Thursday, December 29, 2011

live blogging from frankfurt

Ok, it's a lie. I'm only online for an hour with intermittent updates, but I'm just going to type whatever I feel like here for the remainder of my internet time. Actually, I think it's a travesty that Frankfurt Airport does not offer free Wi-Fi for users. Then again, neither does SFO. Actually, it's a definite first-world problem that I would even dare to call non-free Wi-Fi a travesty. It's barely a problem in the grand scheme of things. Of course, it's not a fifth-world problem either. One may ask what a fifth-world problem is. Oh, google it and find out but I can tell you now it's weird and freaky and you're not going to understand. Also, it's just a big joke.

I'm actually waiting for my work e-mail to download. It takes a while to get Outlook to sync with the Exchange server. But when it does, bam! Forty e-mails in the last 12 hours, most of which were during the middle of the night. Right before I left the office yesterday I received some good news about the difficulties with a particular well. Major difficulties have passed, though they could reoccur.

When we land in Frankfurt we don't get a normal gate. I suppose Baku/Ashgabat doesn't rate. Instead, the plane parks in the boonies of the airport out by the cargo terminal and we get bussed in. Seriously, the planes next to us are always all cargo planes. How can I tell? Cargo planes don't have windows. This morning's bus ride seemed longer than usual and I wish I got airline miles for the bus ride which seemed like a good three miles. I need every last mile and what I do with them is none of your concern.

Ok, e-mails either dealt with or filed away. Only about one thing that needs further follow-up which can wait until next week. There's always a bit of concern when I go on days off/vacation, mostly due to my total lack of trust in mankind. No, not that. It's just the sense of wanting to be sure things are in good hands. Actually, things are in good hands. It's a good team and most day-to-day things are relatively straightforward. The only issue is that it's the end of the year so there are some end-of-year items that always linger.

So I watched Harry Potter 8, also known as the final film of the Harry Potter series and Cowboys and Aliens on the way here from Ashgabat. I had to get in my movie watching on my first flight since my next leg is on an older 747 with overhead screens so the only films they will show will be family-friendly. Last time, it was Cars 2 and some other blather. Harry Potter 8 was fine. I suppose I should really read the books if I want to understand all the subtle details, but I think I finally figured out the big picture. They're wizards. As for Cowboys and Aliens, my goodness was that awful. Harrison Ford is just going through the motions at this point. First, Indian Jones 4 and then this tripe? C'mon, you were Han Solo and you shot first and I don't care what any revisionist historian has to say about that. Also, Daniel Craig's American accent is quite peculiar. Not bad, just peculiar. The rest of the film was a train wreck of different ideas, non-existent character development, terrible dialogue and just bad writing. I just realized it's actually a lot like a bad reverse version of Avatar. Since I know none of you will watch C&A, it's basically about aliens kidnapping people to learn about human weaknesses while also mining gold. How is that not like Avatar where humans go to an alien planet, try to mingle with the aliens in their avatar forms, while mining the most obtainable element on the planet? It even had a turncoat alien, albeit from a different species helping the humans much like how the human protagonist in Avatar helped the aliens. Just terrible. But I regret nothing.

I always pick-up an Economist when I fly. It makes me feel like a real adult and I want something to read on the plane. However, this time I feel cheated because the issue is so thin. Also, I'm already aware Kim Jong Il died and there ain't no party like a Pyongyang party. And yet I still bought this week's issue. I've got my flying rituals to uphold.

Anyway, time is about out so I'll be going now. I still have another hour until boarding but I'll be damned if I spring for another hour of internet. Plus, most regular readers should be asleep by now and by the time you read this, I'll be somewhere over Canada on my way to SFO.

55 days

Back by popular demand, me! In less than 12 hours, I'm scheduled to depart Ashgabat, city of oddness, and begin my 24 hour journey home. Yes, 24 hours is a lot of travel time compared to the typical commute or even cross-country flight. But it's pretty amazing that I can go halfway around the world, crossing through 13 time zones, in less than a day. (No, running in a circle right at the North or South Pole does not count as crossing all the time zones!)

It will have been 55 days since I left by the time I step off the plane at SFO. Somehow, that seems inexplicably longer than saying nearly 8 weeks. And yet, 1,320 hours just seems nonsensical let alone 792,000 minutes or 4,752,000 seconds give or take a few thousand. This has been a long pull made longer by my relatively short time off last time, a series of difficult (and ongoing) operations for one client, and how few expats have been in the camp the last couple weeks. It really helps to have a good mix of people to hang out with after hours and it's just been a bit lacking lately. Plus, while I generally find Christmas/holiday parties to be terribly awkward, I'm still just a tinge bummed that I missed last Friday's party due to the canceled flight. At least I took in the hopefully once-in-a-lifetime experience of 11 hours on a train in Turkmenistan.

I'll be pretty busy my first roughly 32 hours back. Saturday night is theoretically open, but potentially subject to the whims of traffic. And after that, it's almost wide open beyond some planned new-unclage time. Perhaps some skiing, perhaps some lazing about, but definitely some Skrillex. Just kidding, I only listen to post-dubstep, whatever that is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan, the wednesday edition: ashgabat's odd

Sure this is a day late and several dollars short, but by golly, I have my reasons which are totally valid and still irrelevant. It's fitting that this is a bit late since I am now in Ashgabat (again!) and I wanted to post on what I will call it's oddness. This time, I'm not here for a client visit (but I'll probably squeeze one in tomorrow). Instead, I'm here because I'm coming home! Yes! More exclamation marks! Yes, yes, yes! Ok, I'll post on going home tomorrow or something or probably not.

I don't have occasion to spend much time in Ashgabat. For the most, I'm here for a day or two at most, but sometimes not even a full 24 hours as I transit to and from Balkanabat. When I'm here, I feel like I've been somewhere very similar before and I have no idea why. I've been thinking a lot about what similar places I have been and the answer is none. Nothing is like this place in all its kitschy glory. Well, that's not strictly true. Ashgabat is quite unique in many ways, but it still possesses all the trappings of a large city like people, buildings, traffic, and large disparities in wealth. My transitory time in the city only allows me to catch small glimpses of the entire place. As far as I know, there might only be three restaurants and one shopping center in the entire city. There's obviously much more to the city, but it's all I have had occasion to visit. Much of my time being ferried from airport to office to staff house to client office is along the city's main corridors which are filled with new buildings covered with marble. The structures are certainly grandiose with official Ministry of This and Department of That all being housed in new centers and complexes and stadiums. It's like some sort of "if you build it, they will come" monument where the monument is the entire city center. I hope the IOC is paying attention.

Speaking with one colleague who grew up in Ashgabat (and he has spent the last five years working in China so he has a very interesting take on, well, everything), he says almost none of the city in its current form is recognizable from what it was like 20 years ago when the country gained independence. The gleaming white limestone and marble buildings are certainly stately, but I also wonder about the earthquake worthiness of many of these tall 12-story apartment buildings since Ashgabat sits in an earthquake prone area. Of course, many cities have undergone significant transformations in the last 20 years such as Shanghai which has a well known before photo from 1990 and more recent image from 2010 comparison often made. (Here's a different link if you want to see them on one page.)

Like so many things here, all this construction has a "correct" appearance from afar but when you get close, you realize much is not quite right. The idea is essentially correct, but the execution, which is so dependent on details, is not quite right. For whatever reason, I tend to notice such things, like when doors don't quite align, tiles are cracked because they were not spaced properly, uneven grouting, floors that don't meet evenly or smoothly, etc. This isn't a wholesale critique of craftsmanship in Turkmenistan, but I just don't think they have enough skilled labor to properly handle the amount of construction that is going on. (The same thing was going on in Port Gentil, Gabon while I was there. Many new buildings looked outwardly nice, but had many small and annoying construction defects. For what it's worth, quality there was a distinct step or two below the quality here.) I also take serious umbrage with the traffic roundabouts that are here since they are obviously attempting to emulate the spirit of a roundabout, but failing quite badly with practical execution. If you want a full explanation, you'll have to see me in person when I can draw a picture. If you mysteriously read this blog without having ever met me in person, then fantastic, I have readers or at least a reader!

Most of the rest of what I have seen in the city is older apartment buildings. Lots and lots of apartment buildings. Some are new, but many are clearly from a prior vintage. Much like in Szeged, Hungary which had many five and ten-story apartment buildings that were all essentially identical, Ashgabat is also filled with many similar apartments. It's clearly some Soviet-era design based on the efficiency of soulless concrete blocks being optimal for apartment construction. Hey, nearly a million people here and they need to live somewhere. Cheap and economical housing makes sense. This isn't the type of place which will have sprawling suburbs anytime soon.

Even though I work in the industry that funds all the construction, I still have a hard time fathoming just where all this money is coming from. It is clear that there is a lot of money in this city. A lot alot. The construction, fancy cars, public spaces, and tacky monuments all speak to the wealth that at least some have access to. What is less clear is what one million people in this city do. I realize a significant portion of any city goes to sustaining the city itself, but there still needs to be industry or tourism or finance or technology. Yes, there is a little bit of all those things. A very little bit. Instead, it's a city living off the natural resources of the country.

One final note is that for a country that is 90% Muslim, there sure are a lot of Christmas trees up in public spaces. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can call them New Year trees if you want, but I know a Christmas tree when I see one.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the joys of domestic travel

Contrary to what I stated in my previous post, the holiday party was moved to last night. However, I was unable to attend due to the peculiarities of flying in Turkmenistan. The sandstorm from earlier in the week raged into a third day on Wednesday, again cancelling the flight to/from Balkanabat which normally runs Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. (Why that particular spacing of days and not something like Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday is one of the great mysteries of Turkmenistan. The explanation would probably be only slightly simpler than the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.) The Wednesday cancellation led to two things. First, they ran a special Thursday flight to Balkanabat, which was nice, but irrelevant to me since I had to be in Ashgabat by Thursday morning for the nameless client I mentioned two posts ago. Instead, and this is the second thing, I (and several others) went to Turkmenbashy to catch the last flight of the day to Ashgabat.

Unlike Balkanabat, Turkmenbashy has daily service to Ashgabat operating 3-4 flights a day. It also has a very new airport which is quite nice. For the time being it is more airport than there is capacity for, but presumably they will grow into their new digs. No doubt it is one piece of the larger plan to turn Turkmenbashy into a resort town for tourists. (Note: that article is four years old.) While it has some domestic popularity, as many colleagues seemed to enjoy going there during the summer, I am slightly skeptical of its ability to lure large numbers of foreigners. Indeed, the foreign drawing power of the city and beach is less than stellar so far. I particularly like the quote from one of the tourists, "It's ornate to the point of kitsch" as that also seems like a very apt description of Ashgabat.

Anyway, Thursday was a day in Ashgabat that was supposed to end with a train ride back to Balkanabat. However, I had to deep-six that after the second client meeting was pushed back to the end of the day making it too late to catch the train. Fortunately, or so I thought, I was able to get a ticket for the Friday flight back to Balkanabat which was somewhat odd since I had previously been told the flight was full which is why I had planned on taking the train. However, it was for naught since yesterday's flight was cancelled once again, this time not due to a sandstorm, but instead heavy fog in Balkanabat. And thus I was back to my train plan, but by missing the flight, it also meant missing the festive and no doubt socially awkward holiday party. They did pledge to run a special Saturday flight today to replace the cancelled flight from yesterday, but I'm generally happy with the train decision since I just learned that flight has also been cancelled.

The train, which left at 19:00, was 11 hours of mostly nothing. Fortunately, I had a two-person cabin to myself because they actually bought me two tickets. If you're wondering if that is cost prohibitive, no, it is not. Each ticket is about 7 USD and well worth the privacy and non-hassle of sharing a cabin with a total stranger. (For reference, a plane ticket to Balkanabat is only 20 USD since transportation is subsidized.) I slept as much of the trip as possible as there is very little to look at along unlit countryside and stops at small town rail stations. We pulled into Balkanabat at 06:15 and once again I'm back "home".

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: the holidays

With the coming holidays, basically Christmas and New Year's Day, a disproportionate number of expats in the camp have headed out or will soon be away for days off. I am here at least another 10 days and possibly clear into January. I try not to engage in the whole countdown thing that some expats do when their days off approach since schedules invariably change in this business and it only sets you up for disappointment. Either I leave on a given day or I stay. There's no use getting psyched up for a flight that could be nixed because of some version of client need.

Nonetheless, there is a bit of Christmas cheer around the camp with a few decorations in the office, and trees up in the rec room, office, and canteen. There are even some lights and ornaments on an evergreen outside the canteen. A sprinkle of snow and this would be paradise. Right now, we're getting a sprinkle of sand storm: day 2. Of course, some aren't so enamored with the camp. One of the locals temporarily in the camp called it "Guantanamo" and can't wait to get his own place in town. But hey, at least the food is better than that "indefinite detention center" or I assume it's better. I hope it's better?

The "holiday" party will be on Saturday. I cannot wait to see if it takes the same course as some of the classics from my time in New Mexico. And by that, I of course mean that I wonder how much everyone will drink.

Monday, December 19, 2011

the unsendables 2

Well, as a continuation from yesterday's post, today was a wasted day out to a location to see some "evidence" that did not exist. Actually, it wasn't strictly wasted as there were camels out and about. They seem quite at home here in the desert. Well, it wasn't wasted because now we can use this trip as proof to the client that we are so eager and attentive to their requests that we went out to the field when they requested. Of course, I'm confident they will find a way to tell us that we didn't go at the right time even they said go as soon as possible. Or they will say we went to the wrong place even though they said go to location (instead of the office where we also went which did yield some tangentially interesting, albeit not useful, information).

With the field visit in the bag, I did fire off my e-mail (internal recipients only), but in a vastly restructured form and sans the sarcasm. Instead, it was firm and forceful making very clear my position about not giving away unnecessary concessions to a client known for what I will politely call auspicious business practices. That's the polite form. Folks back home can get the fully uncensored version in person when I get back in a couple weeks.

What I find most upsetting to me is the claim of poor work product without proof while we have our reports and files and data showing we did the job we said we would do. I would much rather have a client just say they want a discount for no particular reason than to have baseless aspersions cast about our work in an attempt to get us to concede a discount. If you want money, then fine, but don't accuse us of screwing up. Have the guts to just say what you're after.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

the unsendables

There's an e-mail I wrote yesterday for work that I cannot send despite it being perfectly worded. Sadly, sarcasm and business generally do not mix well. The subtleties of what make good sarcasm are difficult to properly convey in writing especially when some members of your target audience are non-native English speakers. The end result is that my three-paragraph masterpiece in response to being asked to do something that I will politely call non-constructive will never be sent. Instead, I will spend a day of my time (and another person's time) chasing down some "evidence" that a client claims to have proving some level of wrong-doing on our part.

The back-story to the entire incident would be funny because of how absurd the claim is but it has to be treated seriously because well, I'm not entirely sure why. It's akin to when the media gives equal time to two sides of an argument even though one side is some combination of wrong, ignorant, offensive or all of the above. This is one of the drawbacks to being in the service industry. Sometimes you need to politely deal with unreasonable requests while pretending they are not unreasonable. Thankfully, my time working for clients of a certain nature in Gabon taught me how to sit politely through a meeting while being blamed for something we did not do.

Anyway, my e-mail was half-informative (of facts I am sure they do not have), half-playful, half-mocking, and half-self-deprecating. If you add that up you can already see that those four halves make it twice as good as any ordinary e-mail. Alas, despite it's awesomeness, it shall never see the light of the Exchange e-mail server.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: opaque-nost?

There is too much going on for a real post and that is a bit regrettable. Some interesting things have come up including the EPA study on hydraulic fracturing done in Wyoming. this has been the type of study that has been needed, but it's only a start. There are other types of studies and approaches that should be taken. If the industry is smart, it will involve itself in the process and learn how to address all concerns that have been raised. If it wishes to do otherwise, which has been the reaction thus far, then it will fight the study and claim bad science. If you don't have time to read the entire 121-age paper, you should at least know that the meat of the paper is only 42 pages and the rest is citations and data. In fact, the conclusion is only seven pages so have a gander if you're interested.

On to my semi-adopted homeland-for-tax-purposes-that-lead-me-to-claim-residency here! Transparency International recently released their latest survey results. I mentioned this last week, but finally found their actual website with their actual results. I poked around their study methodology a little and it is a bit arbitrary, but it is a Corruptions Perception Index, not a quantitative measure of actual corruption. From the bottom up, Turkmenistan is tied for fifth behind such luminaries as Somalia (which arguably doesn't even have a functioning government), North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. In recent years, the ranking has consistently moved one direction:
2010 - T5 (same countries as 2011 but add in Iraq and remove North Korea which was not assessed)
2009 - T8 (same as 2010 and add Sudan, Chad, and Uzbekistan)
2008 - T11
2007 - T14

I feel like one could make the argument that things can only get better, but much like the stock market, it is very difficult to call a bottom.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

neutrality day

Today is yet another glorious public holiday in Turkmenistan. This time, it is Neutrality Day celebrating the day when Turkmenistan achieved the same standard for living for its people as Switzerland. Or not. It really commemorates Turkmenistan's official position of neutrality, which is part of the reason it does not (officially) support U.S. military activities in Afghanistan. I have previously mentioned the Arch of Neutrality, which was built to commemorate this status of the country. Said Arch has since been dismantled by the current president. To give the country some credit, it is recognized as being neutral by the U.N.

Then again, Zapp Brannigan was never one to trust neutrals.

lacking insulation

I've shown a few people from back home photos of my room here. It is basically a metal box with windows and a door. It's spartan, but not really any less dressed up or decorated than how my apartment in Farmington was for the first year or two I lived there. In practical terms, it has everything I need which is basically functioning bathroom facilities, a bad, dresser for clothes, and a nightstand with a lamp. As low maintenance as I can be, the lack of insulation in the room is my only real gripe. Ok, the TV hasn't been working this rotation either, but I don't even miss that. But waking up in a cold room does not exactly make me want to go to work in the morning. Of course, I'm pretty sure I'm living better than 99% of the country so a bit of perspective helps.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: anti-glasnost

It's difficult to say if it's the shine wearing off a new locale or if actual changes are afoot, but there's a feeling that things are changing here, and not necessarily for the better. It could also just be that I am starting to see a bit more behind the curtain. For those of us who remember a bit of their history class or actually lived through it, there were two terms that were frequently used to describe the end of the Cold War and the changes going on in the Soviet Union. One was perestroika for restructuring. The other was glasnost to indicate openness and transparency.

Here, it feels a bit like anti-glasnost. The concept of glasnost has no place here. Infrastructure is for naught when there is no access. Our own internet at the base runs through a satellite (hence the limited bandwidth) so we don't go through the local internet. But if we did, I am sure I would be unable to access several services due to the blacklisting of many sites. Interestingly enough, while there is 3G (when it's up) available from the only mobile phone provider, their ability to block some sites is not very sophisticated.

It's more than just information and media that lack openness, but those are some of the hallmarks of a functioning democracy. The idea that people can and will be informed and use that information to make supposedly good decisions about governance is a tenet of democracy. Of course, with the election looming in February, one should never assume that this is a functioning democracy. It could be worse but not by much. When you're only ahead of North Korea and Somalia in a study, and it doesn't even matter what it's a study of, that's not good news. In fact, I mentioned the coming election in February to two local engineers today and their reaction was surprise. Neither one knew there was an election in two months. That should tell you about how well democracy here functions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

the chosen one(s)

No fewer than four of the major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have declared that "God" told them to run. Perhaps we can quibble about what makes a "major" candidate, but Perry, Cain, Bachman, and Santorum have all made this pronouncement. Ok, Santorum is arguably more of an internet search term than a viable candidate, but he was a U.S. Senator. In a way, none of them are viable candidates. Bachman is Palin 2.0 and really only in it to sell her recently written memoir. Cain only attracted the spotlight with a tax plan reminiscent of a pizza deal and is now melting under that very same light with allegations of infidelity. And Perry, well, Perry doesn't need help imploding as he did that on his own during a recent debate. That these four are (or were?) even major candidates is deeply pathetic.

Well Republicans, I hope you really like Romney since your only semi-moderate hopefuls of Johnson and Huntsman are not gaining traction with the "base" voters.

Back to our divinely chosen candidates. Of course, if asked if they will win, none of them would ever declare that God told them they would win. Instead, they will bring out the standard trope of saying god told them to run, but not because they would win, but as a test of their faith. Perhaps there will be elaboration about God's will being beyond our mortal understanding. Regardless of how elaborate the explanation is, as an atheist, this smacks of serious mental health problems. If someone declared that the great Flying Spaghetti Monster in the sky had told them to do something, whether it was run for President or leave the noodles al dente, they would be called delusional for hearing imaginary voices in their head. But when someone invokes God, in this case a Christian God, it's a testament to their deep faith. This is why people need to see the world. Then they would understand (in my dreams) that their particular religion is more a consequence of geography than deep theological reasoning. Of course, people of faith, upon seeing other faiths up close and personal, typically double-down and reaffirm their faith since that's what it means to have faith, a belief in something that cannot be proven or meaningfully supported.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: buffer zone

In a broad geopolitical sense, Turkmenistan is a buffer zone of sorts. It lacks the resources and access for significant global influence. Instead, it occupies the southern end of the former Soviet Union, nestled next to everyone's good friends Iran and Afghanistan. I recommend a couple long, but generally very good reads from Stratfor. The first is from a couple years ago on The Geopolitics of Russia which is available without e-mail registration through the magic of Google cache. The second is part of that same series from earlier this year on The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 2 which can also be found through Google cache here. The relevant portion (for today) is the section near the end on Russia and how it can be a threat to United States' interests.

In the eyes of some Russians, the portions of Central Asia that used to be part of the Soviet Union (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) are like wayward children. Sure, they may not be under direct control of the Kremlin, they're still here for the taking. This is a condition that these -Stans generally dislike which is why various attempts are made to escape the influence of Moscow. What I wrote about several weeks ago on the diminsihing availability of Russian language teaching is an example of the desire to separate from Russian influence.

For the United States, Turkmenistan along with the rest of Central Asia is a good buffer against Russian influence further south. The United States already uses Turkmenistan air space for flights on the way to Afghanistan. American regional interest is pretty clear: War on Terror (whatever that means) and some level of strength projection. Like the Cold War when the U.S. had military bases in many places along the Soviet perimeter, the U.S. currently maintains bases in the region at Manas, Kyrgyzstan and Karshi, Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan, like its Central Asian brethren, ends up in the middle of continuing struggle for influence in the region. Day-to-day lives go on and Turkmenistan has an opportunity to have a great deal of say in how it progresses from here. However, it is ultimately boxed in by the geopolitical reality surrounding its position. The struggle has often in the past been between the United States and Russia, but there are now China and India to also accommodate.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Whelp. Another great thanksgiving abroad. Regular work day. Delicious non-turkey based dinner. Reasonably interesting dinner conversation.

Also, based on recent events, I'm glad I finally got that "statistical in nature" entry done last week. Good to hear everyone is doing well. Let the crazy uncle-ing begin.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: sponsored by marlboro?

Within the camp portion of the base here, there is a recreation room. In the rec room, there is a bar area separated from the rest with some couches, TV, chairs, and of course a bar. Well, perhaps not "of course" as the concept of a bar is perhaps a bit peculiar, but there are beverages of an adult nature available along with what could generously be described as a commissary with basics like shampoo, toothpaste, etc that one would probably use while here.

What has always most amused me about the bar is that there is some manner of Marlboro paraphernalia on all four walls. Yes, Marlboro like the tobacco company, whose cigarettes currently cost about $12/pack here due to some custom clearance issues. Well, three wells, and something hanging from the ceiling near the fourth wall. Two posters on opposite sides, a clock, and an illuminated sign that looks a bit like this one. No one here can tell me why these advertisements are on the walls, where they came from, or just who thought it would be a good idea to put them up. They just exist as if they had been there all along.

Monday, November 21, 2011

should vs. is

We don't live in a world as it should be. We live in a world as it is.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Following up on what I wrote about a couple days ago on life being statistical in nature, one of the implications is the shear importance of your starting conditions. In other words (or a singular word), birthright. What, who, where we are born into is arguably the single biggest determiner for where we will live, the education we will receive, what we will do, and ultimately the direction our lives will go. Take note that I said "single-biggest" and not "singular" or "only" as many factors influence our lives, but our starting conditions, this birthright we all receive (for better or worse), influences every part of our subsequent lives. Yes, you have free will in a philosophical sense (or at least I believe we do and our social systems are built on that premise) and can make choices as we see fit, but there is an inescapable influence our past has on our lives. The notion that we are all created equal as stated in the Declaration of Independence, while a nice ideal, is patently ridiculous. In a legal sense, yes, such equality is theoretical achievable but even then there will always be some who are more equal than others (and there is of course the rest of the world to consider). But in a realistic sense, people are obviously born into different situations, whether it be about money, health, or location. Obviously, our respective birthrights do not need to dictate the exact course of our lives. During our life journeys, it is possible to both rise above (and fall below) the achievements of most others who start with similar circumstances. However, the starting condition of that journey strongly influences the likelihood of how high or low you go. This notion deeply undercuts the idea of a "self-made man" and the individualistic nature of achievement to which many people subscribe. Yes, achievement is possible, but in many ways, it is also probable.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

kindle, soon

I’m really interested in Amazon’s new Kindle Fire. This is why I will probably get a Kindle e-reader instead. Nothing against the Fire, but like any first generation product, it seems to need a few refinements that would go a long way to improving the product. I am not sure when the second generation Fire will be released, possibly as late as this time next year, but I’m fine with that sort of timeline. After all, this doesn’t even come close to falling into the “need” category. That additional time will give Amazon time to fill in the app store (which is a generic term despite what Apple’s patent troll lawyers would have you believe), improve battery life, optimize the interface and performance, and either add an external memory card slot (unlikely) or increase the internal memory (more likely). As a user who would be away from meaningful bandwidth for long periods of time, I want the ability to load up a lot of content to consume at a later time. Also, they should even out the wider bezel on the fourth side which would drive me crazy. From the reviews I’ve seen, the Fire does most things ‘OK’, but not so incredibly well that it dominates the competition. Of course, at a $200 price point, there will be design compromises.

Instead of the Fire, a regular Kindle e-reader will be the first step in achieving two simple things. First, reading more. As a portable e-book, a Kindle will travel well and be far lighter and easier than lugging around actual books when I travel. I have one book here with me. It’s a long, dense tome that I can finish by the end of this rotation. Once I am done, I will bring it back Stateside and probably never bring another book here. Everything will go electronic after that. Second, it’s a step into Amazon’s world. A trial run in some ways before getting a Kindle Fire or Amazon Prime or generally giving Amazon the benefit of the full halo effect from my consumer purchases. This is where Apple failed me. While my brother went from iPod to MacBook to Time Capsule to MacBook Pro to iPad to iPhone, I went the other direction. I went from iPod to MacBook to screw this. I went back to Windows with my last laptop purchase and it suits my needs much better than the Apple-verse ever could. Are my Windows PC, Zune media player, and Android phone fragmented? Of course, but there are distinct advantages to that. Even with a possible entry into Amazon's deep realm of offerings, I will still maintain my silos.

At this point, the only real decision I am mulling is which Kindle e-reader to get. The third generation that has been re-branded as Kindle Keyboard? The low-cost, Wi-Fi only Kindle fourth generation? The new Kindle Touch with 3G? The price point is thankfully esoteric. The question is one of interface and usefulness for me. Amazon, soon.

the undercurrent

There was an undercurrent to my last post which was stated indirectly, but is important to understanding (and accepting!) that life is statistical in nature. The undercurrent is that there is no God. Within the context of the life is statistical concept, the belief in some guiding and influential higher power is inherently incompatible with the idea that life is statistical in nature. To believe in God is to believe that there is directed purpose for everything or at least some things. People can certainly take that position if they would like, but it will be one I cannot join them in. And depending on the level of fervor, it may be one I will work against them for holding.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

statistical in nature

Life is statistical in nature. I like to say it a lot. In fact, I would say it more than I already do, but it's hard to find appropriate non-Vegas times to say it without sounding a bit callous since it does seem a bit impersonal. What's interesting is that the phrase has only appeared in this blog twice before. The first time was several years ago to reference a tragic and freak accident that made the local news while I was working in Farmington. The second was last year while discussing the Deepwater Horizon and how risk is inherent in that type of activity.

There is no particularly new tragedy that is on my mind that prompts this. I made a note to post on this more than two months ago and have finally gotten around to unfurling it into something comprehensible. In fact, I have been desperate to get this done in the past couple weeks because there is a certain deadline I am trying to be ahead of. But as I pour over my notes and half-written sentences, I realize that there is a "got it" sense to this concept and I will struggle mightily to convey just how significant I think it is and why I believe in it. Anecdotal examples can be pushed, but that's not really the point as I would much rather you the reader leave with a deeper acknowledgment of this concept. I will still use one personal example, though I should better call it a familial example.

Life is statistical in nature. This is a difficult concept for most people to understand, let alone accept as part of their lives. As individuals, we do not have the luxury of being aware of what the statistically averaged-out experience of 7 billion people is like. We only have our own experiences, when we often mistakenly assume are “normal” or “average” but there is essentially no chance of that being correct. (Another problem that I’m not going to discuss is that human memory is astonishingly inaccurate.) Thus, we assign an excessive amount of weight to our own experiences and the result is that are concept of the big picture is almost always way too small, self-centered, and invariably does not understand how causation really works. This leads inexorably large numbers of people to turn to other sources for answers like religion or karma or luck or massive government conspiracies. Wrong. All wrong and all terrible as they lead people to reach false conclusions about cause and effect and how the universe, specifically this small planet, actually works.

One way in which life being statistical in nature manifests itself is that, given enough chances, individually low probability events have a high chance of occurring. The lottery is a great example that hopefully makes this idea easily accessible. A person (not you, as I want you to externalize this) buys a lottery ticket. That person's chances of winning the lottery are very low. But another person, let's say person2, also buys a lottery ticket. And then person3 through personN all buy tickets. The chances that any of them pick the winning numbers is very low. (For example, the California state lottery uses a system where 5 numbers out of 47 are chosen and then another number from a separate 27 is picked. The odds of getting all six numbers right on any given ticket is about 1 in 41 million. And yes, I had to look up the current format of the lottery since I do not play. And if you don’t trust me or your own calculations on the odds, then you can also find them here.) While each individual number combination has a low probability of winning, if enough tickets are purchased, then the odds that a winning ticket exists goes up. Eventually, someone (but not you) gets selected as the winner. In a sense, someone has to win eventually (though in theory, there also exists the low probability event of no one ever winning), but the chance of that someone being you is incredibly small.

A more familial example is that my brother and his wife are having a baby soon. In terms of health and prenatal care and following all the best practices that modern medicine has to offer us, they are doing an excellent job. They are from a low risk factor group, unlikely to pass on any genetic diseases, and are properly investing in the health of their child. I'm not here to create needless worry for my brother and sister-in-law. In fact, quite the opposite. You can do what you can do. Everything else is beyond your meaningful control. The statistical die is cast where it is. The child's genetics are already fixed. Worry does not help. In fact, since worry and stress can lead to physiological symptoms, then worry and stress can hurt. But the point is that things are what they are and you did what you were supposed to do. If some low probability negative event still occurs, it's not anyone's fault. These things happen. Perhaps that sounds worrying, potentially terrifying if the concept of things beyond your control is upsetting, but being comforting is not a characteristic I am typically associated with. However, they should take comfort knowing they are doing the "right" things, where “right” is defined as actions that statistically improve the odds of a healthy baby. For what it’s worth, this also includes a positive outlook as we are social creatures and the impact on our physical well being is meaningful. So have some positivism.

Life is statistical in nature and this concept shows up very clearly when it comes to medicine and health. In that sense, our lives are very statistical in nature. Our genetics are a semi-random mix of half of the DNA from each of our parents plus some handful of mutations. Many mutations are harmful and never lead to viable life, some are benign and exist within the regions of seemingly unused DNA, and fewer still have an effect, either positive or negative, that is not immediately fatal. Don’t worry, if you’re able to read this, your genes are more or less fine. However, the genetic lot you drew was entirely out of your control. You can engage in all the right activities, exercise, diet, and lifestyle choices but if you have a genetic predisposition towards high cholesterol or lung cancer or some other condition, then that predisposition increases the chance you will develop said condition. It’s not a guarantee that you will end up with said condition, but things are what they are. Conversely, some people can engage in all sorts of risk factors but still never develop whatever condition X happens to be. You live your life once, not some statistically averaged existence. This is why the citation of your uncle who smoked until he was 90 is irrelevant to me. Unless you are my brother and your uncle is also my uncle, and this uncle is biologically related to us, then his ability to smoke until he was 90 tells me nothing of value since I don't share any of his seemingly very robust genes nor his impervious lungs. Perhaps in 9 out of 10 parallel universes, that same uncle does develop lung cancer, but we don’t get to know that. We’re only here and we don’t get to play the ‘what if’ game with peoples’ lives.

As I mentioned earlier, this statistical spread to our lives might be terrifying to some. It certainly creates some potentially unsettling questions about the arbitrariness of the universe. Good things happen, bad things happen, whatever. Without weighing too much on what is good and bad, some things are irreversibly good or bad including death, but we should never let this paralyze us from action and restrict the choices we are willing to make. Play your cards, roll the dice, or whatever gambling metaphor of your choice and live life.

Edit: Following up on yesterday's post, I already feel much better now that this long-awaited post is out the door. Writing, regardless of quality, is very beneficial to my mental well being.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: something amiss

Something is off with me and I mean other than the low-quality posts. There's definitely a pipeline of ideas waiting to be cleaned up, but the last week since I have been back, something is not quite right with me. Perhaps I have not adjusted to the time zone as well as I thought, but I have been going to bed early and getting full night's sleep and still feeling fatigued. The first few nights had the standard issue of waking up in the middle of the night, but I always got back to sleep quickly. Eight and nine hours of sleep each of the last few nights and I feel off. My energy is distinctly lower.

Everything here is more or less the same. The work factors are more or less the same. Same people, same sort of work going on, same problems, same successes, same interactions. The environmental factors are mostly the same. Same room, same food, same place. The only major difference is the weather and of course how much daylight there is. It does sort of suck to wake up and see that it is still dark outside, but other than last year in Gabon, that's how every winter of my life has worked. I'm only slightly further north than back home. And it is of course cold, but not materially colder than Hungary, or at least not yet. Everything just has a certain funk at the moment and that's a bit troubling since I just got back from days off. I should be fresh and energized, but instead I feel like I've been here for too long.

Starting yesterday, I've been mixing up my morning and evening routines (or what passes for them). If I still feel the same way in a week, I'll make some more changes until I can get back on track.

Monday, November 14, 2011

miles & more: no more

Warning: customer service rant incoming. Here's to Lufthansa's Miles & More frequent flier program being run by the most intransigent policies I have ever seen. Lufthansa has good planes and good service for the most part, but their Miles & More program is unyielding and generally run by total tossers. Additionally, their method of customer feedback, where you can only submit items through their web-based form (and not through e-mail at all) is conducive to them ignoring your request or answering a different query than the one you submitted. The result is that I copy all my messages to them into my own e-mail which I send to myself. Otherwise, I have no record of what query I actually submitted, because while they will send a confirmation e-mail each time you submit something, the confirmation e-mail does not contain a copy of your message. That's very basic customer service and they cannot even get it right. Frankly, it was bad enough that I felt compelled to mention it to them in my last message where I informed them i was leaving their program because they were unable to accommodate a very basic request.

The end result is I will passive-aggressively protest by no longer leaving my seat nice and neat when I fly with them. I am generally very conscientious about not leaving a big mess when I travel. I clean up my trash, I fold my blanket, I don't use the headphones, etc. Now, as I cannot really protest via my choice of airline (since work buys those tickets), I will protest in other ways. I used to like you Lufthansa, but then you turned into a jerk.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

13 hours

With the end of daylight saving time in the U.S. (and Europe), I am now another hour ahead of where most of you are. It is now a 13 hour time difference back to the good part of the United States. It's like living in the future, but slower.

ukraine - where the hits come from

When Google redesigned the Blogger options and I changed my layout, they also gave us more access to information about the blog. In particular, I can see how many visitors come from which referring sites or what browser they use or which posts are most visited or what country the IP address is from. That last one is kind of strange since in the last week, after the United States (which is in the lead by a wide margin), the second most common country of origin is Ukraine (and not 'the Ukraine').

I am not sure how IP origin's are determined, especially since some people deliberately obfuscate their location. Also, some people like me when I'm at work bounce through a satellite and end up appearing as somewhere other than our actual location. Usually, but not always, if I try to go to Google, I get redirected to Google's Russian portal. This is probably why Russia ends up fourth in terms of IP origin for the past week. Either way, I am amused and slightly confused by where this Ukrainian traffic is coming from. Based on some of the referring sites, it could be weird link spam that occurs as bots trawl the internet and latch on to key words and whatever else they are looking for. Something similar happened a few weeks ago with Latvia where I received several visits from there in a short period of time.

It's all rather immaterial, but I do recommend that whoever is using Internet Explorer upgrade to Firefox or Google Chrome. And I want to know where those 12 hits from Netscape came from.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

public holidays in turkmenistan

In response to a comment from yesterday's post, here is a list of public holidays in Turkmenistan. To compare and contrast, here are the public federal holidays in the United States and even that list is a sham since the only paid holidays in many non-government workplaces are Thanksgiving and the day after, Christmas Eve and Christmas, New Year's Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day.

The holiday that is going on right now in Turkmenistan (and most of the Muslim world) is Eid al-Adha which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, but was given a sheep to sacrifice instead because God likes to psychologically terrorize its followers. In terms of significance to Muslims, this ranks right up there with Eid ul-Fitr which is to celebrate the end of Ramadan. If it can be said that Christians have Christmas and Easter as their two most significant holidays, then for Muslims Eid al-Adha and Eid ul-Fitr are arguably their two most significant holidays.

In terms of pay and public versus private sector employees, if the government declares a holiday then it is an official holiday and the same rules apply to all locals. This means if you do need to work that day, then pay is doubled. For government employees, I am not sure, but I assume most government offices are closed and only essential government functions are working on holidays (like the police).

tuesdays in turkmenistan: where snowmen are universal

Ok, now winter has really arrived to Turkmenistan. It was snowing for most of the day yesterday in Ashgabat. They ended up with a couple inches of accumulation in the fields, but the streets were too warm and heavily traveled for any build up on them. Out here in Balkanabat, no snow yet, but the temperature is under 5 degC and looks to dip below freezing at night very soon. Fantastic!

I foolishly did not take any pictures, but the building of snowmen, even when cobbled together from just a couple inches that has fallen, evidently goes far beyond some classic picture of Americana winters. I saw several being put together by children yesterday (who were not in school because yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all holidays) as the snow fell.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

cheating with posts again

Yep, I've cheated with posts again. Entries for the last three days have been retroactively posted.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


Let's start with a warning sticker. It's quite odd since a normal elevator has doors that would close so why would the bin get caught like that. The answer is the paternoster lift and now I finally know the proper name of the elevator of terror in the MOL office in Budapest that I had occasion to ride in a couple of times. Look, they even list that MOL building as a location that still uses the paternoster. I can confirm that they do indeed have such lifts as I rode in one the handful of times I had to go to the MOL office in Budapest. (Mostly, we went to the MOL office in Algyo, which was just outside Szeged.) The ones in the MOL office were for only one person at a time in each space, which is good since it reduces the likelihood someone will try to use the lift to commit murder most foul. You remember those warnings as a child to keep your hands inside the car? Well, take them very seriously when you ride one of those. Modern American litigation would have a field day with these babies even with one of the best .gif animations ever.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: daylight savings

As I am not in Turkmenistan, this seems like an opportune time for this non-Turkmen story. Also, since it's my blog, I can pretty much do whatever I want. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has decided to cancel the end of daylight saving time in Russia which was supposed to take place this past Sunday in Russia. While you may have read about this today or possibly yesterday, thanks to work, I received news of this bit of awesomeness last week since those precious conference calls are oh so important to dial into on time.

What makes this cancellation interesting is that Medvedev has not cancelled daylight saving time, but that his action actually extends DST to be year round. What some people may not realize since standard DST in the U.S. occupies almost 8 months out of the year is that the summer months (plus several more) are actually the shifted months. Standard time is what happens from November to March, while the nearly 8 months in the middle of the year are actually what we have finagled into changing for various reasons. Thus, in essence, Medvedev has permanently shifted Russian time zones by an hour.

This reveals how arbitrarily that time can be treated. This is perhaps why many military actions, especially those that are internationally coordinated, reference Zulu time to avoid confusion. And while this is not a launching point for a discussion of relativity and faster than light neutrinos (which are most likely the byproduct of an improper setup delay), it is a launching point for a trip through memory lane. Specifically, to high school freshman year English class, World Literature and the illustrious One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which is what I immediately thought of when I first saw the work e-mail announcing this change. For some reason, one of the few details of that novel that has stayed with me for the past 15 years is this exchange between our protagonist Ivan Denisovich and another prisoner:
“Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.”
“Who decreed that?”
“The Soviet government.”

The quote makes it seem so suitable for Russia to cancel the end of day light saving time. Of course, nine different time zones currently span Russia so it's not exactly a one size fits all kind of place. Officially, the change, or lack thereof, was made to help the people of Russia who apparently see a spike in the number of heart attacks and suicides when the clocks are changed. However, without proper preparation, many electronic devices that either cannot be updated or did not receive a software patch in time fell back an hour like they had been designed. One must wonder how many people ended up an hour late for something the next day and how many heart attacks that caused.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Weathering changes. That was the title of a post from a few weeks ago. I thought it was witty and clever with it's double meaning about dealing with changes at work and the difference with the weather, but really it was quite silly. What I want to believe is brimming with hidden meaning is in fact staid and predictable, and inevitably what the post is actually about. After all, this is not a J. Peterman catalog.

However, this makes me think about the occasionally ridiculous titles that some people have. Things like the Minister of the Undersecretary to the Viceroy of Exellence of Oil & Gas Institute blah blah blah. Ok, that one might have been made up, but there is certainly a lot of pomp and circumstance in the titles that some people have. At work, we have pretty bland titles. Things like Operations Manager or Field Engineer or my own District Technical Engineer, which I downplay and just say I am an engineer. I strongly dislike pompous sounding titles that are only there to, well, sound pompous. Either you are important or you are not. Extra syllables in your title should not make you more legitimate though they often do so perhaps it's a bit of fake it till you make it going on. Hopefully, it's not just fake it all the time.

The perpetual title piling on is what leads to an abundance of Producer credits in Hollywood. As readers might know, I am a fan of The Simpsons and have watched it for many, many years. I also own the DVDs (legitimately!) and actually listen to the commentary audio tracks on the episodes. On the commentary track of one episode, specifically season 13, episode 7, "Brawl in the Family", the guest star fro the episode, the very underrated Delroy LIndo asked about the proliferation of Producer credits during the opening. Evidently, due to some union/guild restrictions on pay and other titles, especially writer credits, producer credits are doled out instead in lieu of pay and to stroke egos. Amusingly enough, that episode also has a line that should amuse Cal fans:
The Simpson family sits in their jail cell. Lisa reads the paper, which has made their arrest front-page news.
Lisa: Thanks a lot, everybody. Now, I'll never get into an Ivy League school.
Bart: [taunting] You're going to Stanford, you're going to Stanford ...
Homer + Bart: You're going to Stanford!
Lisa: Take it back! Take it back!
Homer: Stanford.
Marge: This family has hit rock bottom.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: bling

While I may not be in Turkmenistan, it doesn't mean I cannot keep up my weekly series.

Our benevolent leader has been bestowed with the great Hero of Turkmenistan award. While he did not technically grant the award to himself, the U.S. is also not technically at war in either Afghanistan or Iraq. (Ok, it's a matter of semantics as the U.S. is engaged in "military engagements" with the illustrious titles of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn.) Regardless, I am sure the medal pairs well with with formal and casual wear.

This week also marks the twentieth anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union and the Hero medal ceremony was undoubtedly part of the run-up of festivities. The official day is Thursday, which is of course a holiday along with Friday and even tomorrow's work day is supposed to end an hour early. In the end, it really creates a 4-day weekend where getting any actual work done in the field is incredibly difficult. It's not impossible, just more difficult finding sober employees.

Monday, October 24, 2011

back in the Bay Area

This time, I will only be back for two weeks total so I'm flying out again in a couple Saturdays. This time will be spent doing, well, stuff. I have a surprisingly large amount of stuff to take care of while I'm back and much of it is rather open-ended so it's hard to say if something is complete, passable, or just sort of whatever. In fact, this is part of what I need to do, but I'm not very well focused. My first night back was halfway normal regarding sleep and time zones, but last night I actually regressed with an overly long nap and if I'm not careful, every night will be like that. Anyway, about nine different tasks to take care of so this is a start for one of them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: the grind

This ended up being incredibly apt. About 4 weeks ago, I picked this as the topic for this week. It was to be my last week here before days off (and it is!) and I had a sinking suspicion that the grind would have me pretty gassed by now. Past me was right. I am very tired. Being here is tiring. It is tiring from the first week back and by now, near the end of a rotation, it's this deep weariness that has set in. And it shows in more than just absurdly bad blogging for the past few weeks. I can tell when I'm not working effectively. It's the difficulty focusing on the task at hand, prioritizing what must be done first, being an effective listener of your employees, etc.

The grind is what happens at work. The omnipresent 24/7 nature of the business makes it difficult to unplug. This is one of the things I like about rotating, even though I know full well, I'll work a significant amount of my time home, it will still be a good change of pace and give me quiet, focused time. The constant interruptions in the office for approval, review, advice, signature, etc are the grind for me. And so many e-mails. Some of it is about better delegation, but some of it is a pure resources issue. A certain amount of work and a certain number of people available. The inexorable march of numbers is what it is.

Anyway, this rotation started well, lots of good work accomplished and lots of good entries. Both have tailed off, but I'll be back in the Bay Area soon enough, getting reinvigorated, and ready to complete so many half-started projects.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

tuesday in turkmenistan: personality cults

Coming off the heels of a very busy past 10 days and now on the verge of a 3-4 hour conference call this afternoon on the state of the business in Turkmenistan, this is going to be a relatively poor showing for my weekly theme post. This was actually going to be my topic last week, but the President visited town yesterday and I wanted to see if anything from that visit would provide fodder for more material. However, nothing much occurred other than a half day of work lost for local staff since roads were closed in the morning.

The previous President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov led the country prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, through independence and up until 2007 when he passed away. He erected things like the Neutraility Arch which was topped with a rotating gold-plated statue of himself. That should provide some indication on where he may have been on the humility scale. Hint: think Kim Jong-Il more than Mr. Rogers. He also authored a book called "Ruhnama" (Book of the Soul) which has been a staple of Turkmen schooling for the last 10 years. One expat colleague said he found an English version on an offshore rig and tried to read it, but called it "unreadable". This year, the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow removed the Ruhnama from mandatory school coursework. Admittedly, this new gap in the curriculum was quickly filled by some of the current president's writings instead. He is also working on a tome of his own which will soon be released. While no title is announced, evidently the leading contenders are "Turkmennama" (Book for Turkmen) and "Adamnama" (Book for Humanity).

What Niyazov clearly engaged in was the development of a "cult of personality" around his leadership, position, and tight exertion of control of what people could access. Will Berdimuhamedow do the same thing? It's less clear, but the way in which the next election is conducted should be very revealing. His presidency started with some reforms, but progress may have stalled and the feeling on the ground is less optimistic. Various deleterious rule changes that impact work are being seen, diplomatic relations are less than stellar, and his replacement of Niyazov's Ruhnama with his own works is, well, it's pretty clear what that portends.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

weathering changes

The weather here is finally starting to turn. I actually wore a jacket for the first time during my difficult two-minute commute from my room to my office in the morning. The AC is no longer being used in my room and I am this close to turning on the room heater, mostly to help getting out of my warm bed more palatable. In the office, there is no heater, so presumably the warmth generated by the labor of industrious trainees will keep me warm in the coming months. During my next rotation, the weather will have undoubtedly cooled some more. I'd like to pretend this is some great struggle but the only difficulty is deciding which jacket I plan to wear on the plane the next time I come and if I will bring my big coat in my suitcase.

I am mostly posting to mark time and hold the line as I really do not want to lose the momentum I had in the last few weeks. It's been a good run and there's a lot more going on inside my enfeebled mind, but there is another change we are weathering here. Or maybe I am the one weathering this change. As seems to be our inevitable lot here, we are limping through the month short-handed after the departure of an engineer. We will see what can be done, but it may delay my next return home as that departure in combination with someone else at training and another person on vacation makes work much more, um, dynamic?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: russian influence

Once again, I am dipping into EurasiaNet for some inspiration. This time, it is about the decreasing importance of Russian in Turkmenistan. During the time of the Soviet Union, Russian was introduced to the other nations as an obvious common language to help with unification and also colonization. Many 'ethnic' Russians (and I use quotes since that is such a loose term) moved to other member republics like Turkmenistan and it was not so long ago that the country was nearly one-third Russian. The dissolution of the Soviet Union has led many of those Russians to leave and with them, the strength and influence of their language. The trend is further accelerated, at least here in Turkmenistan, by a push to bring back and reclaim Turkmen cultural heritage and especially the Turkmen language. It is of no small significance that former President Saparmurat Niyazov switched the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin shortly after Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991.

Schools are increasingly taught in only Turkmen and Russian schools are increasingly less common. While all the home country engineers here studied Russian when they were in school, they have told me that now it is more likely that children do not learn any Russian in schools. One colleague told me that anyone who is proper Turkmen will be going to Turkmen schools now. He did not say say "proper" as that is my paraphrasing of his intent to describe those who are culturally and ethnically Turkmen as opposed to those who live within the borders but are of Russian, Uzbek, or Kazakh descent. It should be noted that the definition of who is proper Turkmen is at least not terribly restrictive, but it still exists. It's certainly not a "no true Scotsman" scenario and includes people who at least I did not think were Turkmen at first glance. There are different types of Turkmen and my colleague mentioned some differences in particular between the capital of Ashgabat and another large city, Mary, and the region around it.

I made a remark to that colleague about everyone who I have met who works for the state company is ethnic Turkmen. He said that it is perhaps a somewhat defensive measure on the part of the state company, but when he was interviewing several years ago for a job, the situation was very different, at least at the other oil and gas operators and even here at work. Our other clients were much more Russian-dominated, with a much larger percentage of employees being Russian even just five or six years ago. Even in this office, it was evidently a much stronger Russian presence, though I can think of a few practical reasons why that would be the case. (Briefly, Russia has a much older and more mature, and thus more experienced industry. This base was still relatively young six years ago and needed people who knew the language and who had experience, hence many Russians.) Now, almost all new engineers are home country and almost all of those are Turkmen, within the somewhat broad range that encompasses.

While the reclamation of their culture, heritage, and language are important, the phase-out of Russian may have unintended consequences. For example, many documents are still in Russian. Our contracts are in Russian and English, not Turkmen and English. Give this process another twenty years of independence and will there be a generation in positions of influence who do not know Russian and are unable to easily access that relatively recent historical past. Additionally, and this is a challenge faced by all relatively small nations, learning Turkmen is important in Turkmenistan, but of very little practical use elsewhere. This is like my experience in Hungary. The value in learning the local language when it has almost zero application once you leave is greatly diminished. (Plus, I am terrible with languages.) At work, the de facto second language is Russian over Turkmen. In fact, plenty of the engineers who are around my age say that while they can speak Turkmen, they are not very strong with it and would have trouble writing. It was a problem when we interviewed a local person for an equipment operator position and he knew Turkmen, but barely any Russian since Russian is what all the locals speak amongst themselves since they are a slightly older set (mid-20's-40's mostly). It's not that the country should not promote Turkmen language, but it should also keep using Russian. Dropping Russian will make the country and the people less accessible to non Turkmens and also make it much harder for Turkmens to go outside the country. Maybe that's the point.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

still in service

While there is perhaps not a relevant xkcd for everything, their random button took me to their strip on graphing calculator prices. Yes, they still cost $100-150, but just how many do you plan on buying? Fifteen years later and my TI-85 is still in service which should make it the longest-serving electronic device I own.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A-10 Thunderbolt II - aka: Warthog

I'm never quite sure where my link clicking will take me, but the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, often called by its nickname "Warthog" is always interesting to read about. While I understand the principle's of flight well enough, there is a certain peculiarity about seeing something that looks like this fly so capably. Tactically speaking, it was made for close air support, but from an engineering perspective, the entire plane is built to carry a really big Gatling gun. How big? This big. Aside from the almost absurdly large Gatling gun, the A-10 can carry a few other armaments as well. Not scheduled for replacement until at least 2028, the A-10 will make it to 50+ years of service before slowly flying off into the sunset.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

paradox of tolerance

The paradox of tolerance posits that a tolerant person might be against intolerance, so by definition they would be intolerant of intolerance. However, this means they are not truly tolerant if they would not accept intolerant members. However, what is the alternative? Karl Popper has summed it up nicely:

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society... then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

The most ruthless and sycophantic will lead unless we shut them out early on.

zero hour airplane!

Part of me wants to believe that everyone in a certain age range has seen comedy classic Airplane!. Despite coming out before I was born, it no doubt aired on many lazy Saturdays and Sundays on the old KBHK channel 44 in the Bay Area. Or perhaps my first viewing came from the illustrious VHS selection available at the local library. Either way, Airplane! is comedy gold and totally appropriate for in-flight viewing (and certainly much better than Thor, which was 2 wasted hours of time on my last flight). What is less well known about Airplane! is that much of it, including entire scenes copied nearly word for word, is lifted from the much lesser known film Zero Hour, which is a serious dramatic film with the same storyline. Airplane! has a storyline? Yes it does even if all you remember is the protagonist's drinking problem, his co-pilot turning to jelly, a jive-talking nun, and to not call anyone Shirley. It's plot centers around a plane full of passengers and crew members who get sick after eating the fish and the subsequent need to land said plane without the pilots.

What I find fascinating is why anyone would think fish served as the main course on a flight would be even slightly palatable. In fact, I am not sure of the last time I even saw fish offered as a main course on a flight. Air France often had some bits of salmon in a salad dish, but they offered the usual options of chicken something and other meat something as the main courses (plus special options). Lufthansa goes with the same thing, though it's usually chicken or pasta. United doesn't serve complimentary meals on domestic flights anymore. And Southwest seems to have abandoned peanuts in favor of pretzels due to food allergies. I say 'screw it' and always sprinkle peanut dust around every flight I take. But fish as a main course? No, not a good idea. Perhaps the food scientists have not figured out how to create a fish-based meal that only results in flatulence which is odorless.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: rules?

As an expatriate, it is always difficult to figure out the rules and laws of a nation. I am an outsider who has managed to get in, but the linguistic and cultural barriers will remain high. I did not grow up within these borders and while I can acknowledge the situation for what it is, my understanding of how it came to be this way will always be lacking. Sometimes, rather often times, I must simply accept that things are the way they are. This has been especially true here where both Soviet-era influences and post-Soviet isolation has led to a difficult-to-parse mix of acceptable norms and cultural expectations. My own attitude about my purpose here undoubtedly adds to this difficulty since I do view myself as someone who is here to work, not to culturally assimilate. Both can happen, but the latter is not a priority.

While I am an outsider, I am hardly the only one who has difficulty understanding the rules here and I do not just mean the other expats. Even locals have a hard time comprehending some of the rules and regulations. I often ask about something and people will just shake their heads, either to express their own lack of certainty or to convey a mild bewilderment as if to say, "Hey, I just live here, I don't make the rules." Some days, the rules and changes to them might actually prompt more than just mere bewilderment. I'm just waiting for someone to take the badges line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which also appeared in a film of the same name, then spoofed by Blazing Saddles and spoofed again by UHF) and make it about all the rules and laws.

But things are what they are. When I was in Ashgabat walking around several weeks ago, I was forced into a few detours since the police were closing off streets since the President was going to be driving through. How soon? About an hour apparently. Why not let adoring supporters wave at his motorcade? I'm not sure, though I suppose some value security more than adulation. Regardless, my walk was meant to be rather circuitous so this just made it slightly more so. There's also a curfew and not just for expats, though its enforcement seems to fall into one of those gray zones of resources better applied elsewhere. So how late can I be out and where can I go? I'm not sure anyone can give me a definitive answer, especially one that will be supported by authorities, so erring on the side of caution is what's fashionable at work.

Tenders for work are another source of both mystery and awe. Since royalties collected by the government do not kick in until producers have recovered their drilling costs, it makes sense that the government desires drilling prices to be as low as possible. However, how that desire manifests itself into policy and subsequent state review of tenders is less clear. What is clear is that tides go in and tides go out, but tenders go in and don't always come out. You can't explain that.

Another example is that there is talk of dramatically changing the way explosives (used by one of the business segments) can be imported into the country. It is a change that could potentially centralize all importation to a government entity which would then distribute the products as it sees fit. If implemented, it would introduce many questions about ownership of the product and who pays for it when. Also, these are not commodity products. One cannot simply take charges built for a very specific tool and allocate them to another company. Well, one can, but it won't make the charges work so actual implementation of such a policy could use some clarification. Anyway, there is only talk of this, so perhaps action on it will be different.

Monday, September 26, 2011

risk taking - need more?

I ended yesterday with the idea that once one can acknowledge and let go of defensiveness, not only is there obvious potential for growth, but also room for risk taking. Risk taking is often linked with growth of many kinds, including personal, professional, and financial. You can stay in your box and be perfectly content, but our lexicon is filled with phrases like "No risk, no reward" and "No guts, no glory" which emphasize the need for taking chances in order to excel. (One could naturally discuss a great deal about bailouts and whatever moral hazard that has/can result when the risk-takers not being the consequence-bearers. However, one merely need to google moral hazard to see plenty o' discussion on the subject.)

Financial risk, at least as far as investing goes, is generally straightforward. More risk should offer the potential for greater gain, but also greater loss. Less risk should mean less potential gain, but fewer potential losses. Many moons ago, I had a CD account that yielded 6.25%, a figure that is nigh impossible to imagine being available now. It was fantastic, but also not going to be available any time soon. If one wants that sort of yield or better, especially in today's financial climate, it almost certainly means more risk. Cash positions and dividend-paying utilities are relatively safe with low risk, but they will also never grow aggressively. More aggressive stocks, small-cap growth, and even trading on volatility all carry much more potential upside to go with their obvious risks. It's not that my money should be doing more, but that I should be doing more with my money. I am young enough to make back losses over time and some risk of losing capital should be acceptable, even welcome if it means greater returns.

In a professional sense, working here is hard to quantify in a risk sense. I suppose being where I am right now carries various risks and many of them are similar as to those that existed when I was in West Africa. However, most of these are risks to personal safety, not really inherent career risks. And as much as it will pain my mother to see me type this, I am not really concerned about my personal safety. There is good reason for this and not mere recklessness and I want to get back around to this idea at the end of the week. In terms of risk to career, staying here is the safe and easy choice. Not here physically, though I did just transfer in, but here as in my employer. I can turn what has so far been a series of similar, but always different jobs, into a coherent career that might even have a bit of direction to it. This is safe and relatively easy (but by no means absolutely easy) and of relatively low risk. It is also fraught with something that will always bother me if I go down that path. The reward of something else and what it could bring (in a purely professional sense) carries the risk of also failing to succeed in that other path. Staying put does not have that risk, but it also never means other rewards.

Personal risk taking could be all of the above, though I mean it in a relationship sense. With one exception, I have entered into every romantic relationship in my life and already known or at least believed, that it was doomed to failure for whatever the reason(s) might be. (It should be noted that this was not necessarily consciously known to me , but I am quite certain that at least some of me knew this each time sans the exception.) Perhaps it was the cynicism of youth, (though I still feel that way about everyone I meet), or I was never properly afflicted with whatever biochemical mix equates to love, or I was simply an immature jerk. Or, more likely, if I could envision an end at the beginning, then it also meant not actually investing real emotion and not being hurt. Regardless of why, that lack of emotional plunge is safe and boring. The single box is comfortable enough, but it is also very small. Finding how deep a box for two can be means the risk of falling through its depths.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Yesterday, I framed some of my investing habits as being conservative in nature. Perhaps the word I should have used was defensive. Dividends? Defensive. Cash positions? Incredibly defensive. It's like girding for a sharp decline in equity prices. Or it's the nature of my character.

Sport provides some good examples of this defensive character, especially since there are usually very clear defensive and offensive roles. The last time I was a leading goal scorer on a soccer team I played for was second grade. Since then, I have largely played defense, very rarely in the midfield, and almost never as a forward/striker. It is much more satisfying to me to be that stalwart last line and endlessly stymie opponents during a match. Playing youth basketball, I want to think I was a capable shooter and didn't shy away from offense due to a lack of skills (and I did finish sixth in the Junior Olympic free throw event back in sixth grade!), but I much preferred the defensive end. Rebounding and shot-blocking were more fun or maybe I just enjoyed shattering dreams one blocked shot at a time. This trend existed even while playing video game basketball. My brother and I used to play NBA Jam together and he would shoot and go for inbound steals and I camp under the basket and rebound and take advantage of the game's generous goal-tending policy.

It is much more than just about sports. I used to hate being wrong. It was more than just needing to know all the answers and getting the best score. It was also about the more subjective elements of the world. Which route is fastest, what's the best policy to address social problem XYZ, who will win competition ABC. I could be incredibly defensive, illogically so, even after being shown I was wrong about something. The need for rightness probably fueled much of the defensiveness when I was younger.

As one grows up, life generally becomes increasingly less structured, the decisions made are more open, and there are less clearly obvious right and wrong answers or choices to make. It goes from clear right and wrong to a gradient of good and bad. Even that is terribly gray as the desirability of each outcome is subject to the different interests of all affected parties. In many cases, some decisions are clearly better than others, but that insight often only exists in the clarity of hindsight. And even then, it is sometimes only clear which choice should not have been made, not necessarily which choice should have been made. Not only is it necessary to accept that one (meaning me) can make a decision where there are no good outcomes, but that even when there are, I will still make the wrong choice from time to time. Not wrong in an absolute sense, but the idea that there would have been a generally better outcome that could have been reached. This acceptance has only been possible through the making of many, many mistakes over the years. The acceptance of these mistakes was the first real step in letting go of my inherent defensiveness for it is near impossible to learn and make a better decision the next time if I already think my decision is the best possible one. This is very basic maturation, but tremendously helpful with the next basic step: risk taking.

Friday, September 23, 2011

paper losses

In the face of an unusually bad week in the stock market, perhaps it is finally time to put together my thoughts on this. I was noodling around with a similar post a month ago after a few straight weeks of poor stock market performance back in August. While I have easy access to news and information, the distance of being overseas, especially so far away makes this seem like such a insignificant issue. I think the 12 hour time difference from back home (or whatever it is), and thus the 9 hour difference with Wall Street makes it even more detached. By the time the markets open, it's dinner time here and checking on early morning market action is hardly at the top of my to-do list at that point in the day. What lessens the seeming impact of the news is undoubtedly the lack of video information and talking (screaming?) heads expounding on the market's performance. Everything seems less urgent when the delivery isn't from an armchair analyst yelling into the camera.

As for significance, it is quite significant despite the dampening of the delivery. On paper, market losses are quite noticeable as I do track these things. However, my investment style, like aspects of my personality, is quite conservative. Yes, stocks are down, but I don't care. Well, I don't worry. Undoubtedly, a big portion of my non-worry is from my non-need for currently held investments to be providing a meaningful source of income. I'm young, work a lot, and spend very little. This means I have time to reap the benefits of compounding interest, have little time to spend money, and will continue to accrue capital. Work has also meant that I have little time to actively manage any investments. This has resulted in two manifestations of my conservatism.

First, a meaningful fraction of what I have is effectively uninvested. I spend so much time with work that I have not taken the time to actually research and weight a lot of potential investment choices. In a practical sense, this really means I should be in mutual funds and diverse portfolios. In times like these, having available cash means available opportunities. If you believe in whatever your underlying investment theses are and that stocks (at least some of them) are under-valued, then this is a great time to use available cash and increase investments.

Second, I like dividends. There is something rather nice about a boring utility that wants to just give you 5% back every year. I'm perfectly fine with Exelon unsexily producing electricity or Waste Management taking out the garbage. Big-time growth? No, not really, but that's not the point. They are dramatically boring and that is a very good thing.

There is something that is arguably a third manifestation of my conservative nature and that is the fact that I track all of this. I have mentioned this before, but I used to track all aspects of my finances with Quicken starting after college up until the time I moved to Hungary. What happened then is that for a personal laptop, I traded in my old Dell Inspiron for a black MacBook. One of the downsides of that switch was that Intuit did not have a good Quicken product for Mac at the time and one could say that they still don't, so I stopped tracking, well, everything. (Yes, I tried Quicken Essentials for Mac and I think it is terrible.) I went from a certain level of compulsion with my finances to not keeping tabs on it anymore. Now, this isn't to say that anything untoward happened to my financial situation during this time. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was making more, and spending substantially less since working overseas meant certain benefits I did not have Stateside. However, this lack of Quicken bothered me to no end and that along with other factors led me to eventually abandon the MacBook and go back to a Windows laptop earlier this year. I have resumed my obsessive Quicken ways and was able to resume my old data file and even fill in the biggest missing chunks of financial history. There are some kinks to work out, but I'm back on track for my tracking.

The only issue that has kept me from both caring more and being more pro-active is time. However, that is also changing (somewhat) with work rotation so I can get back to research and back to small, risky investments as well. Hey, as much fun as dividends are, some small amount of aggressive investing helps keep my attention and keeps the interest up. Soon, it will be time for some paper gains.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

cables - elevators and diplomatic

There is a regional news site, EurasiaNet that I first heard about from my brother which he knew about from his own time in this general region of the world. I poked around it a few times when I first came here, but haven't paid it much attention recently. That is, until today, when I saw a colleague looking at a story about the President getting stuck in an elevator. Actually, the first thing I noticed was the photo because it was immediately obvious that it was from Ashgabat. There was something about the building and the light fixtures that made me say, "That's Ashgabat!"

Being the information obsessed individual who I am, I poked around the EurasiaNet some more to check out other articles on Turkmenistan. A recent one about leaked diplomatic cables between the U.S. and Turkmenistan was an interesting read. The content was perhaps not entirely shocking, but has reminded me of something I have been giving a lot of thought to recently. There is a sharp disconnect, and it has arguably always existed, between U.S. foreign policy and its stated ideals. However, whether or not you agree with this disconnect, there are many reasons for its existence.