Classe de langue française

I’ve been back in DC for almost two months and now 1/4 of the way through French training.  It is a slog. It has surprised me how tired I am after 8 hours of language classes, labs, conversation tables, pronunciation tables, and homework.  This is the first language I’ve tried to tackle seriously since college Russian a couple decades ago and it’s tough.

That said, I am making progress.  Verb by verb.  If only I could keep all those damn articles and prepositions straight. Now that I’m a less-sensitive place, I’ll try to keep up on the diplojournaling.  Peut-être un peu en français.

Winter Fireworks (or Death eaters coming to Embassy Ottawa)

One of the things I love most about my apartment here in Ottawa is the view at night.  Most evenings, it’s an expansive view of the market. Every once in awhile, however, I hear minor explosions off in the distance. Given that it’s Ottawa and not someplace more dangerous, that sound means fireworks.  In the summertime, just about every festival included a fireworks display so I’ve had a lot of practice doing spur of the moment photography.

As Fall gave way to Winter, the sky has been quiet. Until last night. It took me a minute or two to associate the sound with something that required me to get up from the couch.  Not only were there fireworks lighting the sky, but the launching spot from my vantage looked to be right between the US Embassy and the art museum. A perfect spot to catch those buildings lit up with the fireworks.

I’m in pre-packout sort mode so my photography gear is in several piles — stack for storage, stack to ship to Pakistan, and small bag o’ stuff to take on the plane.  Putting together what I needed to shoot, particularly not knowing how long the fireworks would last, would have been quite comical if anyone had been here to watch the mad scramble and rapid assemble. Tripod in the closet.  Camera in the bedroom. Damn, wrong camera — need the one in the other closet that has the tripod plate. Battery from the charger.  CF cards still on the desk from the last shoot.  Set it all up on a chilly balcony completely covered in snow from the storm a couple days ago. No time for a jacket. Can’t find the remote cord.

Anyway, got it all set up, adjusted the settings and started firing away.  It was a nice display, but I wasn’t sure if I captured anything particularly unique until I spent some time editing.  This shot jumped out from group (click on the small image below to blow it up).  I wish I could say it was all planned and that I have amazing timing, but sometimes the best shots are just pure luck.  I’m presuming the fireworks guys intended it to look like a ski masked face grimacing over the Byward Market, with maybe a little face next to it.  Whether intentional or not, it looks particularly ominous to me sitting right on top of the US Embassy as if Lord Voldemort were on his way.

For fireworks fans, here are eight more shots from the evening’s display.

What Happened to Spring?

I’m no expert in climate change, but something seems a tad awry.  Driving into Ottawa a little over a month ago, it was pretty much what I expected.  Cold and snowy.  Granted, it was not the bitter cold that I was prepared for, but people were skating on the canal and snow was falling diagonally in sheets.

On March 26th, the thermometer reached a high of -4°C (24°F).  Within a week, we bolted straight through Spring and hit mid-Summer.  Winter coats and snow boots gave way to shorts and flip-flops.  On Saturday, Ottawa destroyed all previous records with a high of 29°C (85°F).  Since there has never been an April here without snow, I expect this was a bit of fluke and we will get some more cold.  A week or two of Spring would also be nice.

One of the less-publicized perks of life in the foreign service is that we get a cornucopia of holidays.  In addition to all traditional U.S. holidays, we also observe the local days off.  Thus, in July, we’ll celebrate Canada Day on July 1st, followed closely by Independence Day on the 4th.  Although some refer to Canada as a “post-Christian” nation, this past Easter week-end extended to a four-day mini vacation.

The hot weather and long week-end inspired me to clean up the camera gear and explore a bit.  I walked along the Ontario river path, playing with the camera for the first time in months.  There is so much per capita open space that, even on a beautiful holiday week-end, it didn’t feel crowded.  I did, however, see a lot of sunburns.

The haze made big landscapes less appealing, so I focused on some macro shots.  Canal chains, rusting bolts on a bridge support, a thicket of small shrubs.  I like the details we tend to ignore in favor of the grand views.  An old stone building in the process of renovation provided a unique natural frame for the distant Parliament Hill clock tower.  I arrived back upstairs just in time to make a nice photo of the sun setting behind the Market.

Stone Building
View of Parliament Clock
Sunset over the Byward Market

Can’t wait for tulips in the Spring.

Preparing for Pack Out

I’ve got a few days of classes remaining next week, but I’m now officially in transition mode.  There’s a long checklist of things to get done, but plenty of time so it’s relatively low stress.  The impending snow storm this week-end will also limit the distractions so I can focus on getting organized and packing things up.  It started snowing this morning and it’s supposed to keep going through tomorrow night with an expected 15-24 inches.  This would apparently break the all-time annual snowfall record for the DC metro area.  I’m convinced it’s a plot to get me used to weather in Ottawa.

Although I went through the pack-out process in October, it feels like a lot longer than 3-1/2 months ago.  The movers came by this morning to do a pre-move assessment.  Unlike most officers, I’ll be driving to post so I can fit a lot of my stuff in the car, leaving only a small subset that will have to be packed up and shipped.  Thankfully, I’m moving into a furnished place downtown so I don’t need to worry about acquiring more stuff.

The drive to Ottawa looks like it will be pretty relaxed.  Although it’s only about 10 hours, I’m going to stop for the night somewhere along the way because my lease ends in Virginia on Friday and I can’t get into my new place in Ottawa until Saturday.  I now have a four-wheel-drive instead of the convertible I drove out from California, but I expect I will still be driving a little more slowly and carefully heading through the snow-belt on I-81 to Scranton, Syracuse, and the Canadian border.

Now if it will just warm up a little so the two feet of snow melts between now and Friday…

Telling When Someone is Telling a Lie

I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to figure out when people are lying to me. As a litigator, one of the real challenges is leading a witness into a lie and then exposing it in front of a jury with other evidence or, preferably, the witness’s own prior conflicting testimony on video. Under the pressure of testifying in open court, some witnesses exaggerate to support their case. Most outright lie. In poker, one of my favorite pastimes, success depends on one’s ability to lie convincingly and to detect when others are lying.

We’ve been focusing this week on interviewing techniques and fraud detection.

While playing poker, I try to avoid playing any meaningful hands for the first hour, particularly when I don’t know how the others at the table play. I spend that time watching and establishing a baseline of behavior for each opponent. People have different body language when they have a big hand, when they are bluffing, and when they are not sure where they stand. I don’t just focus on the face. Good poker players are very good at not giving anything away from their facial expressions and it is too easy to get false tells. Instead, I get more useful information by watching other details: how they move their chips when they bet, body position, hand shakes, gum chewing patterns, foot tapping, etc.

I’ve heard about micro-expressions, mostly from watching the TV show ‘Like to Me‘ a few times. I have never given it much thought, but it turns out to be a very useful tool. Not dispositive in the way it appears on the show, but definitely worth developing as a skill. Aside from my fundamental skepticism about lie detection, I initially assumed that the myriad of cultural differences I will encounter in the foreign service makes the practice useless. Paul Ekman, one of the principal researchers in the field (and the scientific advisor for the TV show) did an amazing study of the isolated Fore tribesman in Papua New Guinea. What emerged was a common set of universal facial expressions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise.

You don’t need to be a Fore tribesman to interpret what emotions that person is feeling. We all unconsciously make these faces, sometimes blatantly, but most of the time in a flash of a second. With practice, however, you can start to see those flashes. Everywhere. Now there’s no facial expression for “I’m lying,” but those that are skilled in reading micro-expressions can quickly spot when they don’t match the words being spoken.

After the public admission last month, the New York Times ran a piece in which Dr. Ekman analyzed a 2007 Alex Rodriguez interview during which he denied using steroids, what we now know to be a blatant lie. We used the video in class, first listening to it without watching the video (ARod’s voice was strong and he sounded genuine, albeit coached). We then watched the video and had a very different reaction.

I’m not sure it’ll make me a better poker player or a better foreign service officer, but I’m going to put in some practice time.

Happy New Year

I haven’t really subscribed to the whole new year resolution thing in the past.  Given all the changes over the last few months, however, I’ve developed some bad habits that the new year might just help resolve.  Nothing earth shattering, but each change would make me much happier in the long run.

1.  Eat better.  I’m living alone for an extended period for the first time in a quarter-century and my diet has certainly suffered as a result.  Too much eating in restaurants or take out.  As much as it is a pain, I’m back to recording what I eat, a technique which has helped immensely in the past.  I will give myself one day a week off, but otherwise record my daily intake.  I’m also going to shoot for preparing and bringing my lunch three days a week which should also help.

2.  Exercise more.  More than zero can’t be that hard, can it?  I really do have no excuse with additional time, less responsibilities, and a fully functional gym two floors below.  I hate using gyms, though.  I’m going to try a few things to see if some combination works for me.  I’m going to walk to the Foreign Service Institute (about 25 mins. each way) rather than drive.  I’ll try to get to the gym a couple times a week.  I ordered a TRX for use in the condo.  I really liked it at my last gym and is easy to use at home for the years ahead.

3.  Listen to more music and watch less TV.  The TV is on a lot.  I spend very little time actually sitting on the couch watching, but it is on almost all the time as background noise while I work, eat, read, etc.  I’ve found a solution to routing music from the computer to the living room so iTunes and Pandora can now be heard where I spend most of my time.  Exceptions:  sports and while using the TRX (i.e., resolution 2 trumps resolution 3).

4.  Update the blog more.  I’ve been slacking, I know.  I’ll aim for shorter, but more frequent, posts.

I’ll revisit each resolution in a couple of months and see how it’s going.

Veterans Day

For most of the country, Veterans Day is a pre-Thanksgiving shopping holiday.  No matter what your politics, however, spending the day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will make you forget all about the Wall-mart, Target, and Sears bargains.

For many of the hundreds gathered on a gray, rainy morning, Veterans Day is an excuse to make an annual pilgrimage to meet with their brothers in arms and salute the fallen.  There is little celebration.  It is a somber remembrance of an ordeal they survived together:  an ordeal those of us lucky enough to be of an age that required no such sacrifice cannot begin to understand. It was striking to see this group — made immortally 18-24 by Hollywood — has aged into their 60s.  Those looking for a name amongst the 58,261 inscribed on the wall included not just spouses and children, but adult grandchildren.

The poor weather seemed the perfect accompaniment to the mood.  After some speeches, the honor guard played taps, and the crowd dispersed.  Some sought to find comrades on the wall, while others filed slowly up the path.  As I worked my way through the crowd, stopping every once in awhile to make a photo, I heard countless murmurs of “see you next year.”