Thursday, February 28, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Scientists wire two rats' brains together. Rats: "We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."
Belgium releases stamps that smell and taste of chocolate. Nice work Belgium. Now can you make stamps where the snozzberries taste like snozzberries?
While we're on the subject, here's a piece of information regarding snozzberries that will destroy your childhood. (NSFW)
The science behind the old Diet Coke and Mentos trick
For artists too modern to paint by hand but not ready to make the leap to computers, there's the Chromatic Typewriter
More typewriter art
From the Extremely Improbable Files: Arkansas couple wins the lottery twice in one day; Texas woman gives birth to two sets of identical twins at the same time. The first one sounds much more pleasant to me.

In honor of Argo's Oscar win, Argo Home Alone:

Sunday, February 24, 2013

And the Oscar Goes to...Who?

I had thought about maybe having an Oscars party this year - an excuse for the girls to get together and stay up until the wee hours of the morning playing silly movie-related games, making predictions, and playing fashion police. I've never hosted one before, but I went to one of these a couple of years ago in DC that was a lot of fun. However. The nominees came out, and of all the movies nominated, in every single category, I'd seen exactly one. I managed to catch Les Miserables when I was home for R&R, and frankly I didn't think it was that good. I had at least heard of most of the nominated movies from my blog reading, but by no means all of them. It hardly seems worth staying up for.

When you live someplace like Conakry it's hard to keep up with American pop culture. It can be done, but you really have to work at it. The closest thing Conakry has to a movie theater is a place where you can pay a few francs to sit on wooden benches under a tin roof and watch 80's movies dubbed into French shown on a projector. The internet helps, but it's so slow here that movie and TV downloads, legal or otherwise, just aren't practical. Sometimes I can't even get the iTunes store to load. Streaming is next to impossible. I've heard good things about some guy called Frank Ocean, but until this weekend I'd never heard any of his music. I have also recently heard of the Harlem Shake phenomenon, but I've also heard it's no longer cool so I don't know if I should invest the time needed to investigate it.

This media isolation is not an unadulterated evil. I'm sure there's a lot of dreck out there my life is better for not coming into contact with (although I do, unfortunately, know what a Honey Boo Boo is). I also don't get the overexposure that happens so often in the States - when I arrived home in December I didn't know any of the songs in the Top 40 rotation, but after a week in the car with the radio on I was sick of every single one. I'm reading more books. And besides, you don't join the Foreign Service and move to the other side of the world to have a life just like the one you had back home. But in order to get those new experiences, you do have to give some things up.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Excavation


I went through a brief paleontology/archeology phase in middle school. I read Jurassic Park and was inspired by the the thought of bringing history to life, literally or otherwise. Then my parents, always eager to indulge my academic interests, took me to an archeological field school to help excavate the remains of a 19th-century plantation and sugar mill. There I learned that in practice archeology involves fewer amazing discoveries and a lot more squatting on the ground under the beating sun removing dirt layer by layer with a toothbrush and finding nothing much. That was the end of that career plan.

I was reminded of this today as I took advantage of a slow Friday to clean out my office. The shelves and drawers were full of junk when I moved in. Our embassy building is pretty new, built in 2006, but years of successive vice consuls in quick rotation have built up an impressive amount of stuff.  As I prefer to work digitally as much as possible I wasn't short on space, so I just left it there. Today, however, I dug in, and I dug deep.

My excavation turned up a lot of the expected detritus of bureaucratic life: ancient business cards, assorted receipts and boarding passes, user manuals for software no one uses anymore, notes from meetings long forgotten. However, I also made a number of more surprising discoveries. Here's a sample:
Lost Treasures of the Consular Section
  • 10" frying pan, dented
  • Instant Immersion Arabic 8 CD set
  • Doxycycline, 4 years expired
  • Box of Halloween Peeps - not expired!
  • Journey Without Maps by Graham Greene, Penguin paperback edition 
  • Fodor's Flashmaps New York
  • Marine Ball shot glass 
  • 1/8 ounce bottle Tabasco
  • 3'x5' U.S. flag
  • 3 pairs Christmas earrings
  • 2 photos of an unidentified Caucasian male eating lobster
  • Hermes orange scented deodorant, used
  • Assorted "fun size" candies, viability unknown 
  • Chicken Riot for Wii and pistol accessory, new in box [unearthed 2/28]
Without the benefit of obvious geological layers it's tough to properly date these artifacts, but there are clues. The Tabasco probably came out of an MRE during the last evacuation, which would date it from the Third Vice Consular Era. That office hasn't had many female occupants, so the earrings are probably from VCE 4. The shot glass is from the Marine Ball before last, clearly VCE 5.  But alas, the origins of most of these items will remain shrouded in mystery. Their destination is more obvious; with a few exceptions, all of these unique historical artifacts will shortly find themselves in the giant trash bin outside my office. A tragedy for the nascent field of bureaucratic archeology? Perhaps, but certainly a big win for office management.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Prophecy

I had a weird dream last night. This is itself is not unusual. I have a very active night mind, and frequently inflict "last night I dreamt" stories on my family over breakfast, though I try to keep them to a minimum with friends and coworkers lest you all realize how truly crazy I am. But last night I dreamt that my sisters and I were shopping in a hardware store, when I noticed a dusty freezer case in the back. When opened, it turned out to be full of giant two-gallon tubs of Blue Bell ice cream, in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and, oddly, pistachio. We were overcome with joy and immediately started trying to figure out how to bring home as much as humanly possible with nothing but our own brute strength and a little wire shopping trolley.

For those of you who are not familiar with Blue Bell ice cream, let me first say that I pity you. Blue Bell is the very best supermarket ice cream out there, hands down. I'm not going to say there aren't some fine handcrafted Italian gelati that can't beat it out, because there are, but if your ice cream comes in a cardboard tub from a freezer case it had better be Blue Bell baby. It's rich, dense, creamy, and still a hefty half-gallon instead of an air-puffed quart and a half. But sadly, many of you are not familiar with Blue Bell, because it's only sold in a handful of mostly-Southern states.

This is where the prophecy comes in. In my post-slumber Blue Bell-related googling, I came across a news tidbit that will make at least my sister's dreamed-up ice cream joy into a reality: Blue Bell just announced that they are opening up distribution facilities in Virginia. That's not quite close enough to make it to her perch in the District, but nothing a quick road trip can't fix. Still, I'm totally willing to claim my dream predicted it. I mean, my dream is way closer to reality than all that stuff about fat cows and skinny cows, and that made it into the Bible. Quick results too - take that, Nostradamus!

In other creamy confectionery news, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under fire for spending $2,700 of public funds annually on ice cream. Bibi's favorite flavor is, oddly, pistachio. It seems like a pretty small number in the grand scheme of things, but it would buy an awful lot of ice cream. I really hope he's sharing. On the other hand, I'm sure both Presidents Bush spent more than that during their terms in office flying Blue Bell in for White House receptions, but from the leader of the free world I would expect nothing less than the best.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Extracurriculars

One of the joys (and the challenges) of working at a small post is that you end up doing all kinds of things that aren't in your job description. This is why all job descriptions include the phrase "other duties as assigned." The next several weeks will be particularly busy for me as I tackle all kinds of projects above and beyond my consular role.

There's the usual visa and passport processing, of course. I also chair the Interagency Housing Board, which is responsible for making housing assignments for incoming personnel. We're in for an intense summer transfer season with more than half of the embassy staff turning over in the space of six months, so I've been putting in a lot of time with spreadsheets trying to make sure we have a house for everyone. Just when I thought I had it all worked out we got word that one more person would be coming in this spring, so we had to scrap the whole thing and start over again from scratch. I think I've got it sorted out now, but if any more new staff drops into our laps we're in trouble.

I am also in charge of coordinating the embassy's annual budget request, which involves getting input from the various agencies at post, making sure the numbers all add up, and writing narrative justifications to explain how our chosen resource allocation helps meet U.S. foreign policy goals. I don't usually have much to do with the financial side of the house, so this is a new experience for me. I look forward to finding out what the hell a "sub-object code" is. Apparently it's important.

And then there's the ambassador's upcoming trip to one of the more remote areas of Guinea, which I get to plan and participate in. This will be a great opportunity to get out from behind the visa window and see some more of the country, but it's also a real logistical challenge to make sure the ambassador can go where he needs to go and do what he needs to do in an area with very little of the infrastructure - good roads, hotels, gas stations, restaurants, etc. - you need to support this kind of endeavor.

Conakry's consular section is pretty sleepy compared to others around the world, but you can't say I'm not keeping busy.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Bavaria

While I was in Garmisch I did spend most of my time working (No really! I did!), but I managed to squeeze in some time to experience Bavaria while I was there. My attempt at snowboarding was pretty much a fail, but I found plenty of other ways to occupy my time that did not involve throwing myself down a mountain strapped to a plank of wood.

I spent a good amount of time wandering around in Garmisch, which is just charming. Really, there's no other word for it. They still had all the lights up from Christmas, and everything was so pretty it hardly looked real. I also walked out of town a bit to see Partnach Gorge, which is not charming; it's awe-inspiring. In the winter amazing natural ice sculptures form all over the place. It's like nothing I've ever seen, and I highly recommend taking an afternoon off from skiing to go check it out.

A little farther afield, I took a day trip to Dachau to see the concentration camp, a first for me. This wasn't exactly fun, but it was interesting and worth the trip. The museum was thorough and informative, but compared to the more emotional experience you get at the Holocaust Museum in DC, it seemed a bit sterile. Maybe this is to be expected in Germany, where WWII can still be a bit of an awkward subject.

Another day trip brought me to Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairy-tale castle Walt Disney used as a model for Cinderella's castle in Disney World. Walt probably would have gotten along pretty well with Ludwig II, who built the place. Ludwig definitely had his head in the clouds: he designed the whole castle around Wagner's operas - complete with an artificial grotto on the third floor - and had imaginary guests to dinner. You're not allowed to take pictures of the inside, which is a shame. The castle was never entirely completed, but the rooms that are finished are pretty spectacular.

The closest I got to successful snow sports was sledding. There's a place nearby in Austria that turns a ski slope over to sledders a few nights a week, so I gave that a try. I won't lie - there were a few spills at the beginning while I was working out the steering, but after I worked the kinks out it got awesome fast. It was kind of like Mario Kart, but colder and more intense. I would definitely do that again, though I may need to invest in some goggles next time.

But the very best thing about my time in Bavaria was the food. Oh my god, the food! I had never cared much for German food before - I found it kind of bland and heavy - but once I started eating in Bavaria I didn't want to stop. Dumpling soup! Sauerbraten! Currywurst! Doughnuts! Venison goulash! Spaetzle! Schnitzel! Roast goose! Pretzels! Apfelstrudel! I don't know if the food was just better there or if the elevation does something to your tastebuds, but everything was delicious. And of course, there was plenty of excellent beer to wash it all down. (I took no pictures of any of these things, because I did not want to waste a single second getting them into my mouth.)

All in all, a delightful trip. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Conferring

My consular conference has wrapped up, and I have to say, it was pretty great. Assistant Secretary Jacobs came and talked about the next five years of consular work. With comprehensive immigration reform finally on the table in Congress, some aspects of visa processing may be in for some major changes in the coming years, depending on what the final agreement looks like. In the meantime, the Washington offices are doing their best to make sure the State Department in general and Consular Affairs in particular are actively involved in the discussion. That kind of big-picture long-term perspective is really fascinating, and easy to lose sight of dealing with day-to-day issues in a little visa window way out in Conakry.

This particular conference was aimed mostly at managers of small consular sections, so as the junior partner in a two-person section some of the subject matter didn't necessarily apply to me, but I found more than enough useful material to make it worthwhile. I had expected/feared a lot of buzzword-heavy management theory blather, and while there was a little of that, overall the presentations were very practical and down-to-earth. There was a session on process mapping that will be especially useful as I spend the next several months trying to get the section a bit more organized in preparation for my successor. We also had a very informative talk on crisis management and preparedness, which has a lot of relevance in a volatile region like West Africa.

While the official materials were helpful, the best thing about the conference was getting to meet my colleagues from other posts like mine. It was really helpful to be able to talk about common issues and see what other people are doing to solve some of the same problems we have at post. Most of the attendees have several tours under their belt and I appreciated getting to learn from their experience. I also appreciated finding out that these veteran consular officers had some of the same questions I did, so I feel a little less stupid now.

But work stuff aside, it was wonderful just to meet these folks and hang out together. They're really cool people with great stories to tell. Sure, every organization has its bad apples - and they certainly came up in the stories swapped over a couple of beers - but the overall quality of the people working in the State Department was one of the main things that drew me to the Foreign Service in the first place. This impression has not yet been proven wrong. We ate, we drank, we sledded, we sang karaoke, and I for one had a wonderful time. Can we do this again soon?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Headlines

Another day, another fatal U.S. embassy attack. It was Ankara this time, a suicide bomber. The only confirmed fatality - aside from the bomber himself - is a local-hire embassy guard, not an ambassador, which is why the story in the coveted top center spot on CNN International mere hours after the event was a much more important issue: whether a body recently discovered buried under a parking lot in England is or is not Richard III. When I saw this it made me suddenly angry in a way I did not expect.

I am biased, of course. Another suicide bomber killed 23 people in Pakistan today and 33 people died in an office building explosion in Mexico yesterday, and I hardly noticed. Did you? It seems like this kind of thing is happening so often these days that it's just not really big news anymore, just one more gloomy headline to skim among so many others until it drops off the front page to make way for newer, fresher bad news. It's hard to relate, hard to care, until it happens closer to home.

And for me this is close to home, even though Ankara is thousands of miles away from where I am, because this is in the family. Obviously I never met this guard, don't know anything about him, or even if it is a him and not a her. He was just as much a stranger to me as the victims in Mexico or Pakistan, except that he and I were working for a common goal - protecting and promoting the United States of America. He wasn't just some anonymous contractor, he was a vital part of the mission. Just think how many more news stories about killed ambassadors or perhaps even lowly vice consuls we'd be reading without all the local guard forces on the first line of defense.

With headlines like these most of the world reads, and, having read, moves on. The Foreign Service family pauses to grieve. No, he wasn't an ambassador, but he was one of our own.