U.S. State Department Flickr
U.S. State Department Flickr

What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

U.S. State Department Flickr
U.S. State Department Flickr

The unfortunate and untimely death of a young Foreign Service Officer in a suicide bombing on April 6 in Afghanistan’s Zabul province has drawn attention to the careers of U.S. diplomats, a topic already on the consciousness of much of the U.S. population following the success of the critically acclaimed foreign service flick Argo.

Twenty-five year old U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff was on assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan since July, a post for which she had volunteered following a tour in Caracas, Venezuela. When her convoy was attacked, she was en route to deliver books to a school. "I wish everyone in our country could see first-hand the devotion, loyalty and amazingly hard and hazardous work our diplomats do on the front lines in the world's most dangerous places," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement following the attack.

The work of U.S. diplomats, a term interchangeable with Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), can range from an assignment like Smedinghoff’s—promoting literacy—to issuing new passports to U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad. FSOs are stationed at any one of 265 embassies, consulates, and mission stations around the world, and are living and working in both hostile, war-torn nations and amicable, peaceful countries. Broadly defined, all of the work falls under a mission statement that the official Department of State literature defines thusly: “The mission of a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.”

Diplomats select one of five different career paths—consular affairs, economic affairs, management affairs, political affairs, and political diplomacy—that inform their day-to-day work. Consular work includes facilitating adoptions; economic officers tackle subjects like environmental issues; management officers head up real estate and budget, for example; political affairs focuses on the host country; and political diplomacy officers interact with locals, particularly leaders and officials, to promote U.S. policies. More information on each is available here. New FSOs are Junior Officers, and their first couple assignments are considered entry-level. In other words, Junior Officers are likely to be the ones interviewing hopeful travelers planning a trip to New York City for their visas.

While diplomats place preferences for their career tracks and bid for location assignments, they must be willing to work wherever they are placed regarding both job role and destination. Posts vary in length, from about 6 months in certain places, such as war zones, to up to a few years in other places. The Department of State arranges for FSO's housing and coordinates transitions with the goal of making moves as seamless and comfortable as possible. Still, prospective officers are warned that the standard of living in different posts varies widely, and based on the country, can be cushier or rougher than what they are accustomed to in the U.S.

Certain agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service and Commercial Service, individually hire and employ FSOs, as well. The careers, assignments, and work are specific to those agencies. The vast majority of FSOs, however, work for the Department of State.

Foreign Service Officers, also referred to as diplomat “generalists,” are one professional pillar of the U.S. Foreign Service. Ambassadors, Foreign Service Specialists—such as doctors and human resource specialists—and Foreign Service Nationals that include citizens of the country where the embassy or consulate is located, are among the others.

The application process to become a Foreign Service Officer is exhaustive, and as is to be expected for a government position, includes an extensive background check. The first hurdle in the process is sitting for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Test results determine whether candidates advance to the following rounds, which include submitting a personal narrative and taking an oral assessment. More information about the application process is available here.

For those considering a career as a Foreign Service Officer, there’s also an app for that, official and provided by the U.S Department of State, where candidates can tap around to, for example, review general information about the Foreign Service, try practice test questions, and locate diplomats.

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Who Started Casual Fridays?
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For employees at the mercy of an office thermostat, Casual Fridays provide some much-needed relief during frigid winters and the scorching months of summer. Though many offices are beginning to loosen their dress codes permanently, plenty of employees still cling to this one day a week when wearing shorts won't raise any eyebrows and that T-shirt won't result in an email from HR. But Casual Friday didn't begin just as a cure for discomfort in the workplace; there was also money to be made. 

In the 1960s, Bill Foster, president of The Hawaiian Fashion Guild, plotted to find a way to sell more of the colorfully designed Aloha shirts to their residents with the launch of "Operation Liberation," which gave two shirts to every member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and the Hawaii Senate. The purpose of this campaign was to persuade the politicians to allow government workers to wear the lightweight shirts not only to beat the heat in the summer months, but also to support the state’s garment industry. The custom took off in 1966 and was given a familiar name, "Aloha Friday."

Technology giant Hewlett-Packard claims to have sparked the spread of casual wear in the workplace around the same time in the San Francisco Bay area. Called "Blue Sky Days," this Friday custom wasn't just limited to clothing: HP's founders—Bill Hewlett and David Packard—wanted people to take these days to think of more creative ideas and initiatives outside of their normal routine. This idea soon caught on throughout Silicon Valley and, eventually, into other industries.

However, the spread of this casual trend on the mainland resulted in haphazard, sometimes sloppy attire in the workplace. To help clarify the issue, and to promote his own brand, Rick Miller of Dockers stepped in with an ingenious marketing plan. In 1992, he sent an eight-page “Guide To Casual Business Wear” to approximately 25,000 human resource managers to distribute to their employees. This kickstarted the Dockers brand by popularizing the khaki pant and redefining what is acceptable attire in the workplace.

Now, many nations adopt a Casual Friday approach for similar reasons. In 2005, Japan implemented a Cool Biz policy that granted a summer dress code during hot weather months, in exchange for a more moderate temperature in office buildings. This meant offices were saving energy by keeping their temperature at no less than 82.4°F, but workers could breathe a bit easier in business casual tops and sneakers.

Blame the fashion industry, the unbearable heat, or simply an evolving cultural attitude. The likes of Bill Foster’s Aloha Friday and Rick Miller’s “Guide To Casual Business Wear” gave employees permission to dress for comfort on the job—for at least one coveted day of the week.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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