Sunday, March 30, 2014

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Lots of language links this month!
Ballad of a WiFi Hero: a modern epic
When humans die out, cockroaches will rule the Earth. What takes over when the cockroaches kick the bucket? Tardigrades.
Game of Thrones Season 4 starts April 6! Here's a 9-minute recap of the last three seasons, if your memory is fuzzy. And for the bookworms, here's a chapter from Book 6: The Winds of Winter!
Aesop's lesser fables
IBM's Watson is bored with Jeopardy and taking up cooking instead.
How can the U.S. Government save $400 million a year? Change font.

How big is the universe? I'm still not sure I can really grasp something that big, but this helps:

How Big Is The Universe? from Beakus on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Art Imitates Life. Poorly.

I recently read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, about a boy named Theo who survives a terrorist attack on a New York museum and walks out with a priceless masterpiece, which becomes the central focus of his life as he grows up and gets him into some seriously hot water later on. I thought it strained credulity in a few places and I was a little disappointed with the ending, but it was well-written and a good read overall. I also read this article about the book (no spoilers), in which the author details the uncanny similarities between the adult Theo's life and his own, and marvels at how perfectly Tartt captured the details of his particular line of work: dealing antique furniture. Quite to my surprise, towards the end of the book I also found my own very specialized trade in print. However, I was less than thrilled with Tartt's rendering of American Citizen Services.

Stranded in Amsterdam under unsavory circumstances, Theo calls the U.S. consulate and has a four-page conversation with a staff member, presumably a consular officer, about getting a replacement for a lost passport. It starts about halfway down page 711 if you have the book, or if you want to read this section in Amazon's Search Inside feature. Go ahead, I'll wait. (If you stick to pages 711-714, there are no significant plot spoilers.)

Where to begin? No, an adult does not need to present their birth certificate to renew a passport, or a driver's license or a Social Security card, though it's certainly helpful if they have them. In some cases we can process an emergency passport without any ID at all, if you had everything stolen but the clothes on your back. There's no such thing as a "passport waiver" in the sense she seems to be using. There's no chip missing from a temporary passport that would keep you from using it to travel to the United States. THAT'S WHAT THEY'RE FOR. And it absolutely does not take ten working days to process an emergency passport. We can crank one of those babies out in as little as half an hour if you have all your forms filled out and bring in everything you need the first time. I've had someone come in for a passport at 9:00am and make her 11:00am flight from the airport across town. She was pretty happy about that.

Tartt did get some things right. We will ask for a police report (though it's not mandatory) and you'll need to fill out an affidavit telling us what happened to your passport. And except for very rare, extremely serious emergencies, no one's coming in to the office to make you a passport on Christmas Day. To be fair, it did turn out to be pretty critical to the plot of the novel that Theo NOT be able to get a new passport that day, but I still would have liked to see just a little more accuracy about the process. As great as it is when a novelist gets part of your life right, it can be grating when they get it so wrong.

Friday, March 14, 2014

My First Irish Wedding

Not a bad place to nurse a hangover
This weekend I was my sister Laura's +1/chauffeur to her friends' wedding in Co. Meath, about an hour outside of Dublin. It was quite a hooley, as they say. For the occasion the couple rented out Ballymagarvey Village, a 19th-century manor house now converted into a hotel and event venue, very posh. Despite the classic Irish setting the wedding had a very modern globalized feel: the bride is Irish and the groom is Lebanese, so there was definitely some culture clashing going on. The best example I can think of is the two mothers' attire: the bride's mother wore a very proper ensemble that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Queen, with a fancy coat and matching hat. The groom's mother wore a flowing asymmetrical mauve dress studded with rhinestones, and she accessorized with hair extensions. They both looked lovely, but you'd never have guessed they were going to the same event.

But it's a wedding, and we were all there for the same reason: to wish the new couple every happiness and to drink heavily. Irish weddings do not skimp in the alcohol department, and this one was no exception. Pacing and hydration are very important! Despite some minor cultural differences, over the course of the very boozy weekend we learned that Irish bros and Lebanese bros can get happily smashed together and act like idiots in perfect harmony. World peace!

Gettin' jiggy with it
Some additional Irish flair was provided by dance performances at the reception. The first was a little Riverdance-style step dancing performance, very nice, but not unusual. The second was a group of senior citizens who performed and led the assembly in a series of folk dances while wearing weird straw cones over their faces. WHAT? These were straw boys, which the internet tells me is a wedding tradition from the northwest of Ireland, where the bride's family is from. Evidently they started out as party crashers preserving their anonymity with interesting headgear, and over time have by now morphed into entertainment troupes for hire, as strawboys' presence at a wedding is supposed to bring the couple good luck. Originally exclusively young men, the straw boys seem to have aged along with the tradition as folk dancing has fallen out of favor with today's youth.

One of the dances they did with the wedding guests was called the Siege of Ennis, which is apparently at least vaguely familiar to many of the Irish guests though the foreigners had no clue. (Not the Siege of Venice, which is what I thought I heard at the time, and which I imagined would be an extremely difficult place to besiege.) You can see it performed below, though this weekend's version looked way less organized and way more fun.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Brazargentinaguay

I have never been fond of the cold and dark, so almost as soon as I knew I'd be coming to Dublin I started thinking of ways to escape winter. Fortunately, one of the great things about the Foreign Service is having friends all over the world, and at any given time a good number of said friends are likely to be in warm sunny places. I persuaded two friends, one in Rio de Janeiro and one in Montevideo, to let me come crash with them for a few days last month. And because I wasn't going to go all the way to South America for a few days here and a few days there, I added in some solo travel time in Argentina for a a 16-day vacation extravaganza. It was fantastic.

I did a lot of things on this vacation. There was hang gliding and molecular gastronomy and hiking and a boat ride under waterfalls and museums and shopping and parties and a Carnival parade. Of all of this awesomeness Iguazu Falls may well have been the highlight of the trip: I spent almost three days there and never stopped marveling at the beauty and the sheer power of all that water. I HIGHLY recommend it.

I did a lot of nothing on this vacation as well - long luxurious hours on the beach drinking out of a coconut and watching the waves turn from aqua to teal to seafoam green as they rolled in to shore. As fun as all my activities were, the nothing time might have been the best part. I didn't realize exactly how much I had missed the sun until I walked out of the airport in Rio and was suddenly immersed in it. For days I was almost delirious with joy, drunk on sunshine as I put down a base tan and cranked out some vitamin D. I am truly made for the tropics.

Now that I'm back it might be time to start planning next year's winter escape. This was definitely a good idea.