Friday, April 16, 2010

A visit to the rural outskirts

To date, most of my PD work *at post* has been in the more rural communities surrounding Denver.  In fact, my day job usually begins in Kiowa, Colorado -- a lovely town with two car washes, two gas stations, two restaurants, and 500 people.  With some help from the Elbert County Enterprise Authority (the agency I founded), Kiowa has been making great strides in transforming itself from a dying husk of a glorified railroad station to a dying husk of a modern town.  And that's good news for me, because it means that one of these businesses might some day accept credit cards, and I could get a burger once in awhile.

Now, with that established, let me introduce you to the sight I encountered on my way out of town yesterday...

Apparently this trash was not a natural formation, but it may as well have been.  Before I got my vaunted position in economic development, I answered phones for Elbert County planning, where I would routinely inform citizens that it was not OK to bury their cars, there was a limit of 8 dogs per property, and that they did need to ask their neighbors before they opened a rifle range in their back yard.  Pan slightly to the right, then...

Evidently, the town of Kiowa was unwilling to invest in a "Welcome to Kiowa, the Gateway to the Plains" sign at the town entrance.  I suppose this will do just as well.

not to give you all too unfavorable an impression of the place, I will note that there's plenty of awfully nice-looking parts, and plenty of very quality people, but it would never be mistaken for Manhattan, or even Omaha.

Well... maybe Omaha...

Sunday, April 11, 2010


So here's a thought.

I'm not in the foreign service yet.  Rather, I'm sitting at home, looking at the little bruise on my right forearm that's mysteriously testing me for TB as I sleep, and wishing I was already somewhere exotic.  Of course, exotic is just, like, a frame of mind, man.

How many of you have ever been posted to Castle Rock, CO?  Not a one of you.  So, banal as it might seem to me, it's right up there with the wilds of Papua New Guinea and volcanic sea vents for all of you, dear readers.

So, in preparation for what will no doubt be a lifetime of dramatizing the routine and maintaining a healthy otherness to my surroundings, I've elected to treat Castle Rock, CO as if it were some strange new post.  And what do you always get with strange new posts?  Pictures.

Found this odd old machine after driving down the one and only North/South interstate coming home from an electronics store this afternoon.  I had to illegally park in an urgent care parking lot (empty) and climb trough some barbed-wire fence, but I think it was well worth it (largely because I suffered no repercussions).

Inspired by my find, I drove around and took some other pictures.  Having a car is terribly freeing.

Here's an odd abandoned building, very nearby.  Apparently it's currently run by the "Zootown Rasta Crew", who, Simba-like, rule all of the Savannah distantly visible in the background.  Presumably, their territory does not extend all the way to Wyoming, but no USGS maps of Zootown were at hand to verify.

With no tagging, I couldn't tell which crew laid claim to this section of the Rocky Mountains.  Every time I find myself at enough of an altitude to see more than just the Front Range, I'm reminded of what it must have felt like to arrive at these things in a Conestoga wagon laden with 800 pounds of bullets, 8 oxen, and a couple of "tongues" needed for repair. (Oregon Trail, anyone?).  It must have felt like "Oh Holy Hell.  Anyone feel like this right here is pretty good?"  Much as I love every Mormon I have ever met, I cannot even begin to understand what would compel someone to cross all of these mountains and then stop.  At the first available lake inhabited solely by gnats.

I grabbed another one of the tractor thing, for grins.  Since I always get raked over the coals by photo purists for the HDR pictures, I toned this one down.  So, welcome to Castle Rock, Colorado everyone.  Here's hoping this is a short post.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The perpetual problem of language

While I'm hardly the seasoned veteran posting on long-term trends in the Foreign Service, I've noticed a fairly significant amount of criticism directed at State recently pertaining to language training and fluency, or lack thereof.

Starting, perhaps, with the Government Accountability Office's report, and more recently John Negroponte's public criticism, there's been a good deal of talk lately about how well and how widely this job is performed.  Specifically, Amb. Negroponte spoke recently at the AFSA, and stated:

"There is no substitute for recruiting, training, deploying, retaining and retraining," officers in languages and geography so they "develop the contacts, the knowledge, the insight, the local and area expertise" needed to help develop America's foreign policy.

FSOWannabe posed a question related to this in a recent post, asking if the criticism was valid and what needed to be done about it.  I started posting a monster of a comment on his entry, and decided it might be better served by some additional space.  So, FSOWannabe, here's what i have for you.  This is what you get for posting in my comments section :)

The recently posted FY2011 A-100 schedule shows that State will be training another 800 officers this year, which should at least start making a dent in that 70% persistent staffing shortfall that Digger mentions.

That being said, Negroponte's point can be taken one of three ways.  The FS is either deficient in:

A) Hiring trained speakers of phenomenally difficult mega-languages like Arabic, Mandarin, and Hindi.

B) Training existing employees to fluency in very difficult languages


C) Training employees to proficiency in any of the myriad spoken languages that the FSI does not currently train in, namely smaller ethnic and tribal languages in regions cohabited by speakers of more common languages. 

Meeting problem "A" might require a major policy shift, as any SCNL or CNL speaker who passes the OA is virtually guaranteed a spot in the service.  Getting more native speakers might necessitate relaxing the entrance requirements further for existing speakers, or creating some sort of position to dedicate an employee to a region.  I've no idea how that would look, but it's interesting.

Problem "B" is one of resources.  800 officers per year stretches FSI to capacity, so additional facilities and programs are necessary, as are codified career benefits to extensive language training.  That all means money, but not nearly so much money as is already invested in foreign infrastructure, which is woefully underutilized even today.  There are so few problems that benefit from simply having money thrown at them, but this surely is one.  I'm not certain who or what lobbies for State's interests at a congressional budget level, but I would hope that this is foremost on their minds.

Problem "C", like "B", is one of resources, but furthermore it's one of priorities.  India alone speaks more languages than the FSI instructs in for the whole world.  How many of these should be covered?  How many dialects?  Surely, more is always better to anyone underserved, but there is undoubtedly a point of diminishing return.  I am in no position to analyze where that point is, but I'm also in no position to say that is correct where it currently stands.  This one's tricksy, in short.

So there you go, FSOwannabe, how's that for an answer three times as long as the original post? 

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Mysterious QEP

As part of my separation anxiety from a sudden cessation of near-daily studying for the FSOT process, I'm following up my first post regarding good resources for the written portion of the test.  For the purposes of this post, we will assume that you, reader, have gotten your first life-changing email from the Department of State, informing you of your passing score.  Congratulations!  Now you are eligible for the next section, wherein you submit your PNQ answers to the QEP... Again with the acronyms. 

The PNQ are the five Personal Narrative Questions to which you will be asked to provide a written answer. This answer is provided to the Quality Evaluation Panel, or QEP. Moreso than any other section of the process, this section is surrounded in mystery. Insofar as I can, I hope to demystify it for you all.

A letter submitted by a spurned and disgruntled FSOA applicant to AFSA (American Foreign Service Association) is often trotted out around the same time as PNQ deadlines that seemingly demonstrates the futility of the whole thing. If you're so inclined, you can read the letter here. As a relatively young candidate, I felt awfully threatened by this when I first read it. I didn't have that guy's professional experience, his language credentials, or his contacts within the system. Furthermore, if his letter was an indicative sample, I wasn't certain that I was a radically better interlocutor than he. What chance did I have at passing the QEP, if he was found wanting?

A good enough chance, evidently. And so, possibly, do you.

You see, back in the day, there was no such thing as the QEP. You took the written exam, and if you passed you moved straight on to the Orals. Evidently, the problem was that too many people were passing the written test, and too few were passing the oral. Unlike standardized tests, which change over time with the population they are testing, the foreign service officer exam is supposed to draw a line in the sand. If you pass, you are considered good enough to represent the country abroad. The number of people who are actually employed in this endeavor depends on the funding authorized for this purpose by Congress, and on “The Needs Of The Service”, not on how many people actually apply. The QEP was instituted in 2007 (***) to more effectively identify qualified candidates for the oral exams given the finite resources of the BEX (Board of Examiners) and ACT(ummm...).

The numbers I've seen associated with this section seem to imply that a maddening 40% of applicants are deemed worthy by the QEP, and are allowed the privilege of booking passage to our nation's capitol. A scant few, to say the least. A number of very well spoken and gifted candidates are stymied every year by the QEP, and they understandably find it difficult to get much in the way of substantive answers as to why they should be stopped when others are not. Alas, there are no answers to be had from official channels – the process is designed to be no easier for an experienced applicant on their 4th candidacy than a rank amateur, and part of that is a spartan lack of feedback about why one passed or failed. For my part, I can only remark that preparation is never a bad idea, and that short, pithy stories are always the best. If you can say the same thing better in half as many words, try to get it down to 25% as many, and you're halfway there.


These are short on the ground. Since the QEP is relatively new and relatively vague, there are no real practice prompts. However, the PNQs themselves and their answers are not currently under any sort of NDA, so I can share them with you here.


1)Intellectual Skills: In the Foreign Service you may confront challenging situations that require creative use of your intellect to achieve a goal. Describe briefly how you have dealt with such a situation in your experience using your skills of critical thinking, resourcefulness and/or judgment. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the difficulty? What was the result?) 

One of many challenges I’ve dealt with was the arrest of six men from Lackawanna, New York on suspicion of being an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell. The arrest came after the bulk of the newsroom staff had already left. We had to get reporter and photographer crews to several locations, get information from the FBI, do live reports in studio and from the scene. It was necessary to handle the situation with delicacy and tact while handling difficult logistical problems and reporting the facts accurately. I was able to get staff members to the scene quickly by having them drive themselves there and meet up with each other instead of coming into the station and then leaving for the scene. I solved their video, and editing issues by having our live truck operators bring all the necessary equipment with them to the scene. By keeping a positive working relationship with the President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, I was able to get information about the suspects and reaction from the community as a great number of the people we wanted to interview did not speak English. As a news organization we were able to get exclusive firsthand accounts of exactly what happened when FBI agents made their arrests. The video and interviews we got were broadcast across the world.

2) Interpersonal Skills: In the Foreign Service, you will be called upon to interact with people from different ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, economic and other backgrounds. Describe a significant experience you have had with another culture, either abroad or in the United States. (What was the experience? What did you do? What was the result?)
On the 1 year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I put together and produced a televised town hall meeting about the cause and effect of the attacks. The guests I choose were members of the local community from different ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, who held a broad range of differing opinions about the role of U.S policy in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa and its relation to the attacks and aftermath. I thought it very important for our viewers to be able to understand the complexities of the issue, within my given time, while still being sensitive to the cultural differences between the mix of panel members. The discussion was heated at times, as the group had extremely different opinions on the problem and the solution. During the commercial breaks, it was necessary for me to calm the guests, host, and staff. I found myself playing diplomat by relocating agitated guests, comforting upset panel members, and using patience and empathy to facilitate an open and candid discussion which did not digress into petty arguments, name calling, and guests storming out. The show was difficult. But I believe it cleared up some common misconceptions about religion and ethnicity at a time when there was a great deal of fear and confusion in the minds of our viewers

3) Communication Skills: Communication skills are critical to successful diplomacy. Describe a situation in which you used your communication skills (either in English or another language) to further an aim or achieve a goal. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the situation? What was the result?)
During my cousins wedding, to a man of Sri Lankan decent, I acted as hostess between the two families. One of the most formidable members of his family was his grandmother. My cousin was quite nervous meeting her. One of the great hurtles to overcome was the fact that ‘Pati’ spoke little English. Upon our meeting, I greeted her with a big smile and gave up my seat for her. She seemed happy to have a place to sit, but since I no longer did, I sat on the floor. My casual air helped diffuse the tense awkwardness of a first meeting. From my seat on the floor I was able to ask ‘Pati’ numerous questions about her life and her family. As I was a recent new mom, we were able to bond more as I pantomimed questions and used simple gestures and questions to facilitate our conversation. Through her broken English and gestures, I was able to get her to tell me about her life in Sri Lanka, what she did, and why she left. We chatted, growing more engaged by showing one another little personal treasures. I wanted ‘Pati’ to get to know my family’s background and values, even though our conversations were limited verbally. By helping her to understand my extended family and I, she was able to learn more about her soon to be grand-daughter- in-law. The meeting was a huge success.

4) Managerial Skills:: Foreign Service Officers are often required to manage projects, demonstrating the ability to plan and organize, set priorities, employ a systematic approach, and allocate time and resources efficiently. Describe a project you managed or helped to manage and how you sought to achieve the project’s goals. (What was the project? What steps did you take to manage the project? What was the result?)
One of the biggest projects I’ve managed was a live televised wedding between 5 and 7am. I was able to choose the couple, our viewers had to choose the rest of the wedding details. I started planning for the event about a year in advance. I used an essay contest to choose the couple, then had to procure vendors for the flowers, cake, dresses etc..I also had to figure out how to institute viewer voting on what would be chosen. The project required me to work with our IT department to phase in internet voting, I had to coordinate with the vendors to get video of their products, and to work with all our own departments to assist with the big day, all the while keeping the bride, staff, and sponsors happy. The goal was to choose a wedding detail, give three product choices, have the viewers choose the item, then feature the winning item, all within a week. I did this with every aspect of the wedding while still producing a daily newscast. I supervised the camera locations, inside and outside of the event, coordinated with local law enforcement to block off streets and worked with the family to ensure a smooth day. The wedding was a stunning, everything worked out and not a thing went wrong. It is one of the most memorable, happy, live events ever produced at our TV station.

5) Leadership Skills: Leadership can be defined as motivating others, encouraging creative solutions, establishing positive team relationships, or significantly influencing the direction of the work. Describe how you have demonstrated leadership, either on one particular occasion or over time. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to show leadership? What was the result?)
As Executive Producer of Channel 2 News Daybreak, I was given the task of making the staff cohesive and making the show #1 in the market. When I started, there was a great deal of infighting and no vision for the show which had poor ratings. The first thing I did, was to assess the show’s format and evaluate the team, to try and figure out the issues leading to disenfranchisement about their work. I realized a large part of the issue was lack of communication, and no follow through. In short, they did not feel as though anyone cared. I immediately instituted mandatory weekly meetings to discuss grievances, and ideas. After a couple of meetings there was an attitude change. They started to listen to one another, but more importantly they began to take pride in their work. We used meeting ideas for weekly features, playing to the strengths of the team members. I had to use a lot of creativity with these projects as there was no budget and I couldn’t pull in staff. Oftentimes I would ask people to do the tasks for the benefit of the team with no monetary reward. They seemed happy to do it, saying that they’re usually never shown appreciation for a job well done. After one rating period the show grew, and in less than a year we became the number one rated morning newscast in the area

The answers are not mine, as I made the mistake of typing mine up directly in the form and not in Word, so they were not saved. These are provided anonymously by an individual who passed this stage and lived to tell the tale.  Nonetheless, I think they are suitably inspiring and universal.  Be brief, be interesting, be relevant, and answer the question as best you can.  Beyond that, it's all speculation.  Good luck!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

So ... Why?

Without much regard to the appropriate order of horse and cart, I've told a number of my relative and friends that I recently passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment, to much excitement and confusion.  Inevitably, after the standard "what's that"s, "Where will you be going"s, and "when do you leave"s, I hear a lot of "Why?"s.

Why is, by far, the easiest question to answer:

BAM!  Look at that thing!  Are you kidding me?  It is black, and I keep it in addition to my civilian passport.  How can you see that and not want one?

Oh, a small book isn't enough?  How about this?

That's a series of golden statues of Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.  He changed the names of the days of the week in the Turkmen language, wrote the principle holy book of his people, and made recorded music illegal.  I suppose you could rustle up the resources necessary to cross the Karkoram desert as a private civilian, but would you ever?  And even if you did, tourists are not particularly welcomed, and don't have near the access and freedom of diplomats.  How can you possibly say no?


This article really got to me today.  It's inspiring and powerful, and really shifts my focus away from what I have to do to get what I want, to what I am required to do for my country.  Good stuff.


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This is Not a Spiral

This is no relevance to the former posts, but of immense interest to me.  Another optical illusion.

This is not, as it appears, a spiral, but rather a series of concentric circles.  Trace your mouse pointer over it if you don't believe me.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A note on preparation

I took the FSWE (foreign service written exam) in October of '09, and passed the orals roughly 5 months later.  I started studying for the written a few months before I took it, however, so I've got about 7 months invested in this process, which is about halfway to A-100, by my reckoning (inshallah).

During that 7 months I went from knowing effectively nothing about the service, to being completely and irreparably enamored with it.  I also picked up just enough knowledge to pass, which is presumably what you are hoping to do, reader, and why you are here this balmy morning.  All my resources were free, and as far as I know, all of them have been listed elsewhere, but here's yet another collection, compiled for some future test taker.  Since my wife is glaring at me from across the room, we'll restrict today to the written portion only.

  • New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
    • This is an excellent resource for showing you your weaknesses in historical knowledge.
  • The Economist 
    • The Economist and I are not speaking lately, but it's still good stuff.  Start reading the headlines, at least.
  • Various Personality Quizzes
    • There is no way to "study" for the Biographical questionnaire portion of the test, but you can certainly practice answering personality-style questions consistently.  Remember, if you are asked to "list" examples or qualifications, do just that.  Don't write full sentences, as it just slows you down.  
  • Yahoo Foreign Service Groups
    • The time to join is now!  The yahoo groups are the single, central repository of information pertaining to the FS for the last decade.  8 people passed when I took the OA, and all 8 were members of the Yahoo group.  This becomes more and more true every year, so get on it.  For the Written, you will want to join the yahoo essay group, and the FSOT group.  Wait on the OA group until you get results back, unless you want to freak the hell out.
  • Geography Quizzes
    • These are super fun.  Are they helpful?  Certainly as helpful as reading headlines from the Economist...
This should help get you started, friends.  Unfortunately, the dreaded "job knowledge" section is nigh impossible to study for, if you're starting from nothing.  A big part of test prep is simply keeping your ears open, which is presumably a big part of being a good officer as well.  Like every part of the exam, this section is highly selective, and reportedly passes about 60% of applicants. 

We'll continue in this vein in a few days, once I fly back home and begin the waiting game wherein I scour the internet for something interesting to share with you all.  

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The beginning of something wonderful

Well, here we go.

On march 29th, 2010 I passed the FSOA along with 7 others, 4 of whom I had studied with.  It was a very difficult test, and while I won't go into specifics about questions (due to the strict NDA), I will happily recommend study resources to anyone who would like them; just ask.

With that, I begin another equally lengthy but less publicized process - waiting for clearances and hoping to quickly be shuffled off the register and called for the A-100 class in DC, where I'm still visiting, and where I very much look forward to spending some quality time.

So buckle up, reader.  We've a long ways to go and an as-yet unknown amount of time to get there.