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


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


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?