Sunday, January 29, 2012

I held out as long as I could...

...but now I'm following twitter feeds.

I swear though, it's only for this one class. And it's Embassy La Paz, so I've got a perfectly legit reason.

Still, it's a slippery slope. I'm picturing me a month from now receiving a hundred tweets a minute and I'm cringing inside. I guess blogging isn't so far off though, is it?

In other news:
1) I met my old Serbian tutor today. We spoke for an hour (in Serbian) and it was comfortable but I can already tell that the Spanish studying is killing my Serbian skills. I broke down a couple times and even threw in a Sinhala word once or twice. Yuck.

I'm reading Hija de la Fortuna by Isabel Allende though, and that's helping.

2) I met yet another person trying out for the foreign service today. (Actually she's already on the register.) I can only conclude that the entire world is on the path to the Foreign Service since this must be the 5th person this month.

3) I saw the National Symphony Orchestra last night. They were fantastic.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Update on stuff

It was 61 degrees when I woke up this morning. Sixty-one. I wish every winter was like this.

I got my shots for Uganda (and/or Bolivia I suppose). My arms felt like lead weights for two days. I also got a prescription for that malaria medicine that makes you hallucinate. I figured, why not spice things up a bit? (Actually, it's the option with the fewest pills, and since I can't swallow pills to save my life it seemed most appropriate.)

A car exploded outside my window a few days ago. No one was injured. The fire fighters did a great job.

I took a negotiation class last weekend and I can already feel the improvement in my negotiating abilities. In fact, it makes me want another try at that Group Exercise (if you'll remember, that's the one section I didn't pass at the OA). If you're interested, the book we used is Getting to Yes and it was very helpful, but there's no substitute for the in-class experience where you can test out strategies and get feedback on your style.

That's about it. I promise another newsy update when I find something interesting to say. Until then I might just leave you with interesting Bolivia pictures to get us all in the mood.

P.S. Oh, and we'll be practicing Spanish from now on.

Hasta luego!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Actually, the full name is Our Lady of Peace.

That's right, I have my internship assignment for next summer - I'm headed to (Nuestra Senora de) La Paz Bolivia. Bolivia was my first choice and I'm very excited, so thanks Embassy La Paz!

I also made a potential tactical error by starting to prepare for Bolivia before I actually got assigned there. (Reading books and articles, writing papers about it, practicing my Spanish.) So I'm relieved that my risky choice paid off in the end and all that studying had a purpose. :)

You may be asking how I settled on Bolivia as a first choice, and I admit it was a tough decision. There was the whole world to choose from after all. In the end though I think I made the right decision for several reasons:

#1 Language skills I speak some Spanish, so I have at least the hope of communicating. We were, of course, allowed to try for countries where we don't speak the language, but I really want to be able to contribute, and for that language skills are a must. Unfortunately, they also really cut my options. I speak Serbian at an ILR level 2/3 and my Spanish is probably the same, though a bit rusty. So I was aiming for either South America or the former Yugoslavia.

#2 Safety Safety concerns ruled out a couple of places in my target bureaus, like Colombia.

#3 Off the beaten path. I wanted a relatively less touristy place. Not that people don't travel to Bolivia, but I imagine it gets fewer tourists than Peru or Argentina might.

#4 Bolivia is actually a really interesting place.
From a foreign policy perspective - we haven't had an ambassador there since 2008, but we've recently agreed to restore full diplomatic ties.
From a development perspective - it's one of the poorest countries in South America.
From a cultural perspective - it has the highest percentage of indigenous citizens.
Likewise, the history, the geography, and the politics are all unique and interesting.

#5 Family My brother and sister-in-law live in South America and while I wasn't able to intern in the country where they live I wanted to be nearby so I could visit them.

#6 Travel There are plenty of cool things to see and do in the general La Paz area. Machu Picchu is pretty close, as is the Salar de Uyuni, and Lake Titicaca and Death Road (not sure why this comes to mind, but I consider it a selling point).

In short, it seemed like a good place to spend 10 weeks. Without further ado I will leave you with some amazing photographs that I have shamelessly stolen from other websites. (I tried to put links into the pictures, so please visit the host sites too!)
Machu Picchu

Salar de Uyuni

Lake Titicaca

Death Road

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Around town

I've been busy since I got back to town, both working and trying to get a head start on some reading for this semester, but I still have some time for sightseeing, so I decided to cross a few more DC sights of my list. Especially since this is (thankfully) my last semester of school before I join the FS.

Last week was so gorgeous that I headed outdoors. I saw the SW-Waterfront area and really liked it. There's the little known Titanic Memorial, dedicated to the men who gave up their places to let women and children onto the lifeboats.

Further on there are some awesome houseboats. Part of me started scheming about how I could buy and houseboat and drag it around the world with me to wherever I'm posted. Isn't this one cute though?

Finally, there is the slightly sad looking Banneker Park, named for the man who helped survey DC. He was really accomplished - an astronomer, mathemetician, surveyor, and author - especially in a time when African Americans, even in the North, were so marginalized. Check out his wikipedia page.

I also headed out on Monday in what turned into a big sloppy snowstorm to see the Supreme Court. They don't let you take pictures inside the courtroom, and I got soaked trying to get pictures outside, so I there isn't much evidence that I was there. Here's the West side though.
Did you know that directly above the courtroom there is a basketball court? Or that the Supreme Court building was only built in the 1930s - and that it can in on time and under budget? If you are interested in visiting there is a half hour video, a gallery with some exhibits, and a half hour courtroom lecture. As with almost every museum in town, it's free.

On my way back to the metro I got this shot of the capitol. Do you see how big the snow...chunks... are? No wonder I came home soaked to the bone. It was beautiful though, and as first-snow-of-the-years go it wasn't bad.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Writing for the Foreign Service

I'm passing these tips along to others in the process of applying to the foreign service. I got these tips from three sources:
1) Writing workshops for fellows this summer at State. It was immensely helpful to get feedback on my writing, so if you have an FSO to help you practice I recommend taking advantage of their help.
2) The generous feedback and coaching I received from everyone at my internship this summer. My writing improved a great deal with their help.
3) A series of 20 articles about Writing and Career Development(mentioned above) by Mr. Mortimer D. Goldstein. You can find them in the March 1985-December 1986 issues of State magazine. (Good luck finding that. I was only able to find it in the Department of State's library, and only after being pointed in the right direction by a colleague.)

The writing skills I picked up from these sources improved my FS writing from a 4.5 on the CM section of the FSOA to at least a 5.25 (and possibly higher, haven't gotten my full scores yet), so I include them in the hopes that they will benefit others as well.

The Golden rules:

1. Make it simple.
We write to communicate, so the meaning of your writing should never be hidden. Forget everything you read in graduate school. Your writing should be accessible to everyone from busy policymakers to non-native English speakers. If your reader has to reread your writing then it isn't good enough yet. A good way of thinking about this comes from Mortimer Goldstein who originally wrote a series on writing for State magazine back in 1986. "When are words clear?" he asks? "Not when they can be understood... It's when your words can't be misunderstood." You don't want to leave any room for misinterpretation.

A great example of what not to do is this paragraph, which won first prize in Philosphy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest of 1998:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Imagine that the fate of the free world depended on people being able to understand that paragraph.

Yeah. It's a scary thought.
(Click here for the original page. And/or here for a blog post on the subject.)

One final note for those trying to simplify their writing: There is a limit to how much you should simplify. Don't use childish language. Use full names and titles. Don't omit important details. Also be mindful of how you use acronyms. The general rule is to first spell out the acronym once before using it. Think twice before using jargon-acronyms (like GOB for Government of Brazil). Some people do it, but I've heard lots of advice to write things out as you would say them. (I would never say 'gob' to refer to the Brazilian government, so I wouldn't write it that way either. On the other hand, I would refer to the International Monetary Fund as the IMF, see the difference?) Also, avoid simplifying your writing so much that it sounds like a string of newspaper headlines. "Government of Brazil signs treaty" is fine for a headline, but use full sentences when you write cables and memos.

2. Use a clear organizational structure.
While structure is boring to talk about, it is essential. So you know the drill, stick to one idea per sentence, organize your ideas ahead of time and keep your paragraphs focused.

3. Write dynamically.
I heard this rule a million times at state. Use active verbs. Don't use 'helpers' to hide the verbs. A classic example is 'analyze' versus 'conduct an analysis'. There is no earthly reason to choose the second unless you are a) trying to impress someone or b) trying to cram more words into your paper to make it look bigger. Our dear friend Mortimer addressed this too and encourages us to 'express action in verbs, not nouns'. Use the verb 'announce', not the phrase 'made an announcement'. Use 'decide', not 'make a decision'. and so on.

Another great example is the tendency to make everything passive. To us it sounds formal, but try not to use passive phrases because they can hide the most important facts. You can say "the policy was approved" - which is passive - but that leaves a question in the reader's mind. Who approved it? You can avoid this by making sure that each sentence has a clear subject.

4. Eliminate everything that is not essential.
Every time I wrote an analysis this summer I had to have it approved by 5 or more people. And every time they sent back edits those edits were full of ideas for shortening my sentences. The lesson I learned? Every. Single. Word. Counts. If you can get rid of it, get rid of it. If two sentences say mostly the same thing, one of them most go. I'm sure this post would be about 1/10th as long when it finally got through the editing process.

A good way to use fewer words is to use the active tense (see above). Also, try to avoid phrases that sound formal but add clutter. Some examples? 'In relation to', 'With regard to', 'in the event of', 'in view of', 'in a position to', etc. Watch out for adjectives where they are unnecessary. The best example of course is from The Princess Bride, when Wesley is diagnosed as 'mostly dead'. Dead is one of those words that doesn't need an adjective. Other words that don't need adjectives include final, perfect, correct, full, etc. 'Totally perfect' is redundant, as is 'completely full'. Using extra adjectives indicates that you didn't really mean to use that word in the first place. If I can't say that your answer is 100% correct, then I should find a word other than correct to describe it.

I think this may be the hardest concept for most writers I know. Especially if you are highly educated, you have been encouraged (for most of your adult life) to think that more = better. But it isn't true! A 20 page paper often says just as much as a 2page paper, only it says it in a horribly long and boring way. No one wants to read that! And most importantly, no one will read that. Certainly not the Secretary of State or the President or whomever you'd like to be writing for one day. Your reader's time is precious, respect it.

Good luck and happy writing!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


First, a couple of pictures from my visit back home. It was the warmest December I can remember. Last year at this time we were cross country skiing and ice skating on the lake. This year we went to the 'beach' and there wasn't a single snowflake. As my dad would say, this global warming stuff is great!

Second, I'm working on a post about writing for the Foreign Service. I figure I got a lot of help with my writing, it's only fair that I give back a little. Hopefully it will help other people trying to join the FS.

Third, I am still waiting grudginglypatiently to find out where I'm going this summer for my overseas internship. Everybody in my cohort is going somewhere awesome, so I'm sure I won't be disappointed. Also, we'll be getting our official A-100 dates in mid-February, though I'm not expecting any surprises there.

Four, I've been cooking new and interesting things lately. I made borscht in early December and it was great, I highly recommend it. Sorry the picture isn't better, but trust me, it was good stuff.
I got an immersion blender and a slow cooker for Christmas, so lots of new goodies are in the plan. I even used the blender to make squash soup. I hadn't eaten squash since I was a kid(and even then, only on pain of death) and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I don't hate it anymore. So of course then I got cocky and tried using the immersion blender instead of a whisk to make cupcakes. Let's just say it ended badly....

That's really about all. Life is pretty quiet these days. I'm working this week and next and then I add classes back in on the 17th. Four more months of class to go.