Rules for Washington

I used to enjoy the Abu Muqawama blog but didn’t read it (or much of anything in that vein) after embarking on this new career. Today I was browsing old bookmarks and discovered that he hung up the blog last year. He concluded his final post with some “rules for Washington” that strike me as good advice.

*** Rules for Washington:
(1) Do a good job in the job you’re in. Don’t be so focused on what your next job might be that you leave a bad taste in the mouths of
those with and for whom you currently work.
(2) Don’t be a jerk. As Nate Fick always says, it’s an iterative game with a limited number of players. The people you’re working with today might be the people you’re working with – or for – tomorrow.
(3) Be a servant-leader. Toward the end of my less-than-stellar athletic career, I played a few seasons as a flanker in rugby. It’s not the most glorious position, but the people who do it best are the people who keep up a very high work rate doing all the ugly stuff – largely rucking and tackling – a team needs someone to do in order to win. So volunteer for the crappy work in the office. Go fetch coffee. Put together binders. Do it with a smile on your face, and keep a bottle of Old Overholt on your desk for your co-workers when times get tough.
(4) Have a sense of humor. This blog covered Very Serious national security issues with a Lego jihadi as its mascot. That was always by design. If you take yourself or the issues too seriously, the terrorists win.
(5) As Charlie always reminds people, stay away from the marrieds. Sounds like an obvious one, but people screw this up too often.
(6) Don’t write op-eds in the Washington Post defending torture or, if you happen to edit the Washington Post, hire people who defend torture. Because torture is wrong. Yes, always. Do I really have to explain this? … F***, really? I quit.

Department of State by State

Department of State by State.

Cool map showing how the work of the U.S. Foreign Service affects each state.

The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield | Al Jazeera America

The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield | Al Jazeera America.

THIS is what scares me most. Our national intelligence collection strategies in the current climate of fear of terrorism is a powder keg.

Who knew that Idaho would be a key element of successful diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia?

So John Kerry gave his Russian counterpart an Idahoan potato:

On Monday, Kerry made his latest overture in his budding romance with the Russian foreign minister, offering Lavrov an unusual gift: two sizable Idaho potatoes.

Amid some chuckles and giggles, Lavrov called the starchy tubers “impressive.” Puzzled? Apparently the last time the two officials met, Lavrov had mentioned Idaho potatoes — potatoes, of course, are a basic ingredient of Eastern European cuisine. Kerry, like an attentive suitor, took notice and brought Lavrov some spuds as a show of affection ahead of a meeting in Paris as part of the run-up to peace talks in Geneva next week aimed at bringing the Syrian civil war to a close.

It always give me a thrill to see Idaho punching above it’s weight.

Put your money where your mouth is

Yesterday was a decent Korean day and I’m getting better at putting the sentences I want together. The whole struggle has been about finding a way to cognitively distinguish Korean and Japanese in production.  They are so similar it has always felt like I could do more in Korean than I really could, which tripped me up and slowed me down. I’m not having any trouble with the new grammar on a comprehension level, so it’s just a matter of learning the vocab and getting use to producing it accurately.

Last evening I went to a financial planning seminar offered by the department.  I’ve always been maxing out my TSP contributions and have done some reading on different investment strategies but I wanted to get some feedback on whether or not the approaches I’ve settled on are reasonable. I’ve kind of hedged on all of my strategies: I put half of the money in managed L funds and then manually arranged the other half across an array of funds ranging from the conservative government bond G fund to the risky small business fund. I put most of it in the C fund which is basically an S&P 500 index fund. My understanding of the preferability of no-load mutual funds and index funds was confirmed, which was reassuring.

We’ve got a “Roth IRA” option in our TSP now too that I’m not entirely clear on. It appears that we’ve just got two options for investing in our TSP (which is our acronym for 401(k)): pre-tax standard deposits that are taxed on withdrawal and these new “Roth” deposits that are deposited after taxes but then tax free on withdrawal.  The advice that I got when the program was announced was essentially to bet on future taxes. If you think future taxes will be higher, pay them now and then get your money tax free later on. But it was also pointed out that $10 invested after paying taxes is the equivalent of $13 invested before taxes which provides greater principle for the magic of compound interest to work on over the life of the investment. This means that even if you’re paying higher taxes on it later on, you’ll have so much more money that you’ll come out ahead.

Considering that no one knows what’s going to happen to our tax rates in 26 years (I hope I can last that long!), I just split the difference and maxed out my contributions with half from standard deposits and half from Roth.  I know that retrospect will permit me to say I should have done one or the other but at least I don’t have all my eggs in one basket.

The big thing we messed up on was not establishing a 529 educational fund for the Eminent Child early on. If we’d started it when we got married (15 years ago today!), we’d be sitting pretty. Instead, we’re way behind the 8-ball and there’s no way we’re going to be able to pay for her education unless we basically save our entire income from here until she graduates high school (which is a long-winded way of saying there’s no way we’re going to be able to pay for her education). Some friends of mine were talking about trying to convince their parents to give gifts as 529 contributions and how that just doesn’t have the same effect as giving actual presents and gifts.  Something to think about when if I become a grandparent.

It was overall a good session. I had to leave before the discussion on insurance but I did get the presentation powerpoint and will look through it. Right now I’m paying for the best options and think I’ll stick with that. With my family history of heart disease and the state of my health (I’m fine, but plenty of warning lights in weight, blood pressure, triglicerides, pre-diabetic, pre-metabolic syndrome, cholesterol, etc), there’s reasonable odds we’ll need good health and even life insurance. Maybe I’ll be able to pay for the EC’s education in the end after all!

Goodbye Abuja

And just like that, 2 years is finished. The worst part of this job is dealing with the constant departure of friends, and this time it was me that was leaving everyone. It wasn't as difficult as I thought it might have been, perhaps because I'm prepared for it and then again perhaps just because the emotions associated with leaving are offset by the emotions associated with what's coming up. Maybe it's because I traveled out so many times I'm just not processing that I'm not going to see these people again for a long time, if ever. I did make fantastic friends there, in the Foreign Service, in our Armed Forces, and Nigerians. My Nigerian friends in particular I will miss, as they are unique and the odds are longer that I'll see them again.

I had an excellent tour in spite of the family separation. I learned so much abrupt Nigeria, about the Foreign Service, about reporting assignment and consular work. I'm even more excited for the future than I was when I joined because now I know that I really do love this job and that I'm good at it. Seoul is going to be a whole different ball game, of course, and there's the whole 9 months of intensive language training before we even get to that point though.

Few people read this blog and its unlikely that my friends will see this but I'm wish that they could know how truly and sincerely grateful I am for their friendship. We had fantastic times and made tremendous memories and I honestly won't forget them. And I sure hope we get to meet again…

Excuses, excuses

How quickly five months flies past.

The biggest reason I haven’t posted much here is that much of what is going on with me isn’t suitable for posting on a public blog. Not that there is any big problem or scandal going on, but when one’s life is dominated by office politics during the day and scotch and cigars in the evening, it’s better to ride it out in silence.

I’m down to four weeks left at post. During the last few weeks, I’ve got to finish up 3 large writing assignments, host some representational events, and complete my annual review. The latter will be quite an interesting experience due to the aforementioned office politics and deadlines. In addition, there’s a lot of work to do winding down and checking out of the embassy and housing. I’m hoping to sell off most of my stuff as well, so there’s that additional negotiation and hassle. Needless to say, it’s going to be a whirlwind.

My family has been visiting here for the last week or so. They came down to help sort out what stuff goes to the States for our year or so of training and what goes to Korea. We only get 600 pounds of stuff to the U.S. which boils down to about 6 suitcases. The rest of everything else gets put in storage until we arrive in Asia in June 2014. They are also bringing the Emminent Feline back to Japan with them to avoid logistic hassles with me and my intended month-long road trip in July. It looks to be good to go but we’re finding that the interface between the Japanese and Nigerian ways of doing things isn’t easy. Hopefully we avoid the 6 month quarantine in Japan.

My band has played its last show, at least the last with me.  It was an amazing adventure with them and we really turned into a good band by the end. We went from by-the-book covers to originals with our own arrangements of covers and a lot of jamming and just relaxed fun music making.  Every show was better than the one before and while I still have a long way to go before I can confidently call myself a bassist, I know I made huge strides in what I brought to the stage. Being able to have the confidence to play a song I’d never played before live on stage with just a couple notes whispered to me as the music started was so exciting.  It’s honestly quite sad to say goodbye to it, as we all know we still had a lot of growth potential if we’d been able to play together for another year. But no regrets, only tremendous memories.

I’m done brewing beer. I only made about half of what I intended. Two of my last three batches didn’t ferment. I know that I messed up the first of those two by letting my mash temps get too high but I don’t know what happened with the last one. Perhaps my yeast finally gave up the ghost? I wish I would have been more consistent with it but it was fun and produced some drinkable swill.  I’m excited to pick it up again eventually.

I don’t know what all will happen between now and then but I can say with relative consequence I’ll be back in Idaho for the 4th of July.

Back online – for now

My data plan on the iPad runs on recharge cards. A 1 month 5 gigabyte plan is 8000 naira, a little over $50. Charge cards are sold in 1500 increments, so I buy $60 worth of cards and use $50 of the credit each month. A couple weeks ago my credit expired so I loaded up the credits to discover that the page where I buy the data plan wouldn't load. I kept trying and trying without realize that in the background, I was checking email without a data plan, just using the basic credit. Needless to say, this is pretty expensive.

I finally get the data plan page to load a couple days ago but now I'm out of credits, but I got some more and now we are back in business. A for updates on me, I've started golfing as a great way to get out of the house. I'm terrible, as is to be expected for someone who's never golfed before, but the people I golf with are understanding and we all have a good time. I ordered some clubs of my own (merry Christmas to me!) that should be here in a couple weeks.

Wrk is going good. I've been here long enough now that I'm understanding how the job works and am getting into the flow of it. Meeting Nigerian contacts can be challenging as they do not always maintain appointments but that just goes with the territory. I've a ton of projects going on that keep me busier than I could ever want to be.

I am ready to my family again for sure. It's only been about 10 weeks this time but being apart from them is something that doesn't get easier over time or the more you do it. I'm pretty much wet to arrive home a week earlier than originally planned which should make for a good surprise for the Eminent Child. I'd wanted to surprise them both but had to come clean with the plan because of how much work the Eminent Wife puts in to helping schedule things. I'll have a nice final R&R then before returning to Abuja for the last time. Once I come back in January, I'll be here until July. The girls are planting to visit one more time then, and this will be everyone else's last chance to come down too!

Had the first bottle of beer made from grain. Seemed very tasty to me. I'll be bottling up some more later today.

I'm watching the Eminent Canine of friends who are out of town. It's nice having home around even though the Eminent Feline bullies him.



Thursday, October 4, 2012

A bit tired today after my first crossfit in a while.  Feels good though.

I did get a second batch of beer brewed last Monday.

Took delivery of my consumables yesterday.  Mostly liquids (gatorade!) and briquets.

Started tennis lessons yesterday.  Local coach, good guy.

Had Korean food today, but wasn’t so hungry immediately after the workout. Was expensive, especially the beer. Usually they cost between 300-500 naira but they raked me for 1800.  Crap.

Here’s an article about a new book on the Foreign Service for those who might be interested in what I do. America’s Other Army

Tuesday, 10 July

I knew this would happen but am still surprised by it. Time is rushing up fast and I’ve got a lot of work still to do before I leave.

I haven’t been interviewing at work this week, trying to wrap up the bigger projects and organize my workflow to hand off to the officer following me. However, there is so much general churn going on every day, I’m barely able to even touch it. It really highlights how understaffed we are here. I really do wish I could stay on for another year as I know that the work I could get done would be so productive.

There were some distractions that impacted my ability to be productive as well. Last night the security alarm in my apartment decided to go off at random times throughout the night, starting just as I went to bed at 10:30. The oddest part was that I hadn’t armed it for the night when it first went off and I was perplexed why it was going off. It went off again around 4:00, only I didn’t realize it right away. I incorporated the sounds into a dream for a while, apologizing to the guests at my house about the noise. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was a REAL noise that had been going on for quite some time! I leapt from bed and immediately slammed face first into the door, banging my knee in the pitch black. I got it off, but it went off a few more times by the time the sun came up. I hadn’t slept very well as a result of all of that and called in late to catch a bit more sleep. The alarm continued to go off at random times, including three times in the amount of time it took me to get out of bed and out of the shower. I called the security team to come fix it and it went off 3 more times by the time they got here.

Now that it was daylight and I was coherent, I investigated and noticed that one of the cables near the door that had always been frayed had completely fallen apart. It turned out this was the panic button cable and it was shorting out, thus solving the mystery of why it was going off even when the alarm wasn’t armed. They replaced the cable and all was well.

Of course, once I got to work, there were troubles with my upcoming travel. Part of the paperwork was filled out incorrectly and suddenly someone realized that there was no money authorized to pay for my travel. That caused a bit of consternation and stress but we got that squared away. It ended up costing me a couple hundred dollars as part of a cost-contruct but that was to be expected. I’m just happy that it didn’t change my confirmed tickets because I’d already paid the little bit extra for the Economy Plus seats on the United legs of the trip.

I still have to bottle a batch of beer, drop off the Eminent Feline, and pack. Packing is a challenge because I’ve got at least 3 if not 4 destinations (Camping, home visits, training) that require completely different types of clothing. The biggest challenge will be in Washington. How many suits to bring? I sense that they’ll get pretty wasted in just a single day in the summer heat and I don’t look forward to paying hotel prices to get it cleaned overnight. Still don’t know what to do about the daily wear; hopefully I can find a coin laundry nearby or maybe convince a friend to let me use their facilities.

All in all, I’m very stoked about the upcoming trips. I’ve met my new boss who seems to be a great asset at work and someone that I think I’ll really enjoy working under. There will be a lot to learn but I can already tell that he is capable both of recognizing the learning curve I’ll be on as well as challenging me to move along it as fast as possible. Even though I said I kind of wish I could stay in the consular section, given the choice, I wouldn’t pass up this opportunity. It’s hard to walk away from work that I enjoy and I know I’m good at (and a section that needs me, if I can be so bold) but it would be even harder to turn down this opportunity.