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.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

It Takes a Village to Raise a Chicken

The chickens doing what they do best - eating
Over the past months Ricky's* chickens have grown in size although reduced in number - the original five are now only two. However, the survivors seem to be going strong. After the third one expired Ricky decided to let the remaining pair out of their pen to roam freely around the compound. They've really taken to their new free-range lifestyle, terrorizing termite mounds right and left and sauntering through everyone's yards like they own the place.

Ricky himself departed post a few weeks ago, heading for greener pastures in Pakistan via language training in DC, and the compound inhabitants have collectively adopted his poor orphaned poultry. I think we're all feeding them now - residents, guards, and staff - and as a result they're plumping up nicely on a steady all-you-can-eat buffet of rice, termites, Ritz crackers, and stale hot dog buns. They've also gotten very social, as they associate people with food and go crazy with delight and anticipation when they see you. It's pretty cute. They don't seem to have enough of a healthy fear of cars though, so you have to keep an eye out for them coming and going. We've lost too many already for any chicken-crossing-the-road mishaps.

The internet says they should be ready to start laying in September or October, assuming they are actually female. I can't really tell. But in the meantime even if we don't have eggs we can still cultivate our agrarian virtue.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Here Comes the Rain Again

Rain and rain and rain and rain. Last rainy season it rained pretty much every day, but only for two or three hours, often at night. And in between rainstorms the sun came out. This year is different.

It rains every day, sometimes for two or three torrential hours, sometimes in a day-long drizzle. Sometimes both. Driving to work Tuesday morning was epic - it was raining so hard I pushed my windshield wipers as high as they go and still could barely see. Even flat, relatively high stretches of road were perpetually covered in water just from the sheer volume of rain being dumped on them, and the slightest dip filled up in no time. Drainage ditches - planned and man-made or cut spontaneously into the bare ground by the force of the water itself - funneled the rain into fire-hose powerful streams that exploded into unsanitary fountains when they hit a wall and flung tables from hastily abandoned roadside vegetable stands into oncoming traffic. Oncoming traffic which was already trying to work around a foundering Renault in the middle of the street. As if the driving wasn't tricky enough already.

But more depressing than the occasional aquatic obstacle course on the morning commute is the endless damp dreariness. If it's not actually raining it has either just stopped raining or is about to start again or both. The whole city just feels kind of moldy, and I feel kind of moldy too. We did get a nice sunny day on Monday and it was SO GOOD to see the sun again. I suppose I had better get used to it though. Guinea's rainy season will be over in a month or two, but Dublin is not exactly known for its sunshine. Note to self: invest in a high-quality mackintosh and one of those sunlamps before moving to Ireland.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I Believe I Can Fry

One of the many 220v appliances my indulgent parents bought me for Christmas in anticipation of my move to Guinea was a deep fryer. Upon actually arriving in Conakry it quickly became clear that the embassy cafeteria is fried food central, so my fryer sat neglected in my kitchen cabinet until this weekend, when I was suddenly overcome with a desperate craving for onion rings.

My first forays into frying did not go well. The fryer turns out to be one of the least intuitive appliances I have ever worked with, obviously engineered more with a mind to preventing lawsuits from scalded amateur fry cooks than actually frying things effectively. The first round of onion rings was soggy and underdone, having been cooked at the suggested (way too low) temperature. The second round would have been lovely if the beer batter hadn't stuck much more effectively to the fryer basket than to the onions, requiring me to cool the whole thing down, wash the basket, and strain the oil to get rid of all the extra little bits floating around before I could try again. It's a learning experience. Fortunately I keep a lot of onions lying around.

Success!
However, the third time's the charm. I swapped the beer batter for tried-and-true egg and cornmeal breading and they came out beautifully: hot, golden, crispy, and delicious. I am SO PROUD. So proud I demanded that my neighbor come down and share in my triumph. Also, I didn't realize a single onion got you a whole basket of onion rings, so I needed some help devouring them all fresh out of the fryer, as the Good Lord intended. Maybe next time I'll try my hand at another fried delight you can't get at the embassy cafeteria: hush puppies! Or boudin balls! Or coconut shrimp! Or...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Instruction

I have but two talents: writing and baking. Fortunately both of them are highly prized in the Foreign Service. My bosses appreciate my ability to assemble words in appropriate combinations to produce relatively cogent reports, and my coworkers appreciate my ability to assemble a variety of chemicals in appropriate combinations to produce, say, cardamom-spiced molten chocolate cakes. (Although I have a sneaking suspicion that the latter are consumed rather more enthusiastically than the former.) As a result I am occasionally called upon to advise people on how to do one or the other.

The how-to's of baking are easy, at least at the entry level. There's a recipe: you follow the steps and end up with cake. Yes, it can get much more complicated, especially with bread. My father gave me a book called The Bread Baker's Apprentice which goes into such detail on the intricacies of flours and proofing and steam that I couldn't get through it (sorry Dad); clearly this is calculus-level baking when I haven't quite mastered algebra yet. Nevertheless, when someone asks me how to bake I can at least get them started in the right direction. When someone asks me how to write I don't have much more advice than "um, practice?"

A friend recently introduced me to Draft: the NYT's online series of essays by writers on writing. Not all of the essays are to my taste, but many of them fill my little word nerd heart with joy. For example, Verlyn Klinkenborg's piece "Where Do Sentences Come From?" does a splendid job tackling the difficult question of what exactly a writer is doing when he stares up at the ceiling before he starts typing, the part where all the actual writing happens. I also liked Helen Sword's essay on "zombie nouns", something bureaucrats in particular tend to scatter with wanton abandon throughout their prose. She has a handy writing analysis tool as well; this post is apparently shaping up quite well so far except for a preponderance of prepositions. I'll have to check out some of my professional writing at the office tomorrow - I suspect it will not score as well.

But anyway, when people ask me how to write, I can now simply tell them to quit bothering me and go read what smart people have to say about it. You're welcome!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

And I Would Walk 500 Miles

So, back in April I decided that I was going to pull myself together and lose some weight. It didn't exactly work out. Things came up, and I didn't go to the gym, and I was too busy/lazy to make lunch, and the snacks were RIGHT THERE. Total fail. But now I'm in consular, where I can leave work promptly at 4:30 every day and the DCM's snacks are way far away on the second floor and the other side of the building. Besides, I now have more incentive to get in shape for the Irish hotties, so it's time to hit the gym. For real this time.

I had been using the exercise bike at the gym to decent effect until it vanished in the gym overhaul a few months ago and has yet to be replaced. This leaves me with little choice but to face my nemesis, the treadmill. The Foreign Service seems to be full of runners but I am not one of them. I have lousy knees, so I run only when being chased by tigers or other large dangerous predators. Fortunately, even in Africa, this doesn't happen that often. So how can I get my heart rate up without making my knees scream? There's an Olympic sport for that.


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Yes, racewalking. A highly competitive, demanding sport whose most notable feature is how its champions can push the limits of human endurance while simultaneously looking ridiculous. It's kind of unfair - no one goes up to Michael Phelps and says "You just won a zillion gold medals but people thought you looked pretty silly doing it. Any comment?" but that's all the poor Olympic racewalkers seem to get. But you know how racewalkers look, besides ridiculous? Thin. Really really thin. The world's best are walking 6-minute miles and burning ungodly amounts of calories doing it.

Now there's no way I'll ever walk or run a 6-minute mile, but burning ungodly amounts of calories without destroying my joints sounds pretty damn good. Maybe I should give this a try. I tend to look ridiculous when exercising anyway, so what do I have to lose?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet - Olympic Edition

(Because there's nothing else going on in my life right now.)

Michael Phelps has more medals than 148 countries: here's the list. (Guinea has never won a medal.)
Oscar Pistorius will run in the Olympics despite having no legs below the knee - do his high-tech prosthetics give him an unfair advantage?
Usain Bolt left in the dust by an 11-year-old named Sarah.
Find your Olympic athlete body match. Mine is a judoka, and also a dude.
How do you get your horse to the Olympics? FedEx.
Olympic diving is nowhere near as effortless as it looks; you can tell from their faces.
The Olympic swimmer who'd never been in an Olympic-size pool. This story's actually from the 2000 Sydney games, but it's so funny, so painful, and so emblematic of the tiny African country experience that I had to put it in.
Poisonous fumes, pigeon carnage, rioting crowds - 11 of the craziest events in Olympic history

This Olympics has been rough for politicians: London Mayor Boris Johnson gets stuck

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Days of My Life

We don't get a whole lot of nonimmigrant visa applications in Conakry. We don't do immigrant visas at all. There aren't all that many Americans in the country who need our attention. What, then, do I fill my days with? Visas 92 and 93. These aren't actually visas, strictly speaking, but special travel documents allowing the spouses and children of asylees and refugees to join their family member in the United States. If you're interested in the details you can find them here, though it's not exactly compelling reading. These things were mentioned exactly once in ConGen, where they told us not to worry about them because we'd probably never see one. Ha.

Each case has a ton of paperwork and several agencies and offices get involved, but essentially my job as the consular officer is to make sure that the documents go only to those who are eligible: the petitioner's spouse and any children who were under 21 at the time of asylum. Sounds simple right? It's not. Fraud and fake documents are rampant in Guinea, so it's hard to tell if a "wife" or "husband" is REALLY the petitioner's spouse or is in fact a sibling or a cousin or a neighbor or a complete stranger posing as a spouse to get to America. Ditto for kids: DNA testing is a lifesaver for picking out the biological children, but stepkids and adoptions are trickier cases. And maybe the woman at my window really is the petitioner's wife, but she's the second or third (concurrent) wife and the U.S. only lets you have one at a time.

Dealing with the 92/93 caseload is like daytime TV: a crime investigation drama, a soap opera, and a talk show all rolled into one. I've only just gotten started thinning out the piles on my desk and I've already got enough liars, cheaters, imposters, secret spouses, and who's-the-father reveals to fill a whole season of Maury. It can be kind of fun - solving puzzles, indulging in a little voyeurism - but the painstaking process of going through the file page by page and putting all the pieces together is often a major headache and can take forever. And the pile just seems to keep growing. I guess that's job security.