Thursday, January 31, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Afghanistan's first female rapper. You go girl!
A spider that builds decoy spiders. Nature is insane.
For those of you not into spiders, here's some cats snuggling with stuffed animals. Weapons-grade cute.
Also, apparently we want to squeeze cute things because they make us aggressive?  If you say so, Popular Science.
The entire Toy Story movie done in real life, with actual toys.
Mosaics made of unusual objects. My favorite is #7 - MLK Jr. made of Rubik's cubes.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, as per Google Translate. The idea's simple enough - who hasn't played with Google Translate? - but the execution makes it great. I could not stop giggling.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Ups and Downs

This week I'm in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, for a consular conference. It amazes me that less than 24 hours' worth of planes, trains, and automobiles can get me from trash fires and scrap metal shacks to crisp mountain air and charming ski chalets frosted with a pristine and picturesque blanket of snow. I figured it would be a tragedy to waste a free ticket to Winter Wonderland on work, so I chipped in some vacation days on both ends to make the most of it.

I also decided I would use this as an opportunity to put into practice my sort of-New Year's semi-resolution to try more new things. In Iceland I tried horseback riding and dry-suit snorkeling and hurling myself off a cliff into ice-cold water, and those things all turned out to be pretty good fun. In Garmisch I tried learning to snowboard, and it was an absolute disaster.

Turns out in snowboarding your non-dominant foot goes in front and takes most of the weight. After a couple of dislocation incidents in high school and college my non-dominant knee is not really okay with this plan, so I tried snowboarding lefty, essentially. This may not have been a good idea. Or it may have made no difference - my natural lack of balance, coordination, and athletic ability may have been enough to sink this ship all by itself.

I never quite got the hang of having a large heavy plank of wood or fiberglass or whatever strapped to my foot. By the time I had huffed and puffed my way uphill I had missed the instructions and everyone else was going down. I got going, slowly, and then fell. I picked myself up, got going again, fell again. And then I'd pick myself up again and huff and puff my way back up the hill to go through the process again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes, just for variety, I'd fall going uphill too. Hell, sometimes I'd fall just standing still. It was like being trapped in a Yakety Sax blooper reel, but in slo-mo. I signed up for a four-hour lesson, but after an hour and a half of faceplants I decided to call it quits and do something FUN with my vacation. I do not regret this choice.

So, new things: not always awesome. On the other hand, aside from some wasted cash and mild humiliation nothing really bad happened either. And I got a decent blog post out of it, so there's that. Look for more tales of embarrassment as 2013 goes forward. It's gonna be an interesting year.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

DiploSkills: Phonetic Spelling

I've never really liked the phone as a method for communication. It's not as satisfying and engaging as a real face-to-face conversation, but it requires enough attention that I can't do something else at the same time, like I can with texts or IM. I especially dislike talking on the phone when I have to discuss something complicated and/or in French on a lousy intercontinental and/or cell phone connection. But until we get Star Trek teleporters or realistic real-time 3D hologram video chat (and the bandwidth to support it), tinny garbled phone calls are part of the reality of diplomacy.

And eventually, once you've grappled with the lag and the static long enough to establish that whatever you're talking about really requires correspondence, you have to give the other person your email address. If your name is anything more complicated than Smith or Jones there will inevitably be spelling involved, and anyone who's ever had to identify themselves to a friendly customer service representative knows how hard it is to differentiate between M and N or B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V and Z on even a good phone connection.

Enter the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. You know what this is even if you think you don't, because some guy uses it on the radio at some point in just about every war movie ever made. The idea is simple: every letter has a code word assigned to it, a code word that has been chosen and tested to be recognizable by speakers of several different languages and different enough from the other code words in the set that you can tell them apart even in adverse auditory conditions. It's brilliant. Since joining the FS I have made great strides in learning my Alpha Bravo Charlies, but I also have the chart printed out and taped up next to my phone for any long-distance spelling emergencies that may arise.

The only downside to this system is that the person on the other end of the line also has to be generally familiar with the concept; otherwise, when you start rattling off a series of seemingly random unconnected words they're likely to be all "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" In such cases you may wish to revert to the "B as in boy" method. Not as cool, but it usually gets the job done.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Space Invaders

Critters and creepy crawlies are just part of life in Africa. My coworkers have great stories about all kinds of wildlife that came to stay over at their houses, from hand-sized spiders to Gambian pouched rats to baby cobras. So far I've been pretty lucky as far as keeping the inside in and the outside out - I've had a gecko or two and the periodic cockroach, but nothing major. They entertain the cat. I pay a bounty of three cat treats per cockroach corpse, which encourages him to keep sharp and to not eat the carcasses, which tend to result in some nasty cat puke messes when ingested.

But I went on vacation, and all of a sudden the outside came in with a vengeance. I discovered my first unexpected houseguests when I went to make some biscuits and noticed that my flour was wriggling. The whole bin was utterly infested with a colony of weevils (I think), which was busily laying the foundations of a great civilization in my pantry. It was interesting, in a nature-study sort of way, to see through the clear plastic all the little tunnels they dug, kind of like an ant farm. But I lost the whole lot of flour, since even my finest strainer couldn't keep the larvae out. Yes, I tried sifting the bugs out to save my flour. This is how you know you've adapted to local conditions.

My second surprise visitor revealed itself through ear-splitting squeaks: the Jabberwock had encountered his first mouse. He had it cornered in the sunroom but seemed disinclined to immediately dismember and devour his ancestral prey, perfectly happy to watch his new toy squirm and poke it periodically to make it squeak. After all, he'd just been fed. I trapped it under a bowl and brought it out to the guards, who graciously stomped it to death for me, much to Jabbers' disappointment. I never let him have any fun.

Jabberwocky's lack of carnivorous bloodlust now has me looking for something that's not an oxymoron, exactly, but occupies a similar space of things-that-should-not-be: a cat-safe mousetrap. He's on his own until I get some though, and since the most reliable and accessible food source in the house is his own food dish, he might find himself with incentive to get a little more confrontational.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

First Attempts

The other day I watched Bad Writing, an independent documentary film (streaming free through January!) in which a thirtysomething creative writing student revisits the poetry he wrote in his I'm-God's-gift-to-literature phase in his twenties, and it's TERRIBLE. He uses this as an opportunity to explore what makes writing bad or good, how people learn and/or are taught to write, and other interesting questions about writing and an author's relationship with his/her own work. Some of the movie wanders - there's a section about books vs. ebooks that doesn't really seem to fit - but mostly I really enjoyed it. If you also think way too much about words, you might too. Here it is:

BAD WRITING from Morris Hill Pictures on Vimeo.

Like the filmmaker, I too had a grandiose writing phase, but mine was a bit different. He was in his teens and twenties and filled boxes and boxes and boxes with depressing booze-fueled poetry in an attempt to become our generation's version of the Beatniks. I was eleven or twelve and decided I would write the Great American Novel. I planned this as a fantasy trilogy featuring a spunky girl heroine who discovers a gift for magic, gets drunk on her own power, betrays her mentor, and becomes an evil sorceress/empress. She's eventually captured by the forces of good and trapped in a crystal castle in the middle of a deep dark forest for 1000 years, when some bumbling but good-hearted adventurers free her by accident and have to teach her how to be a decent human being before she destroys the world. There was a talking pig.

As much as I would love to share this masterpiece with you (and cash in on the inevitable flood of royalties), it no longer exists. I'm pretty sure. Unless my parents have an incriminating 3 1/2" floppy disk somewhere in their vault of daughters' childhood memorabilia. But there was never much of it anyway. Unlike Mr. Lott, I only pecked out a chapter or two before deciding that writing was HARD and running off to play with my Legos and think about maybe being an archeologist instead. Or an astronaut. I did also have a mopey poetry phase in college, but I was under no illusions as to the quality of those poems and mostly destroyed them once they had served their cathartic purpose and the Emotional Maelstrom of the Week was over.

But even if I still had those things lying around, I doubt I'd have the stones to share them with the world. It takes a brave man to put his first attempts on display, even if they were written a long time ago. My hat is off to you sir!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Iceland in Winter

Not content with spending my whole R&R in the States, I spent a few days in Iceland on the way home with my sister and two friends. When I talked about this trip to people ahead of time, they all said something along the lines of, "Iceland in winter? Are you nuts? It's COLD there!" My sanity may have been questioned. However, I feel my decision has been vindicated, as I have returned safely home with all of my extremities intact, a camera full of photos, and a head full of very fond memories.

The trip was not an unalloyed success, due entirely to factors beyond our control. We had very bad luck with weather. An unseasonable warm spell melted a lot of the snow, rendering our planned dogsledding excursion impossible. Even more heartbreaking, the sky was solidly cloudy every single night we were there so we never got to see the aurora borealis, our main purpose for going on this trip in the first place.

Despite these disappointments, we had a hell of a time. For such a small place (pop. 120,000) Reykjavik turned out to be a pretty fun town and a great base for day trips. We saw medieval illuminated manuscripts, rode Icelandic ponies, stood under a geyser, snorkeled on a continental divide, spelunked a lava tube, and spent luxurious hours in various geothermal hot tubs. We consumed a range of Icelandic specialties, including but not limited to smoked puffin, salmon on rye, brennivin (a caraway schnapps), and fermented shark. I don't especially recommend that last one, but it was fun to try.

I think we've all decided we want to go back to Iceland someday, though perhaps in more hospitable climes so we can see more of the country than we did on this trip. I may go back in the winter too and try to catch the lights again; it's not too far from Dublin, so I could pop up for a weekend when the weather looks fine. So it wasn't everything we had hoped for, but most of the time we were having too much fun to notice.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Decisions, Decisions

And we're back!

I'll have a recap of my awesome vacation up as soon as I get the photos curated and all that, but in the meantime I'm just enjoying being home. After living out of a suitcase for three weeks, as delightful as those weeks were, there's something deeply satisfying about sleeping in one's own bed, cooking in one's own kitchen, and snuggling one's own cat (who feels grievously wronged after being abandoned for so long and demands ample restitution in snuggle form).

Speaking of cooking in one's own kitchen, I did a little grocery shopping in Paris on the way home and brought back some key produce items that are difficult or impossible to find in Guinea and that I have missed dearly over the last year and a half. Specifically, I picked up a butternut squash, some red onions, a fennel bulb, a pomegranate, some fresh mushrooms, and some celery. Just seeing this bounty nestled in my fridge makes my heart bubble over with happiness.

But now I have to figure out what to do with it all, and that's where I'm running into problems. There are just so many possibilities! Do I make the mushrooms into a ragu and put it on polenta, or make a risotto? Or do I stuff them? Or grill them? Or just saute them and put them on a steak? I could also make a risotto with the butternut squash, or a soup, or try out my new pasta roller with some squash ravioli. I could serve it cubed with maple glaze and rosemary. The fennel and pomegranate seeds will probably go on a salad, so that's sorted, unless I decide to make a salsa to put on a pork chop instead. The onions will last a while - I got a good 5 months from the batch I brought home from South Africa last year - and be served in various forms, including but not limited to salads and guacamole.

But the celery! I never appreciated celery before I moved to Guinea. It was just there, in the crisper drawer, next to the carrots. Rarely the featured ingredient in a dish, I never realized how often I used it until I couldn't get my hands on it for love or money. I cannot count the times I've been making chicken stock, or soup, or anything with a mirepoix, and thought, "if only I had some celery!" But now that I have a whole pound of pale green goodness in my fridge I suddenly can't think of a single thing to do with it that properly honors this vital vegetable. Ants on a log has been suggested, and it's not such a bad idea. Maybe I'll just cut it into sticks and dip it in ranch dressing, savoring the crisp crunch with every bite. That sounds pretty great actually.