Friday, May 31, 2013

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

The future of gastronomy - 3D printed food? I find this scary and exciting at the same time.
Here's a great article on surviorship bias, with cute promotional posters for the "Department of War Math" as a bonus.
The lonely uphill struggle of the U.S. Metric Program
Need a vacation but can't leave your desk? Pump up your screen resolution and check out the awesome photography at Let's Travel Somewhere.
Alternately, play some Geoguessr. (Warning: dangerously addictive!)

The Lonely Island explains semicolons (but not very well)(NSFW):

Saturday, May 25, 2013


A few months ago I wrote that nothing strikes fear into a cat like a suitcase. I was wrong. Jabbers fears the suitcase all right, but not as much as he fears moving boxes. Slowly, over the last few weekends, a little at a time, I have been turning his little kitty world upside down. I pulled all the sheets off the extra bed he likes to hang out on, so now he has to roll all over the mattress to get it to smell right. I've moved his little cat palace to the other end of the house where the UAB pile is. And I am throwing everything into boxes and dragging them all over the place. And I haven't even gotten the suitcases out yet; I'm just putting the stuff that will go in them into a pile. 

His Highness is not pleased. He's gotten extra clingy lately, following me around on my packing rounds but taking care to keep a safe distance so he doesn't accidentally find himself packed up too. The movers come next Tuesday and then he'll really be thrown for a loop. Good thing I have an adaptable Foreign Service cat. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Roum Island

A week ago I said I had probably had my last beach day, what with the rain starting and all. I was wrong. While we've had some pretty wet spells lately, we were lucky today to have a full day of sunshine - perfect beach weather. As I was splashing around in the ocean it occurred to me that I had never really talked about the islands, which is a shame since its one of the best day trips you can make from Conakry, one I have made many times.

Conakry is a long skinny peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. At the end of the peninsula and a little ways out there are three islands that look like this: ( o ). The long skinny curvy islands are Kassa and Fotoba/Tamara, and the little round one in the middle is called Roum. Roum is where we go on weekends with the embassy boat. Did I mention the embassy has a boat? It's for emergency purposes, in case we ever need to evacuate but the roads are closed and the airport is shut down. But a boat isn't really something you can keep on a shelf until you need it, so we keep it in good order with beach trips during the dry season.

Most of Guinea's coast is rocks and mangroves, and that goes for Conakry as well. There are some small sandy beaches in Conakry proper, but so unsanitary as to be pointless to visit. Roum is different. It has some nice clean stretches of beach, far enough away from town to be out of its trash and sewage. There's a little restaurant that serves tasty seafood and chicken, as long as you order several hours in advance. And that's about it really. Sand, water, palm trees, fish, and sunshine (weather permitting). It wouldn't win any prizes against other beaches in the world, but it feels a world away from the chaos of Conakry, which is all I'm looking for. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


This evening I was just hanging out, watching some 30 Rock on my laptop, petting the cat, having a nice quiet evening at home, when disaster struck. The cat got tired of me, as cats do, and jumped off my lap to go entertain himself elsewhere. In the process he got his feet caught in the power cable. I watched, paralyzed with horror, as my precious computer leapt from my lap, spiraled through the air slo-mo Matrix style, and descended to the tile floor with a sickening crash. BAD kitty!

My precious baby is gone. The screen, while outwardly intact, has ceased to be a functioning feedback mechanism and now more closely resembles a high-concept contemporary art piece bristling with social commentary on the ever-increasing role technology plays in modern life. I'm thinking of selling it to MoMA. 

As for the rest of it, the diagnosis is uncertain. The video I was streaming actually kept running after the fall, so I have some hope that the innards are more or less intact and my data can be saved. Later I tried plugging it into my TV in the hope that the screen was the only damage, but alas, that does not seem to be the case. The few pixels that are still working now show the characteristic hue of the Blue Screen of Death. I'll pull out the hard drive and bring it home with me to see what can be done. At least I no longer have to figure out how to fit a cat and a laptop in the same carry-on bag.

I was planning to upgrade to a new laptop this summer anyway so I'm not terribly upset, but the timing is inopportune. I obviously can't just run down to the Best Buy in Conakry ville, so I'll be iPad-only until I get back to the States. I bought this thing to be my travel computer, and I guess now is as good a time as any to put it to the test. I have already decided that a keyboard might be a good idea. Hand cramp!

Sunday, May 12, 2013


I now have just under a month left a post. Sometimes this still seems like a very long time - a MONTH - especially since I have come down with a severe case of short-timer syndrome and am spending my every waking moment obsessing about home leave and Dublin. I think about these things, dream about them, so much that I wake up every morning surprised to still be in Conakry.

But really, when I break it down, a month isn't very long at all. Six more visa days. Four more ACS days. Four Country Teams. Four radio checks. Two more tanks of gas. One more big grocery trip. I may have had my last beach day already, since it started raining this week. I'm duty officer this week for the last time.

In the kitchen I've started to run out of things and not buy more, because I'm leaving soon and I won't use it. The last salsa. The last fish sauce. The consumables I've carefully rationed are finally running out. The last steak. The last Shiner. The things I have in surplus I'm starting to bequeath to deserving individuals who will survive me at post: some sweet tea vodka here, a little fig jam there, some truffle oil over here. (Yes, I own these things. Don't judge.)

And at the same time I'm racking up all of these lasts, I'm also starting to pack the first boxes. It's really starting to feel like I'm leaving.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


My home internet was out for five days last week, which was a bit of a trial. But I did what I always do when I'm bored - I cooked. A lot. I made BBQ chicken pizza with my new pizza stone. I made poached eggs on toast and cucumber salad. I took my long-owned but never-used pasta roller for a spin with from-scratch fettuccine with sun-dried tomato cream sauce. I made a fallen chocolate cake and topped it with Bailey's ice cream. I made a giant mess in my kitchen.
Fruits of my labors
I learned things. I learned that smoked gouda on a pizza is definitely a good idea. I learned that this recipe for fallen chocolate cake is actually more of a pudding than I really had in mind, but it's tasty and I think gluten-free, for those of you who deal with that sort of thing. I learned that the cat is crazy for Bailey's ice cream. I learned that kneading very stiff pasta dough is an effective full-body workout; I expected a twinge or two in my arms the next morning, but my aching abs caught me by surprise. I learned that tiny Guinean eggs do not result in the same rich yellow final product I was used to in Italy, but it still turned out okay. I learned that setting 5 on my pasta roller is still a bit too thick for fettuccine.

I learned that I am not half bad at this whole cooking thing, but then, I knew that already.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


I was one of those kids who was good at school, especially at tests. I always had the right answer, and I felt good about that. I got lots of positive reinforcement from gold stars and smiley faces at the top of my paper and it worked on me just like on Pavlov’s dog: I still love being Right, and I hate being Wrong. To this day, being Right fills me with sunshine and rainbows. On the other hand, I sometimes get this horrible sick feeling and something a little like brain freeze for a second or two when I realize that I have done/said something Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.

This is not a mindset that is well-suited for consular work (or, let’s be honest here, adult life in general). At the end of every visa interview I have made a choice – yes, or no. The applicant goes away happy or sad and that’s pretty much it as far as I’m concerned. I made a decision – was it Right? Who knows? Most likely I’ll never find out. There’s no teacher to pass back the exam, no answers in the back of the book. No one pulls back a curtain to show me if there’s a car or a goat on the other side. I just make the best decision I can and move on to the next one. 

On some decisions I never can know if I was Right or not: if I decide not to issue a visa no one can ever know if the applicant would have used it responsibly or not, because he didn’t get the chance. Have I denied visas to people who would have been good issuances? Almost certainly. And I feel bad about those, in a general sort of way, though I’ll never know who they were. 

Most of the time I never know if my issuances were Right or not either; they pick up their visa and I never see them again. But sometimes, every once in a while, word filters back that one of my many decisions was, in fact Wrong. I learned recently that I gave a visa to someone early in my consular tenure and that person never came back. I’m sure this person isn’t the only one. I may have been Wrong dozens of times and just never found out. But there’s something about having a specific concrete example of Wrong that’s infinitely more crushing than all the amorphous hypothetical Wrong you can throw at me. I do not like this at all.