Saturday, March 30, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

I finally joined the 21st century and got an iPad, and I love it. Know who else loves iPads? Penguins.
The 21st century, as seen from 1967
Speaking of past versions of the future, you can make your own  pulp sci-fi covers with the Pulp-O-Mizer. Here's mine.
Need a new book but don't know which one? Try What Should I Read Next?
Word games: the 2012 Palindrome Championships
If you like that, you'll want to meet Cory Calhoun, master anagrammist.
Alaskan brewery makes beer with power from beer.
Jabberwocky sez: quit wasting time reading this article about why cats like to be petted and just get on with it already.
In celebration of the new season, here are 16 Game of Thrones parodies. The Princess Bride one is my favorite:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Identification

As you may know, government in general and the State Department in particular are a little obsessed with acronyms. I still maintain that we're not anywhere near the insane level of acronymization as our military counterparts, but learning to break the code is a key rite of passage in the transition from callow new hire to One Of Us (OOU?). We take our acronyms seriously.

Perhaps a little too seriously.

FSOs in their first two tours have a unique status in human resources terms. The rules for assignments, overtime, etc. are different for this group than they are for officers who are further along in their careers, so it's handy to have a term to refer to them by. An acronym, of course.

Originally this acronym was JO, for "junior officer." But the 2000s brought a new wave of midcareer new hires who felt that the term "junior" was insulting, lumping them in with a bunch of snot-nosed twentysomethings. Or worse - they could be called "junior" by a snot-nosed twentysomething boss. The horror. Enough people felt strongly enough about this to get the acronym changed. When I came in a few years ago it was ELO, for "entry-level officer," though the de jure change had partly but not fully made it to de facto, as there were plenty of crusty career diplomats around who had been saying JO for the last 30 years and by god they weren't about to change now.

This adjustment may have satisfied the second-career curmudgeons, but it didn't satisfy everyone. I don't know why. Perhaps second-tour officers resented being referred to as "entry-level," when they had in fact been in the Service for TWO WHOLE YEARS and were therefore seasoned veterans with nothing in common with those idiot first-tour officers, who really were "entry-level." Maybe people didn't like being associated with a mediocre 1970s rock band. So, incredibly, meetings were held, memos were written, consensus was arrived upon, and a new acronym arose to coexist awkwardly with the previous one.

Now in addition to being an ELO I am also FAST, which stands for "first and second tour." Fine, whatever, though as a woman it does make me wonder - is the State Department calling me a slut? And in noun form I would be a FASTO, which clearly means "obese person who can't spell." We'll see how long this one lasts before the rage of those uncomfortable with their sexuality and/or insecure about their weight rises up and overwhelms whoever the poor sods are who are responsible for such things. Remind me never to bid on that job.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Mount Nimba

Iron ore up close
The high point - both literally and figuratively - of the trip I went on with the ambassador to N'zerekore was the day we spent hiking Mount Nimba, the tallest peak in West Africa. Mount Nimba and the surrounding territory is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a nature reserve with tremendous biodiversity, home to numerous species unique to the area and groups of chimpanzees that use stone tools. The multitude of streams that start in the mountains provide invaluable water supplies for the nearby area and beyond; many of them eventually form the Niger River, West Africa's most important water source. The mountain is truly a treasure worth preserving.

However, all this biological abundance is rather inconveniently situated right on top of the world's richest deposit of iron ore - up to 90% pure iron. It's so soft you can dig it out of the mountain with your fingernails. Mining this stuff could do great things for the country's economy, which is sorely in need of a boost, but could also put all of that natural wealth at risk. Local populations have taken a toll on the area too through poaching for bushmeat and slash-and-burn agriculture, both disasters to an threatened ecosystem like Nimba.

It was a rare privilege to be in the mountains. As a strict nature reserve tourism is not allowed and access to the area is highly controlled. But being the Ambassador of the United States of America opens some doors, and I got to ride his coattails to a place few people get to see. And my god, was it ever worth seeing. The views from the top were spectacular, encompassing parts of Guinea, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. Neither the tool-using chimps nor the much-talked-about Nimba toad put in an appearance, but we did get to see a cave that's home to a protected colony of bats. Nature also taunted me with a bird whose call sounds exactly like the plunky chirp of the iPhone ringtone, making me constantly check my pocket for a phone that wasn't there. I'm such a city girl.

In short, visiting Mount Nimba was a wonderful and unique experience. Putting together a trip for an ambassador can be a pretty stressful task, but this day alone made it well worth all the trouble.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Expeditionary Diplomacy

I just spent the last week traveling with the ambassador in N'zerekore, Guinea's most remote region. It takes two days to get there from Conakry by car, but we saved some time by hitching a ride on a tiny little plane chartered by a mining company operating in the region. It was fun to see Guinea by air, though unfortunately after the long dry season most of it was obscured by a reddish haze of dust.

Part of the welcome committee
Traveling with the ambassador was wildly different from the travel I'd done on my own. Working for the embassy meant I never had any trouble getting meetings with officials and businesses and such, and occasionally there was some local media attention, but mostly my presence went unmarked and unnoticed by the population at large. An ambassador is a completely different kettle of fish. Everywhere we went the crowds were there to meet us, with singing and dancing and speeches and gifts. We were the most exciting thing to have happened to some of these places in years. Local officials competed with one another to demonstrate, in the most extravagant way possible, how very happy they were that the ambassador had come to their town. I think after this trip he probably has enough mudcloth boubous and gourds full of kola nuts to last a lifetime.

We covered a lot of ground in a few days, visiting mining sites, a refugee camp, a university, a civic center, and much more, and there were still so many things we just didn't have time for. We spent long hours on bumpy roads, though certainly not the worst I've seen in Guinea. I went to bed exhausted every night. I found the trip very educational, although all the pomp and circumstance made it harder to get down to the meat of things and really engage with the issues, and just about impossible to keep to a schedule. (As the person in charge of the schedule, this was just a tiny bit stressful for me.) But despite all the delays and surprises we got everything done that we went there to do, which was no small feat. And the boss seemed pleased, so I'm willing to call the trip a success.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: America's Other Army

I really meant to read America's Other Army: the U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy when it came out six months ago, but it took me a while to get around to it. Partly this is because I was busy with other things, but primarily it's because because this book had to wait until I finished reading all the Game of Thrones books. But now that I'm all caught up with the Starks and the Lannisters I finally have read it and am prepared to inflict my opinion on you. (This seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone that this is my own opinion and not that of the Foreign Service as a whole.)

America's Other Army is a picture of the Foreign Service (and to a lesser extent, the State Department Civil Service) as seen through the eyes of Nicholas Kralev. Kralev is not and has never been a Foreign Service Officer, but he does have years of experience covering international affairs as a journalist and was granted unprecedented access to the State Department's inner workings while researching this book. It shows.

A lot of the book is mainly useful as an orientation to who FSOs are, what we do, how we do it, and why. If you are kind of sort of maybe perhaps interested in joining the FS, I highly recommend it as intro reading material. But as an FSO I learned some things from it too. Between the historical perspective Kralev provides on the evolution of the State Department and U.S. foreign policy over the last few decades and his top-to-bottom, east-to-west, 7th floor-to-basement, Afghanistan-to-Zimbabwe survey of the Foreign Service as it is right now, the book covers the breadth and depth of the FS experience in a way that a single newbie vice consul in a sleepy African backwater can't hope to match. The overall tone was informative and friendly but not fawning, and Kralev did not skimp on pointing out the risks, flaws, and challenges of the Foreign Service, both as a lifestyle for individual officers and as an organization operating in the modern political world. However, every criticism in the book was raised by an FSO, and none of them took me by surprise.

The one section that made me cringe a bit was Chapter 7: Consular Affairs. Let's just say this book is probably not going to sell you on the glories of consular work. The chapter starts off with a journalist excoriating a consular officer for not doing something that happens to be illegal, and closes with a litany of FSOs who have been convicted for selling visas. In the intervening pages consular officers try, but fail, to save the lives of Americans overseas; inform an American couple they can't take their injured adopted child to the United States because they screwed up the paperwork; and go the extra mile to help U.S. citizens in distress only to have their efforts lambasted in print. Officers on the visa line are pilloried in the press simultaneously for letting too many people into the U.S. and keeping too many people out, while being spat on - figuratively and literally - by unsuccessful visa applicants. There are a couple of success stories in there too, but mostly this chapter is kind of a downer. All of the things he mentioned do happen; some of them have happened to me personally. But as someone who does consular work for a living, let me tell you that in general it's not as bad as this section of the book makes it sound.

Despite his apparent distaste for consular work, Kralev does an excellent job explaining the FS in simple language that makes sense. He plays the roles of the Ghost of Foreign Service Past, the Ghost of Foreign Service Present, and the Ghost of Foreign Service Future with equal facility, and I hope he will be successful in helping some anti-State Department Scrooges change their minds. In any case, if you have any interest at all in how the United States represents itself on the world stage this is not a book to be missed. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Area Studies

As the Day of All Things Irish draws nigh, I have a confession to make: for someone who's planning to move to Ireland in less than six months I don't really know that much about the country. It's not like Guinea, which I had never heard of before I was assigned here; I've certainly been aware of Ireland's existence, I just never thought about it that much. My mother's family is of Irish heritage, of fairly recent vintage, but it never really filtered down to me. I wasn't raised Catholic, I've never eaten corned beef and cabbage in my life, and I know almost nothing about my family history on that side. I think they're from Cork, maybe? Basically, all I know about Ireland is what I've absorbed from American pop culture: Guinness, the Blarney stone, St. Patrick, leprechauns, potatoes, potato famines, that kind of thing. I am in need of an education, lest I get off the plane and start asking people where they keep their Lucky Charms.

For this sort of thing the State Department has Area Studies, several courses designed as an orientation to whatever part of the world an FSO may be going to. Great in theory, but in practice I was less than thrilled with the Subsaharan Africa course I took before coming to Guinea. The scope of the course was so broad that Guinea was mentioned in passing perhaps three times in two weeks, and I don't know that Ireland would get much more attention in the Europe class that covers it. In any case, I don't get any training at all before going to post this time, so I'm putting together my own personal Area Studies class.

So far I have the most recent Lonely Planet, a couple of coffee table books with pretty pictures requisitioned from my sister, and The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People, by Neil Hegarty. This was a pretty good introduction I think, though it seemed to assume a slightly more culturally knowledgeable audience than me - maybe a Brit - and was a bit light on the 20th century, which was kind of a big deal for Ireland. I learned a lot though. I've always thought of Ireland as The Old Country, lost in the mists of time, so it was a bit of a surprise to find out how new a country it really is; Ireland didn't win independence until 1922 and didn't leave the Commonwealth until 1949. I also learned some interesting things about Viking invasions and medieval trade flows.

Another class I don't get to take is Irish Gaelic, because FSI doesn't offer it. Tragedy.  I could get by perfectly well in English of course, but if I'm going to live there for two years I'd prefer to get at least the basics down to avoid looking like an idiot. I mean, seriously, "Taoiseach"? How are you supposed to pronounce that? Look at all those vowels! TAY-oy-seech? Tow-EYE-zack? I'm pretty sure neither of those are even close, but in my current state of complete ignorance that's the best I've got. (A quick google says it's TEE-shock, which I would never have guessed.) And then there are the triple-consonant clusters, which I don't even know where to begin with. The BBC has an intro podcast and I hear there's a Rosetta Stone, so I should track those down. I hope that's enough.

Now the question is where to look next for more study materials. Unlike prepping for Guinea, where I was thwarted by a general dearth of information, for Ireland I'm a little overwhelmed by options and don't know what's worth devoting time and money to and what's not. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Maintenance

I don't particularly enjoy driving and I really don't like owning a car - the cost, the effort of maintenance - but here in Conakry I can't get along without Stanley*, my trusty Toyota 4Runner. However, I have not treated Stanley with the love and respect he deserves.

Poor Stanley hasn't had an oil change since I bought him when I arrived - I've just never gotten around to it. I never wash him, which is scandalous in Conakry. Car ownership here is a major status symbol and source of pride, so even the most banged-up 30-year-old Renault is always spotless. Stanley's A/C went out like a year ago, and I still haven't gotten it fixed. It's a self-perpetuating cycle at this point: I haven't fixed the A/C because I don't drive much, but I don't drive much because I haven't fixed the A/C. Cuts down on gas expenditures. The seals on the driver's door and the sunroof leak a little, which is annoying in the rainy season, but still not quite annoying enough to make me do anything about it. Especially since it stopped raining. A few months ago the windshield wipers stopped working except on the highest setting, but like I said, it's not raining. And there's a plastic piece from one of the wheel wells that got knocked off and has been rolling around on my floor for ages. And then there was the rat incident. In short, Stanley has seen better days.

But then I started feeling this menacing shake while driving, and I started to think that maybe this time I should really get my car checked out. But things kept coming up at work, and I kept forgetting about it, and the shake slowly got less menacing and nothing happened, until last Friday when the seams on one of my tires burst and the treads split off the rest of the tire like a peel off a banana. THEN I got my car fixed. Fortunately I was in the embassy parking lot when my tire went kablooie, so it all got taken care of with a minimum of fuss. A week later the wipers work, the leak is fixed, my tire is changed, I have new brake pads, the plastic piece is reinstalled, and Stanley is as sparkling clean as I've ever seen him. I was actually a little disoriented driving him home without the usual layers of grime. The A/C will be fixed as soon as we find a filter, and then he'll get an oil change and two new tires and be the best Stanley he can be.

It wasn't actually much of a hassle to deal with and didn't cost much (except probably the tires, those might be a bit steep). Car maintenance is just one more thing to think about, and clearly I have enough of those already. Some people can't keep up with the responsibility of pets - I can't handle car ownership. But I'm only here a few more months. Then I can find a nice new family for Stanley, and once I move to Dublin with any luck I can revert to the footloose responsibility-free world of public transportation. That'll give me two more years to develop the necessary maturity to successfully feed and care for a motor vehicle. I hope that's enough time.



*Stanley is named after Henry Morton Stanley, journalist, adventurer, and architect of colonialism in the Congo. He's the guy who said "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" upon finally finding the famous explorer after an extended search. I briefly considered naming my car Livingstone but figured that honor should go to the man who got out of Africa alive, even if he was kind of a horrible human being. It's a fascinating story though, and I highly recommend reading Into Africa by Martin Dugard and King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild for more info, if you're interested.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Award-Winning

I don't win things very often, but last week I was nominated for a Liebster Award: a viral chain-mail type thingie that encourages small-fry bloggers like myself to promote other blogs worth reading that people may not have heard of yet. There's no selection committee, no voting, the nomination is the award. Big thanks to Faith and David who nominated me.

A quick Google indicated that, like a virus, the rules have mutated over time and there now seem to be several strains floating around the interwebosphere. According to F&D's post, as a nominee my responsibilities are to:
  • Post 11 facts about myself
  • Answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger that nominated me
  • Nominate 11 other blogs and ask them 11 questions of my own 
  • Display one of the many Liebster award badges
  • Notify my nominees/recipients, each of whom should have fewer than 200 subscribers
Eh. That's a lot of elevens there, and I'm kind of lazy, so I may take this opportunity to cut things down a bit.  To five, to be precise.  BECAUSE I CAN. Also, only 200 subscribers? That's pretty micro for the internet. Can we make it like 500? That seems big enough to get some blogs that have earned their stripes in their own niche, without accidentally including HuffPo. And what does "subscriber" mean, exactly? Just the RSS feed? Facebook likes? Twitter followers? I'll just use my own discretion.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Disturbance

Last week the opposition parties organized a protest over some aspects of the organization of Guinea's upcoming legislative elections they don't like. To express their displeasure, they announced a peaceful protest march on Wednesday and for Thursday a "ville morte", a day when businesses and transportation shut down and everyone stays home. That was the plan anyway.

What actually happened was a not-so-peaceful march on Wednesday and scattered pockets of violence every day since then. Rock throwing, beatings, knifings, setting shops on fire, general hooliganism. One of our local staff got attacked on the way home from work on Thursday. A couple of guys jumped him, roughed him up pretty bad and stole a good sum of money from him. The security forces haven't entirely kept their hands clean either, reportedly opening fire. I'm pretty sure this isn't really about election systems and overseas voting anymore.

I'm fine, Mom. We've all been sticking close to home, and things have been pretty quiet around where I live. It's just concerning. Guinea has been pretty calm, pretty stable, the whole time I've been here. Sure, there have been occasional blips on the radar, but nothing quite at this level. I'd hate to see all of that peace and progress get thrown away now.