. Especially in Guinea this is a BFD, and I personally am the one who decides. Me. There's some review from higher up of course, but that's still an impressive amount of responsibility when you consider that I couldn't send the most mundane of reporting cables without three people signing off on it. American Citizen Services days are even bigger, because parents come in with the paperwork to get their new little bundle of joy registered as a U.S. citizen. And who goes over the evidence and makes the call on whether this kid is a citizen or not? I do. That's some phenomenal cosmic power in my itty bitty visa window.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lessons Learned from Second-Tour Bidding

Last post about bidding, I promise, at least for another two years when I start Round 3. But this process has taught me some things I wish I had known the first time around, so they might be useful to other people too.

1. Equity: It Ain't All That. I feel like we heard a lot about equity in A-100 when we were bidding for our first posts. I can see why - it's a good way to cushion the blow for newbies who were hoping for Paris or London but got Conakry instead, and a little extra incentive for those of us of a more adventurous nature. Well, they may have oversold it a little. I know many people in posts with high hardship differentials who didn't get anywhere close to their top choice, including someone from a post with higher hardship than mine who got an even lower choice post. Conversely, I know people from lower-hardship posts who got their #1 pick. It's not that equity is a lie, just that it's only one of a number of factors to consider in putting people in posts, the most important one of which is, as always, the Needs of the Service. The folks going to their first-choice posts happened to have desires that lined up with the Needs of the Service in a way that mine did not, mostly because my desires included doing a reporting job instead of more consular work (see #3).

2. Rotational Positions: It's a Trap! (Kind Of). No one I know who got a rotational position for their first tour got one of their top picks for Post #2, including people at high-differential posts. This makes sense when you think about how the assignments process works; it's kind of like fitting a mosaic of different-sized pieces into a frame. The big pieces are harder to place so you do those first. The smaller pieces can fit in anywhere, so those go in later. If you have a rotational job like mine, at the end of your first tour you've both worked in your cone and done some time on the visa line (and maybe met your language requirement too), so your tenure-related needs are filled. You can go anywhere, do anything, fill any position. You're a small piece, and they'll fit you in last. On the other hand, a first-tour rotation may be a chance to get to work at least one year in your cone, which doesn't happen for everyone (see #3).

3. Nothing is Certain But Death, Taxes, and Consular Work. Another thing you hear about a lot in A-100 is consular requirements. Everyone must complete at least 12 months of consular work in order to qualify for tenure. That's the regs, but then there's the reality. The reality is that pretty much everyone's gonna put in at least two years on the visa line. Minimum. Maybe you'll do three years, maybe four, even if you're not consular-coned. (The only reliable exception to this I can think of is people doing consular only for their second tour, in AIP, though there are probably some unreliable exceptions as well.) State is opening up new consulates right and left in places like China and Brazil, and more visa windows means they need more vice-consuls to fill them. When I was bidding the first time a lot of people talked about "getting consular out of the way" in one's first tour; maybe that used to be something you could do, but it's a new world out here. I know several people, especially management-coned folks, who will have put in two full tours in the FS before ever getting a job in their cone because they were needed to process visas instead. It is what it is, but it's better if you know that from the beginning and align your expectations accordingly.

Or maybe this isn't that helpful after all, since the most important lesson of second-tour bidding is You Don't Get to Choose. This may seem kind of obvious since they tell you this up front, but all that agonizing and strategizing over bid lists sometimes makes you feel like you're making momentous life decisions when you are not in fact choosing your next post. You are expressing preferences on a choice that will be made for you, and whatever the outcome of that choice is you will have to make it work.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Upstairs/Downstairs

It's finally here - time for me to swap my econ job for a year of consular work. Or perhaps I should say already here, as the year really has flown by. I've enjoyed my time as EconOff and am sorry to let it go, so my physical descent from the second-floor pol/econ suite to the ground-floor consular section has taken on some moody metaphorical overtones as well.

This week the vice-consul and I are crosstraining each other, as he runs me through my wobbly consular paces and I induct him into the mysteries of the econ portfolio. It's been a pretty lopsided training; I still have all kinds of things to learn about consular systems and case processing and other procedures, while I was able to fill him in on the how-tos of economic work in the space of about three hours. This isn't because one portfolio is so much more work than the other but because they're so different: consular is very big on process, while econ is mostly substance.

In consular there's a pretty set pattern for how you spend your time. Certain days and certain times of each day are dedicated to certain tasks, each of which has very specific required actions. For example, non-immigrant visa interviews happen on Mondays and Wednesdays. There are a series of things that have to be done for each interview and certain ways to do them, certain buttons to click each time. I'll need to know all the mechanics of how to conduct an interview and process it correctly, but I'm not expected to know much about the content of an interview before it starts.

Econ, on the other hand, is all about content. My main job there has been essentially to know things - or to know how to find things out - and to get that information to the people who need it. Between pre-arranged meetings and long-term projects and priorities I generally have had some kind of plan for my day before it starts, but if something comes up that plan may undergo anything from minor adjustments to complete derailment. I've needed to have a lot of knowledge at my disposal, ready to call up at any moment, but the ways I've acquired and communicated that knowledge have been flexible and varied.

Who knows, maybe I'll end up liking downstairs just as much as upstairs. I wouldn't count on it, but I do count on this year being very different from the last..

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Making the Best of It

Okay, so Dublin wasn't my first choice. Not my top five, not my top ten, barely in the top half. So it's probably not going to offer much in the way of career development or job satisfaction. I don't really have a choice in any case, so I'm concentrating on other kinds of satisfaction Ireland may have to offer. 
Nice scenery
But seriously, Dublin has a lot going for it. It's a real city, with functioning power and water services and public transportation. I may even be able to walk to work. It has salsa clubs and yoga studios and theaters and museums and concerts and movie theaters and restaurants and shopping. It's in a country that actually has things to see and do on weekend trips, and an entire well-developed tourist industry devoted to helping people do just that. You can rent out a lighthouse. How cool is that?

And when I get tired of lush greenery and historic landmarks and sheep, there's an airport. I can get direct flights to most places in Europe, and if I want to go farther than that Heathrow is right next door. Attention friends at European posts: I WILL come visit you. Brush the crumbs off the couch. And come to think of it, people besides my intrepid parents might actually come visit me too. How novel.

Yes, it is colder than I'd like pretty much all the time. Yes, I will lose my hardship pay. Yes, I will lose my student loan repayment perks. Yes, I will have to wash my own dishes for the first time since 2008 (and really I ought to get hardship pay just to make up for that). But I'll get over it. How can I not when there's so much to look forward to?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Rain Rain Rain Came Down Down Down

Having gotten the official Independence Day celebration out of the way back in May, we had the actual 4th of July free for a nice casual barbeque for the embassy staff. Ten minutes to party time the skies opened up and it just poured rain. For four hours.

But we were prepared, so it was fun anyway. There wasn't any thunder so the kids got in the pool - they were planning on getting wet anyway, so what's a little rain? The grills, bar, and seating areas were all under cover; there was a little frantic dashing through the rain from one to the other, but no one got absolutely soaked involuntarily. It just gave otherwise humdrum routine perambulation a sense of adventure. The puddles got a bit deep in places, but miraculously the jazz band finished their set without anyone being electrocuted by wet audio equipment. The bacon cheeseburgers were hot and the beers were cold. There were cupcakes. What more could you want?

In the evening it rained again, pouring rain, for a few more hours. This time I was home so I snuggled up with the cat and the Kindle and a cup of tea and felt safe and warm and dry. According to Seamus's* fancy wireless rain gauge we got more than five inches of rain in 24 hours. The rainy season has most definitely arrived.

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Dakar*

You could look at this for three days, right?
Why is there an asterisk there? I'll tell you why. I am a bad tourist. In my three days in Senegal I only really spent one of them actually in Dakar. Okay, part of one. The rest of the time I spent in the first-world fantasyland that is the Radisson Blu. I got a massage in their fancy spa. I drank cocktails and read at the bar next to the infinity pool. I ate imported American steak and dark chocolate mousse at their fancy restaurant. I checked out the mall next door and spent a good 20 minutes wandering around the grocery store in unabashed slack-jawed amazement. Sadly the cinema is still under construction or I would've seen a movie and stuffed my face with popcorn. I got my hair cut. I ordered room service. I bought things with a credit card. I updated my software.

I didn't completely wimp out; I got a taxi tour of centre ville - SO  much nicer than Conakry, not a burning trash heap in sight - and passed a pleasant afternoon on l'ile de Gorée, which looks the way a charming seaside village in the south of France would look if it were full of black people and in need of a fresh coat of paint. But the fact is that I didn't go to Senegal so much to see Dakar as to escape from Guinea. The last couple of weeks have been exhausting, planning for and running a big workshop, and I needed to get away from the chaos of Conakry for a little while. I needed to relax, to recharge, to live easily, as one can do very well in a 5-star hotel if one is willing to pay for it. This was not a cheap vacation ($15 mojitos anyone?), but what is hardship and overtime pay for if not to finance an occasional break from hardship and overtime? Worth it.

The Luck O' The Irish


My #14. I wanted a reporting job someplace warm and exotic. I got two more years on the visa line someplace cold and rainy. I am somewhat unenthused. However, I've been repeating "hot redheads, hot redheads" over and over again for the past several hours, and things are starting to look up.