Monday, December 23, 2013

Back from Freetown

I'm back from Freetown, which was definitely an interesting adventure. Despite all the work getting the project started, I did manage to see a couple of sights in the area.

I went to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which was very interesting. The facility rehabilitates chimps that have been too close to humans. The people certainly have their heart in the right place, but it's worth noting they haven't intentionally returned any to the wild. Four escaped in 2006, led by a chimp named Bruno in a wild story that culminated with the death of a local. Pretty scary actually. No one knows what happened to Bruno, he's quite the local legend. He's also a legend with people who worked on the embassy construction project because a construction worker was one of the people attacked (he survived).

I also went to Lakka Beach where we had fresh lobster, and I do mean fresh. See below for before and after shots.

We had to ask for butter, so we were feeling pretty sorry for ourselves.
I got a lot of time with the embassy drivers, and I asked one if a local rock splitting legend I'd heard about was true - he said it was. He said his friend's uncle happened to be an expert and he explained how it works. If you don't have enough money to remove a large rock mechanically (with an excavator), you can hire a local expert like the uncle who will bring kerosene, a piece of tire, and some tinder. He'll light the tire on the rock and let it burn for 2-3 days to heat the rock. He'll come back, clear off the fire, and pour water on it. The rock will crack, the expert will get the rock started, and laborers finish the job. I saw this in action several times in different places back and forth to work, one in a new road being built and another in the foundation of a new small building going up. I think it's a rather ingenious idea.
Back to the driver's story, I asked if his friend's uncle was still doing this. He said, "Now he is REALLY old, so he does not do it anymore." I felt like the 20-something driver was baiting me, so I intentionally took it and said, "What do you mean by 'REALLY old'? Like 40?" He smiled and said, "No, no - 50." Now before anyone takes offense, remember the life expectancy in Sierra Leone is currently about 57 (in the US it's 79).
Some Americans say living in that part of the world is also called "going on the West African diet".  Well, I didn't think I was going out of my way to eat less, but sure enough, I lost several pounds over the trip.  Now that I'm back in DC, I can work on getting back to my pre-trip cubicle weight.  The holidays came just in time!
(This post written while listening to Paul Simon You Can Call Me Al.)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Freetown redux

This trip has been a great adventure for all sorts of reasons, starting with the project: I'm getting my first OBO project going and applying what I've learned in DC over the past year plus.  It turns out that stuff DOES apply to real life (unlike differential equations, engineering school tricked me).  I have a lot to learn, but it's reassuring to have a good grounding in many basics, particularly the financial side of things.

I've been coordinating all sorts of issues to get the job going: hiring local construction management staff, shipping, taxation, housing, vehicles, site security, support materials procurement, and other things in addition to "normal" work like clarifying design questions, reviewing submittals, preparing the project files, compiling the final contract document set, weekly reporting, etc.

It makes for a lot of work so I haven't gotten out too much, but I did go for a short hike yesterday.  It really is easy to get very nice views here:
View north from Leicester Peak (Lungi is across the water in the distance)

Piles of rocks like you see in the foreground are very common around Freetown.  Just remember: on days when you think your job is tough, there are a LOT of people here whose occupation is Manual Rock Crusher:

They might have a nice view, but this was the middle of a Saturday afternoon...

Other things I've learned and seen:
- The Coke here is WAY too carbonated.  I still buy it, of course, but it's weird.  It's made in Algiers - who knew?
- The prices here are actually pretty high.  A normal size bag of Lays plain chips was $5.  I winced several times before I bought it.
- Near the hotel I'm staying at, there's a house I frequently drive by at night.  Almost every night, there's a group of people playing pool on a real pool table outside in front of the house.  Sometimes they use a flashlight.  (It's gone in the mornings, I'm not sure where they store it.)
- There's some sort of animal outside that makes some pretty horrible noises outside at nights - it almost sounds like dozens of Donald Ducks getting strangled repeatedly and VERY painfully. But I've seen enough horror movies to know NOT to open the door.
- You know your hotel room has a problem when you don't need to put on mosquito repellant when you go outside, but you do before you go to bed. I briefly named one Dead Albert because he WAS fat with [what I "hope" was] my blood, but then he died.

I spent a lot of time being driven around by the embassy's local staff. It's interesting to talk with them, and sometimes it's equally interesting to not talk with them: drivers can plug a USB drive into the radio to play their own music, and one driver's tastes were all over the place, going straight from Lil Wayne Abortion to Lionel Richie All Night Long.

I'll be here for a bit longer, so I'm hoping to get out to see a bit more of the area.  In the meantime, I'll just wonder what Lil Wayne covering All Night Long might sound like.

(This post written while listening to Nico Vega Beast.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Goodbye / I'm "back"

Due to limited available project managers, I volunteered to serve temporarily as the new Freetown Sierra Leone construction manager to get the project started. I visited the site in May for the prebid meeting with prospective bidders, and since then the project was awarded, the preliminary contract documentation was completed, and we just held the preconstruction meeting to kick off construction. Exciting stuff!

This is a great opportunity to finally see what living at post is really like. After only being here a few days, I've met tons of people and learned a lot about the operation and maintenance challenges for an embassy. Let alone getting my first OBO construction project started, which is very cool.

Freetown is pretty mountainous, which leads to some great views around the city:
People tend to burn their trash; you might be able to see some smoke trails in this afternoon shot.

I'll be here for about a month so it will definitely be interesting. While typing this last bit in my hotel room, out from behind my laptop on the desk crawled a grasshopper/lizard/satan-spawn bug trying to kill me just now. I think I handled the situation quite well, having used a facecloth to pick it up and return it to the wilderness, hopefully without squeezing any babies onto the floor along the way. I'm going to go "sleep" now.

(This post written while listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival Run Through the Jungle.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Safety versus openness

Here's an interesting article about safety issues for diplomats and considerations affecting new embassy construction. It correctly represents the overarching influences of major events in current designs: the Inman report, Benghazi, and others. The issue of balancing safety versus creating open diplomatic environments requires challenging judgment calls on a wide variety of issues: infrastructure as well as operations. Those calls are generally above my pay grade - I'll stick to my tough decision about what tie to wear each day, thank you very much.

(This post written while listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket Fall Down.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Career opportunity

The Construction Engineer vacancy is open again and will close on December 4 - jump on it!

Applying might finally help you find the work-anxiety-life-anxiety balance you've been striving for.

(This post written while listening to The Clash Career Opportunities.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Welcome, goodbye, and I'm back

First and foremost, a huge WELCOME to our four new Foreign Service Construction Engineers who started at our OBO building on September 30th! They each went through a lot to get here, and now the real fun begins! Very cool, it's great to get help - especially really good help.

I was out of the office for a couple of weeks for two project visits that were planned for a long time but postponed: Niamey Niger and N'Djamena Chad. Both were very interesting and very different. The Niamey visit was for an active construction project I've been supporting remotely for about a year, and the N'Djamena visit was for a prebid meeting for a new embassy project.

Niamey was pretty hot, dry, and goaty. (I was surprised to see so many goats.) People posted there say there isn't too much do to: not many restaurants, weak internet, and regional travel is limited due to security concerns. It's certainly not all bad, as evidenced by this sunset photo I took from where I stayed:

The construction project is moving right along. It's a rehabilitation of an existing embassy compound, so one of its challenges involves careful coordination of construction activities with an operating facility. There are other occupants to consider as well:
It's coming right for us!

I was able to eat at some local restaurants and buy some food in a local grocery store, which was great. The biggest challenge was the local language of French: I speak a little so that made life easier, but my vocabulary needs a LOT of work. That gives me something to do with my spare time!
I ended up playing tennis one night with some of the embassy staff and we played until we ran out of water, which took about 90 minutes for each of us to go through a liter in the ~95 degree heat. There were quite a few bugs, but it was still very fun and I was glad there was a recreational outlet for the staff. Some of them said they played just about every day.

The flight leaving Niamey yielded the following photo taken just west of the city looking south, with the Niger River in the distance:
Not a lot of green, but not desert either

N'Djamena was pretty hot, dry, and grasshoppery. (I was told there were a lot of grasshoppers because it was harvest season and pesticides aren't used.) Unfortunately, the government of Chad doesn't take kindly to photography, so my photos were extremely minimal. I did sneak this shot of my dinner menu at a local Lebanese restaurant though:
The exchange rate was about 500 CFAs per USD, so deep fried beef brains were $8 - not bad!

As you'd expect for a landlocked country in the middle of Africa, shipping is difficult.  And since minimal materials and products are available locally, this basically means everything is expensive. A 2013 Mercer report found N'Djamena to be the fourth-most-expensive city in the world for American expatriates. And the Mercer report's data on a three bedroom unfurnished house rental rate of $2200 per month is significantly lower than the quotes I heard, which were well over twice as much.

N'Djamena is a challenging location for a variety of other limiting factors too: health care facilities, amount of skilled labor, availability of utilities, even finding housing (let alone the price), traffic congestion, et cetera. Yes, it gets hot (around 115 degrees F), but it also gets sandstorms. The contractors' bids are due in about a month, so we'll see if their estimates are in line with the government's estimate (and corresponding budget).

I'm back in DC and things haven't changed much despite the shutdown drama. At least I had a fantastic fifth-season teaser video for Archer to welcome me back.

(This post written while listening to Avicii Wake Me Up.)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

American style

In the last two weeks, I had the rare opportunity to meet two designated ambassadors before they headed to their respective new posts.  The meetings were held to discuss OBO issues and projects that will affect them.  That was very interesting, and they were very nice of course.  My role in the meeting was pretty straightforward as the construction projects are constrained by the scope of the contracts.  It was great to get exposure to that meeting environment.

I took a class on protocol and etiquette yesterday, which was also very interesting.  Although I’m guessing it’s unlikely that construction engineers get invited to many formal dinner parties or receptions, you just never know.  Plus, they had a lot of other useful advice, including business cards, the proper use of silverware with both American and Continental styles, and how to handle a dinner party when a guest appears with more wives than expected.  I couldn't quite convince the presenter to say the American style is better than the Continental style, but I tried.
(This post written while listening to James Brown Hot Pants.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013


For travel to some posts, the Department of State's medical staff recommend antimalarial medicine.  Malaria prevention is a basic issue for many countries and each medication option has its pros and cons per the CDC.  Recently I looked into the three currently-recommended primary options a little deeper and found some interesting info.

Malarone (atovaquone and proguanil hydrochloride): This is what the State med unit has prescribed for me on two occasions - for reference, I'm not taking any other medication, in good health, and have had no known reactions to it.  The State doctor allowed me to choose my medication, which I thought was good.  A benefit of Malarone over Doxycycline is that Malarone is taken only for one week after returning from the trip.

Larium (mefloquine): This is no longer made under its original brand name, but a generic version is still sold.  In July, the FDA increased its product warning, adding a "black box" warning label requirement because of the danger that the drug could cause serious neurological and psychiatric side effects, some of which can become permanent.  It certainly seems to have its issues to say the least: a 2001 Netherlands study showed 67% of the people who took the drug experienced one or more adverse effects, and 6% had side effects so severe they required medical attention.  Probably not good, but it might be better than contracting malaria.

Doxycycline: While this may have the fewest side effects, you have to take this daily, and you have to continue taking it for four weeks after you've returned from your trip.  Doxycycline also has an added benefit of being an antibiotic prescribed for some infections.

I mention this to help spread the word on these issues, particularly the recent increase in the Larium warning: please check with your doctor for their advice on the most appropriate medication.  It’s also an example of one of the strange issues you might face in the Foreign Service.  Personally, I’ll take the meds and the chance of side effects over contracting malaria.  I think the harder issue is when you have to choose for your child.

(This post written while listening to Give It Away Red Hot Chili Peppers.)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hiding boxes

For the past month or so, work has focused on the coming end of the fiscal year: funding-related documentation has increased dramatically in an effort to process single-year funding before various deadline dates. A related facet is the finance systems have a sort of dead period when no new funding can be processed for about a month, so we prepare before the financial EMP wave hits and we coast without power for a while. Speaking of which, I haven't heard any updates on sequestration effects - hopefully no news is good news. Of course, maybe there's no news because it's dark.

As a quick aside, I saw this on my way home the other day:

Peek-A-Boo - I can see you
At first I thought it was the lamest effort to hide a box e.v.e.r., then I realized the delivery person was trying to protect it from rain - very thoughtful.

(This post written while listening to Guster Satellite.)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

FS in Denver + Maps

For those of you in the Denver area who might be considering a career in the Foreign Service, there's an upcoming event you might find very interesting: check out this flyer.  The networking event will be on Thursday, September 19, 2013 from 6:00PM – 8:00PM at the Crowne Plaza downtown.  If you can't make it, you can always check out options on the DoS careers website.

I just came across this Washington Post article titled '40 maps that explain the world'.  Pretty interesting for big picture information, particularly for insight for me about the countries in which I'm supporting projects.  The two economic inequality maps had an oddity: the first represents the US and China as the same, while the second shows China as "less".  Apparently, no more than 0.04 GINI coefficient units out of 0.35 total.  Naturally.  The more I stared at this, the more skeptical I became, BUT it's still interesting in general.

Economic inequality around the world

Higher gini coefficient scores indicate higher economic inequality. (Wikimedia Commons)

(This post written while listening to Sharon Jones Dancing Together.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Memo

The biggest issue over the last couple of weeks involved the signing of a memo.  While a memo doesn't sound overly impressive, this is one way in which OBO in DC makes decisions on how to proceed.  The process can be annoying, but in the big picture, it's the way this large organization achieves consensus on how to proceed.  In fact, in the process of developing this memo, we added detail that will help make sure the change we're proposing will be accepted by all the associated organizations.  One of the details added was critical and could've undermined the entire effort because I didn't know about it, but the memo was routed through the organization that knew about it, so we're all good.  Sorry for a story about a memo, but I have a tendency to not see the forest for the trees at times because I get so wrapped up in details.  I have to make a special effort to look up and understand where things fit into the bigger picture sometimes.

It's been a while since I mentioned it, but the Construction Engineer post assignment process is still ongoing, so there hasn't been anything really useful to report, just rumors.  I was just talking with my wife last night about how I've gotten used to the new pattern of working here in DC - new home, new commute, new office building, etc - so it seems about the time when life slaps you upside the head with some change.

Speaking of which, I'll probably have a trip or two in the next couple of months to some typically hot parts of Africa.  While coordinating when exactly I should come, one guy onsite said, "It is the best time of year: less hot."  Awesome.

(This post written while listening to LCD Soundsystem Daft Punk Is Playing At My House.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Don't forget!

I hope you've submitted your Construction Engineer application - if not, get on it, it's due August 8 :)  If you have any questions let me know!

The last couple of weeks for me revolved around a major design review meeting for a new embassy project that's due to bid this fall.  The design review meetings are fascinating because I get to hear about an incredible variety of project details - I sponge as much information as I can from our in-house experts.  This particular design review is basically the final review before the project goes out to bid, so in a way it's the culmination of lessons learned from previous projects.  I've been researching these lessons on what went wrong in my "spare" time because the things that go well are more likely to go well again.  HVAC, fire alarms, physical security, generators, solar panels, water supply, paving, locally-available materials, site flood elevations in areas that don't exactly have FEMA FIRMs, there's just a wide range of interesting issues to pay attention to - talk about never getting bored because there's so much to learn.  Let alone understanding the contractual issues, many of which have critical implications like the order of precedence between all of the contract documents.  It's a lot to take in, but my past experience helps a lot.  Plus we decided the windows don't open enough to jump, so I kindof have to stay and learn.

(This post written while listening to Daft Punk Get Lucky.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Get a job again.

The Construction Engineer vacancy is open again, and will close on August 7. [yelled in a Scooter voice:] C'mon! Catch a Riiiiiiiiiiide!

Or you can just go see the new Anna Kendrick and Bryan Cranston movie coming out later this year about getting a job.

(This post written while listening to Talking Heads Found A Job.)

Sunday, June 30, 2013


As expected, work has continued to be busy. There was another round of OBO staff bidding on upcoming construction project positions this month, but as earlier this year, this process seems to be somewhat continuous. It's certainly interesting to learn how the process works, but it seems nearly impossible to predict assignments due to an incredibly high number of variables.

The whole Snowden thing has come up in some conversations, but it hasn't had any impact on our daily life (e.g., no classified materials handling requirement changes). I admit that recently I haven't thought much about US diplomatic relations with Russia until I read this article. From it, I gleaned this sage advice from Vladimir Putin, who said, "It’s O.K. to kind of pinch somebody’s behind, perhaps, but not to hit them with a baseball bat.” So true.

(This post written while listening to Mark Kozelek What's Next To The Moon)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Form DS-1999

As expected, the two weeks since my last post have been busy: we responded to many questions on the Freetown project, but it seems to be in decent shape at this point.

Otherwise, it's been work as usual, more or less.  I'm developing a feel for what constitutes a normal workload, and I'm pursuing as much information as my brain can absorb to prepare for working on a project site.  I've started developing a list I call Things I Need to Know Before Going Out.  No, it's not the most creative of list titles, but given all the information I'm attempting to collate, I'm trying to keep things simple.  As I think of things, I add them to the list, whether or not I think I know the answers.  For example, this week I added what to do in a medical emergency.  I shouldn't be surprised that there's a department dedicated to responding to major emergencies; I found their website, instructions, and phone numbers.  This would be key information to have readily available, which of course I hope I never need to use.

Considering all the information we're expected to know is quite intimidating, but management continues (at least the appearance of) its patience.  For a while, I admit I was starting to whine to myself, if not to the poor people around me, as I attempted to make sense of the big picture.  Maybe it's a natural phase in a new job, and I've lived a fairly sheltered life as I've had only a very few jobs and have changed jobs very infrequently.  But I recently decided the whining was pointless, and I'll simply plow ahead.  In an odd coincidence - I hope it was a coincidence - a coworker copied me on a Foreign Service form (link to the full form) he suggested would have a great impact on promotion potential.

I haven't looked up all the regulation references yet, such as the Foreign Affairs Manual, but who has time to look up every reference in these forms?

(This post written while listening to Robbie Robertson Somewhere Down the Crazy River)

Sunday, June 2, 2013


I just got back from a short trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone for a prebid meeting on an upcoming construction project. Here are some basic stats:
- Country Population: 5.6 million
- Freetown Population: 1.2 million
- Country Size: Slightly smaller than South Carolina
- National Language: primary is English, secondary is honking
- Brookfields National Soccer Stadium Capacity: 45,000

The countryside around Lungi (Freetown's airport) looked beautiful from the air: lush green vegetation, many winding rivers, and palm trees. Of course, not a lot of development.

As soon as we left the airport in a shuttle bus, we experienced the poor road conditions that justify most African posts recommending 4WD vehicles for employees. Even with a skilled driver, crazy traffic and/or pedestrians can align a tire with a nasty sinkhole (or whatever is worse than a "pothole", these holes were ridiculous). Not even Jeep Wranglers could escape major damage from the terrible roads: I saw one by the side of the road with its rear axle gone and its drive shaft hanging down in pitiful submission.

The prebid meetings went well: a lot of work came out of the trip to clarify the scope of work, which will improve the accuracy of the construction bids as well as lower them. The contractors engaged with good questions, Post's help and insights were invaluable, the local government officials we met with were helpful: all the pieces I'd experienced in non-federal prebids...except for the foreign country issues.

While we drove around town, I got some interesting photos like this one: check out the local scaffolding. It's scary because it clearly works, but I somehow doubt there are any injury statistics.

Safety violation: the guy sitting in the middle isn't wearing a hard hat.

I also managed to get this partial picture of the soccer stadium. Soccer is huge, not surprisingly. People were playing in fields, roads, all over every time we drove in the day.

We were told not to drink the tap water, so we bought bottled water. The predominant bottled water brands were produced locally, and my favorite label was this one - I'm not sure if I agree with their choice of image for their motto "The Sweet Taste of Purity":

I had a good experience with their claim that it was "bottled under strict hygenic conditions"

On the trip back, I ended up with a 6-hour layover in Brussels, so I wandered down to the Grand Place and nearby sights. I found this awesome Manneken Pis souvenir that would be a great white elephant party gift:

It was a good trip. The tropical heat and humidity made me appreciate the DC weather when I got home.  Now that we're back in DC, we'll focus on responding to the questions - I think we'll be busy in the next couple weeks.

(This post written while listening to John Hiatt Perfectly Good Guitar)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ongoing news

Benghazi issues continue to flow through congress and the news, but they don’t appear to filter down to my level – at least, not directly.  While it doesn’t come up in our daily conversations much, it’s still disturbingly fascinating, like a car wreck.  Some construction changes and projects are developing as a result of the Accountability Review Board findings, so we’ll be accommodating those soon.  It’s fascinating to have a better understanding of the issues’ implications though, like pieces of a puzzle coming together for a complete picture.  I’m a big fan of perspective.

Our Construction Management office’s building floor is starting to get reconfigured over the next few months to accommodate more people in a more open cube layout.  It should be interesting, particularly considering how tight quarters are now.  For example, someone ordered about a dozen boxes of hard hats, but we don’t have much storage space in our current configuration, so they ended up getting stored in a currently-empty corner office.  Assuming the new layout has less storage space, it may encourage us to use more digital formats for files.  At least, that’s the Glass Half Full way of looking at this opportunity.  So long as I can keep my red Swingline, I'll be happy.

I’ve been catching up with the Facilities Managers who were in my same specialist class since most of them left for their posts about a month ago.  It sounds like each of them was dropped into opportunity zone.  They’re very, very busy with work.

Like anywhere else, it's not all work at work. I recently overheard someone giving a compliment by saying, "I like your shirt - it looks like a margarita." I thought it was awesome.  I think it was a Friday, so I’m guessing that wasn’t a coincidence.

(This post written while listening to Violent Femmes Promise)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The news

OBO life has been pretty straightforward lately: we're finally finishing the Employee Evaluation Report (EER) season, we're heading into the heart of proposal season, and we may be getting some new hires soon.  The last bit would be fantastic, it seems like we could use the help, particularly with some recent staffing changes in Africa branch where we're losing a key person to the London embassy project.

The most interesting recent info is actually in the news, although that's probably generally not a good thing.  First was an April 11 opinion article in the Washington Post by some high level individuals.  It purports that Foreign Service political appointees are undermining the institution because they are short-term officials that don't "notably" contribute on a long-term basis like career staff do.  It also suggests that the State Department's General Service (a.k.a. civil service) system should be adapted to become more like the Foreign Service system.  It concluded by appealing to Secretary Kerry for change.  The article spawned a lot of controversy - we'll see if anything comes of it.

Then, just this week, Kathleen McGrade, age 64, and Brian Collinsworth, age 46, were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges from a scheme to steer more than $60 million in State Department contracts to a company they controlled.  Not good.

Back to matters at hand, we new hires from the 127th Specialist class are hoping to help with the NEW new hires' introduction to The System in a "pay it forward" way like the class before us.  We have no idea on the timing, though, so we'll just play it by ear.  Until then, time to get back at it!

(This post written while listening to 311 All Mixed Up)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Cayman Islands need an embassy. Bad.

After a difficult March, my wife and I decided it was time for a vacation - and vacate we did, to Grand Cayman. We hadn't been to many places in the Caribbean before, including Grand Cayman, but it was very nice as you'd expect. One thing we didn't realize was the huge difference between the east and west sides: the east was more calm and laid back but fewer amenities, while the west was more active and had more of a night life. Definitely worth considering if you have a chance to visit sometime. Also, if you're into snorkeling, check out Testudo’s snorkeling blog, although of the places we had the time to visit, our favorite was Cemetery Beach. Anyway, the strangest part of the trip came on the first morning after we got there. I had just showered when I realized that, of all things, the place smelled like Kabul. I checked my clothes, looked around, then realized I hadn’t used my underarm deodorant in my travel bag since the Kabul trip. Yeah, I just wrote about my armpits.  I’m not proud.

I took this at Cemetery Beach.

Back at work, things are as busy as ever, and seem to be getting busier.  I don’t think it’s just me, the other new hires that came in with me seem to be having the same experience.  I did my first Technical Evaluation Panel for a project’s proposals – in this case, a set of prequalification submittals.  It’s interesting to process proposals not only from the other side, but to experience the federal process versus the municipal approach I was used to in my previous job.  Not necessarily better or worse, just different, and equally as tedious.  Especially having prepared who-knows-how-many proposals myself and knowing how much time goes into a responsive proposal effort, it’s only fair to read them.  Rating each one on each evaluation criteria is predictably time-consuming, but oh well.

One day while I was in the bathroom - where all the most important conversations happen anywhere - two guys walked in as one was saying to the other, "This is a great place to work: there's always something broken that needs fixing. You can go home at night with a real sense of accomplishment." The other guy responded with a semi-surprised, non-committal grunt.  Huh, I just wrote about my bathroom experience.  This post is getting worse.

I recently saw someone on the bus with an odd smartphone: she'd printed website articles to read. Inexpensive and effective, but weird.  It still seems a little strange to see almost everyone on the buses and trains staring down at their smartphones, although I only notice it when I look up from mine.

If you’re interested in the a travel-size sample of this job’s experience without becoming a permanent hire, today these job opportunities as an Architect Personal Services Contractor (PSC) and as a General Engineer PSC were posted.  These vacancies are only open until May 17, so jump on it!

(This post written while listening to Jack Johnson Sitting, Waiting, Wishing)

Sunday, March 31, 2013


In early March we discovered one of our dogs had widespread cancer. The vet thinks it was hemangiosarcoma – a rapidly-growing cancer in her blood vessels that spread to her spleen, liver, a kidney, and a heart valve – but it was so far along there wasn't much point in testing it to confirm. We made her comfortable, including home saline injections and hand-feeding her as much pepperoni pizza as she would eat, but we had to put her down Friday night. It may have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Obviously it's been difficult to watch an almost 13-year institution in our lives change so much so quickly, and now be gone.

Sorry to be a downer, it's just hard to coalesce interesting work stuff right now. To lighten the mood, here's a new urinal we probably won't be seeing in diplomatic facilities anytime soon. I think there's a joke about LEED in there somewhere but it's not coming to me.

(This post written while listening to one snoring dog.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013


The last couple of weeks have consisted primarily of the usual workload, with sprinklings of internal Post bidding.  On the work front, I was monitoring an email exchange about sending more guards to a project, and the site's security guy asked what the guards' assignments would be like. The DC security guy wrote, "They usually rotate every 12 months or whenever one of them gets malaria, whichever comes first." Outstanding!

On Post bidding, there isn't much to say at this point.  It's still in progress, not that I expect it to directly affect me. In different bidding news, I'm starting my first construction project bidding process for the government. It's interesting to compare my previous experience to the government's approach: it's all extremely similar and more formalized, as expected.

In this week's branch meeting, I suddenly heard a duck quacking. It was the ringtone for one of my coworkers - let's call him Fred - who said quickly, "Sorry I have to take this," and hurried out of the room. During the pause, another coworker checked his phone and said, "Looks like a new Pope was just elected." My supervisor gestured towards the door and said, "Well, looks like Fred just got The Call!" We laughed. Then we were reminded to not bring our phones into the meetings.

We're now in the thick of Employee Evaluation Report (EER) season.  Appraisals are difficult no matter where you are, and it's the same here. The EER process involves a pretty involved series of essays, starting with a work requirements statement, continuing with an evaluation of performance and accomplishments, evaluation of potential (which includes the dreaded Areas for Improvement), and review statement, all the while addressing the Core Precepts: leadership, managerial, interpersonal, communication, intellectual, and substantive knowledge. It's basically essay writing about your performance.

Probably the biggest variable is the conclusion: the DS-1829's Section VII is the employee statement area, which is lovingly referred to as The Suicide Box. It's an opportunity for employees to say what they want. You can describe your accomplishments, explain why your rater or reviewer gave you a bad review, or even celebrate the Airing of Grievances. Airing grievances is definitely and publicly not recommended, but that hasn't stopped some people.

There seem to be subtleties to how exactly to write each section, which is particularly challenging for us newcomers who've only heard examples of others' EER writings. It's not surprising that this goes into your permanent record, but it's still nerve-wracking to consider the implications if it doesn't go well. Of course I'll do the best I can, and if all else fails, I'll attach a note from my mother (assuming she gives me a good review).

(This post written while listening to B.B King Nobody Loves Me But My Mother)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

PAC to the rescue?

With the sequestration now official and a potential shutdown coming up, what will we do?  I propose hiring the Permanent Assurance Company to fix our budgeting issues.  (Just watched the Meaning of Life again this weekend for the first time in over 15 years...great movie on so many levels.)

We don't know what effect the sequestration will have on us yet; there appear to be too many variables to know.  In the meantime, the formal OBO Construction Management bid process seems to be over.  I imagine I'll be much more involved in next year's bidding process, but we'll see what happens.  There's definitely plenty of work to do in DC.

Other than that fascinating sidelines activity, I've mostly been supporting my project assignments - nothing too crazy over the last couple of weeks.  If you have 8 minutes to kill, this NPR piece talks about OBO’s efforts to balance building safety and beauty.  It doesn’t have any particularly fascinating reveals, but it does shed some insight into the issues our designers try to balance.

(This post written while listening to Avicii Levels)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Back to normal

After the short Kabul trip, it didn't take long to get back in the DC swing of things - making my own lunch, commuting, appreciating the slightly reduced gun-per-person ratio...the transition was almost seamless. I did have some daily breakfast bacon withdrawal, but I’m over the hump now.

I did get nice personal notes from Hillary and John during the #SecState transition. (I like to think that I'm on a first name basis with both of them.) (But I'm not.) And while technically I was blind carbon copied on the notes, I know when someone bcc's you that means they really like you.

After a week of relative normality back in DC, I headed to the Foreign Service Institute for a week of contracting officer's representative training. I ended up driving each day, and on the first day of walking through the parking lot, I noticed a detail that confirmed I was at FSI. I think there are a lot more personalized license plates in VA compared to CO, but I assume only in the Foreign Service do people use their Posts for their license plates: I saw variations of cities in Turkey and Georgia (not GA). The training is a prerequisite for my COR certification, which is required for my job, so it was pretty important. I managed to pass the test without violating the ethics rules, so I'm good to go.

The most exciting news was the recent arrival of the OBO Construction Management bid list! Of course, it probably doesn’t directly impact us new hires since we're generally supposed to be in DC for 1 to 2 years for our first tour. We'll see though! It also seems like the OBO bidding process is somewhat continuous.  I don't expect any resolution soon, but it'll at least be interesting to watch and learn.

(This post written while listening to Oasis Fade In-Out)

Sunday, January 27, 2013


I just got back from two weeks on my first temporary duty trip: Kabul! It was fascinating on many levels, as you'd imagine.

Getting from DC to Kabul takes quite a while, but at least I was able to score a window seat for my flight into Kabul. The landscape was beautiful, with sharp mountain crests everywhere:

The ~$700M embassy upgrade project has many components, including five new buildings, so there was a lot to see. On my third day, the contractor placed 300 cubic meters of concrete for the first part of a building foundation. The contractor did a good job of managing his workforce to install the rebar and prepare for cold weather concrete placement. The Overseas Buildings Operations staff did a great job of keeping the contractor in line and providing feedback on the work.

Probably the strangest thing about Kabul was the scent. I noticed it as soon as I stepped off the plane, but I couldn't quite place it. Someone finally explained it was soot. Kabul residents burn wood and anything they can to keep warm in the winter. The result from the fires is an almost continual soot cloud. Sometimes it thins out in the afternoon if the winds pick up, but it looks like a fog at night. Not surprisingly, some people experience respiratory problems from the combination of the 6000-foot elevation and the soot. Of course, you get used to it - except for me there was one time daily: when I got out of the shower, pulled my towel up to my clean face...and it smelled like soot. I would've burned my clothes when I got home if I didn't feel like I would just be enabling the cycle somehow. Coincidentally, while I was there, the NY Times ran an interesting article about how crappy the Kabul air quality is.

Speaking of my clothes, another OBO visitor before me bought some laundry detergent from the embassy's convenience store and gave me the rest. Unfortunately the packaging only had a total of seven English words: Comfort, Sense of Pleasure, Airflow, Laos, and Cambodia.

Was the liquid detergent or was it actually fabric softener? Which would be more likely to improve Airflow? And don't get me started on the Sense of Pleasure. It didn't really matter anyway, I was a lost cause even WITH instructions I could read because the washing machine I was trying to use appeared to be Turkish. (I later realized it appeared to be Turkish because the wifi connection I was using was routing through Turkey.) I couldn't figure out where to put the detergent for the life of me. Being an engineer, I was not going to let this washing machine beat me - it was a matter of pride, you see. So I found the model number of the Beko DCU9330 and looked up its user manual on the internet. It took a while to find one in english, but the cover page told me what I needed to know: Dryer. The washing machines were in another container also named "Laundry". Chalk up a win for the "Measure Twice Cut Once" philosophy since I didn't pour the Comfort into the dryer somewhere (like the condensation collector), but the laundry facilities clearly weren't engineer-proofed.

There were a lot of things to do on the compound, and the embassy appeared to have a pretty active night life. One night the CLO hosted a film event for a short collection of interviews called Kabul at Work presented by the director. I haven’t watched them all – the film I saw included only about 8 of the 81 currently on the website – but I highly recommend a few in particular: The Film Producer, The Postman (not on YouTube yet), and The Golf Pro. The director wanted to illustrate that Kabul is a much more ordinary city with interesting people than most people probably realize. Kabul typically only ends up in American news because of acts of violence (or air quality, evidently), but of course the minority doesn't have to define the majority. I found it very interesting – I hope you do too!

It was a great trip; I learned a LOT about running an OBO construction project as well as embassy life. I'd like to go back for a tour, and my wife would like to join me (it looks like there are openings for jobs she could do), our only constraint is what we would do with our two dogs. Hmmm...

(This post written while listening to Nick Drake Road.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Man Card: Suspended

Today we decided to go visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore, so we drove from DC to check it out. I was extremely embarrassed when I realized both the Ravens' and the Redskins' playoff games were home games today, and the route I picked went right past both stadiums. We were lucky that we didn't get stuck in traffic, but I can't believe I lost track of the playoff games - bad Mark, very bad.

The aquarium was cool. My wife and I were trying to pick our favorite parts. She liked the dolphins the best: not exactly a shocker. In fact, she said she'd like to be a dolphin trainer some day, BUT she doesn't have a degree in a biology-related field, and apparently employers can be sortof picky about that background check stuff. I think my favorite part was when we were watching an animal handler describe a blue-tongued skink (lizard) and the handler asked the children an arm's length away what the skink eats. I mumbled, "Children?" but I'm pretty sure none of the kids heard me. The odd and impressive variety of poisonous frogs they had were cool too.

Work's good.

(This post written while listening to R.E.M. South Central Rain.)