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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: the golden statue

I found it! When I arrived back in Turkmenistan two weeks ago, I had a couple nights to spend in Ashgabat before the next flight to Balkanabat. On one evening, I was out with a colleague being shown the city and we came across the golden statue of former President Saparmurat Niyazov. More accurately, we came across a golden statue of the former president as there seems to be more than one of these made. For the record, he's the former president because he passed away naturally, not because of any enhanced electoral techniques.

The statue was outside a government building (of course) and might be the same one that used to sit atop the Neutrality Arch. The Arch has been dismantled and the statue might be the same as the one seen atop the Arch in the Wikipedia photo, but it's hard to tell since the photo is so small. Either way, there seems to have been more than one made anyway so that's not really the point. Unfortunately, the presence of security made taking a picture seem like a good way to get in trouble. There's always a great deal of uncertainty about what one can and cannot do and that is not just an expat concern. (Excellent, now I have a topic for next week!) Regardless, a statue is there for passersby to see. It looked like it could be gold-plated as it is alleged to be, though the coloring looked off in the city lights of the night.

At first, the idea of such a statue seemed a bit self-aggrandizing. However, during my recent visit to D.C., I was reminded that there are monuments to former presidents all over the place in the United States. Some, like the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial hold prominent positions in the nation's capital. And of course, then there is Mount Rushmore, hardly a monument to subtlety. What is different is that none of those U.S. monuments were erected when those former Presidents were still alive, let alone when they were in office. In fact, even naming something (typically naval vessels) after a president who is still alive is not very common and a relatively recent trend as it has been done for Carter, Reagan, and Bush (#41). However, a naval vessel is hardly a prominent public monument. Imagine the public consternation (and political finger-wagging) that would occur if a sitting President of the United States erected a monument to himself or herself while still in office.

Back to my first impression. Statues erected in one's own honor are self-aggrandizing and that was probably the point.

Monday, September 19, 2011

the weekly

I rather like the concept of what I have now dubbed "Tuesdays in Turkmenistan". I was able to keep up with it for my first 8 weeks here back in June/July, and it's going well so far this time around. As for tomorrow's entry, have no fear as it is already written! And to think I could have been doing this in my previous locations with snappy names like "Gabbing in Gabon" and "Contemplations in Congo" and "H-something in Hungary". It is some structure, albeit self-imposed, to keep me honest about blogging.

I have had occasion (and time) to cull through some semi-recent e-mails and read, sort, and reply to them as needed. I go through these phases as noted a year-and-a-half ago when I went through a similar e-mail push. It is something I certainly need to work on and finish. I have made it back to around the time of my brother's wedding two years ago, which means many more e-mails even older than that await sorting. I bring up that time because that's the time I fell off the blogging horse for a month. The archives are deceptive since I back-dated some entries, but I went AWOL on the blog, e-mail, everything for around a month back then and it was simply unacceptable for me to so blatantly ignore contact with everyone. I'm back on the horse and will be much more committed to the blog and e-mails. Rotation and being home in April/May and again in August made it very clear to me that I cannot ignore, squander, and let relationships with people I care about languish while I distract myself with frequent flyer miles.

I'll be pushing out the weekly, well, every week while I am on duty. During days off, it will probably not be so forthcoming, especially since it will not fit my Tuesdays in Turkmenistan title if I am not actually in Turkmenistan. Presumably, I will be seeing some of you in person if I am not here. Otherwise, for you readers who I do not know in real life, well, I can visit you too if I'm ever in your part of the world, wherever that might be.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

rental car review: Toyota Camry

While I was in the greater Washington D.C. area in my last week back Stateside, I rented a Toyota Camry. As I posted on my rental Dodge Caliber last week, it is now the Camry's turn.

I can see why people buy the Camry in droves. It is functional, spacious, has clean and inoffensive styling, and gets decent fuel economy for a large-midsize sedan. However, it is utterly devoid of any character. It is a soulless automobile that could never be an Autobot nor Decepticon. Instead, in 30 years, it will be stacked with its ilk ready to be run over by the Grave Digger. Consider that a compliment because that would be 20 or fewer years for most cars.

Like the Caliber I rented earlier, this Camry felt like a typical base-engine rental model. In this case, the engine was more adequate, since it was probably a 2.4L instead of the Caliber's 2.0L. The exterior styling is bland and nothing says boring like the white paint job my rental possessed. (Not a fault of the Camry, but more Hertz's fault, the car was riddled with scratches along both the front and rear bumpers.) The interior was equally functional. I did wish for a second power port, but some dreams will always go unfulfilled. It had everything you needed in a car, but there was nothing memorable.

That is both what makes the Camry so successful and yet so painfully mundane. It represents many generations of manufacturing refinement, an iterative process that has helped drive quality up and prices down. The pragmatic engineer in me takes utter delight in those aspects of the car, but the it has a averaged-out appeal that makes it palatable to most, but delectable to none. This is perfectly acceptable since Toyota is running a business, and the fundamental purpose of business is to make money so that it can stay in business. Businesses that don't make money are something else, like hobbies or charities. Thus, Toyota will march on with its vanilla Camry and great sales record and never sell one to me. Well, they will never sell a new one to me. A used one may be an eminently functional car, but if I am ever to buy a new car again, it needs to have some zing. Something like the latest generation Chevrolety Camaro. Now that's a car that has not been focus-grouped into styling oblivion. Even the current generation Ford Fusion has quite a bit more visual character than the Camry.

Friday, September 16, 2011


One more bit on presentations from yesterday's piece. A friend of mine told me about a presentation tool she recently used called Prezi, which fancies itself as the "the zooming presentation editor". Go take a look which I have had only moderate success doing through the small tubes of the internet here, but I have checked out their intro video on YouTube. It is evidently possible to use this tool incorrectly (or perhaps awesomely!) to induce nausea in the more sensitive members of your audience. Judging by their intro video, I can certainly see how that is possible if one were overzealous with the zooming and panning and general level of motion. Instead of the boring, "Game-changing presentations online" bit, maybe they can consider "Prezi, the Vomit Comet of presentation tools!"

All teasing aside, tools like this can significantly help with the display of information, particularly complex ideas or data, but the core focus of what a presentation is about should still be the speaker. The speaker controls the tempo and flow of a presentation and is the one to lead the audience through his or her story. A gifted presenter needs nothing more than themselves. A novice presenter is not helped by even the best presentation tools.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

fake it till you make it

I have previously mentioned that I have occasion to review the presentations of younger engineers. It can be very time consuming, but I actually enjoy the process since it has the satisfying feeling of helping someone improve his or her self. In this case, working on their presentation skills.

One of the most basic pieces of feedback I try to provide is that presenters need to project and express energy and enthusiasm. I have touched on the idea of being enthusiastic before but I saw another presentation yesterday that needed a strong dose of enthusiasm. It is very typical for first-time presenters to come out a bit flat and mechanical sounding. Their nerves often get the best of them and they go a bit fast and are not able to put emphasis on their key points. However, this guy yesterday sounded downright despondent at one point during hsi presentation when mentioning some training he had attended that related to his project. The line, "I attended the XYZ training" sounded like it came from the lips of a man who had just been told that his dog, the loyal companion of many years, had been hit by a truck. I had never before heard such a melancholy line during a business presentation.

New presenters also struggle needlessly with their presentation aids, usually PowerPoint, instead of focusing on the presentation's main event, which is themselves. There's the saying that a good actor can salvage a bad script or bad dialogue. (No? Well, a lot of others say something like that.) The corollary is that a bad actor can tank good dialogue. The same is true for presentations. For example, the guy from yesterday definitely had some work to do on his slides, but I told him that he could not change a single slide and still make it an effective presentation. Conversely, his slides could be perfect, but that would do nothing for his ability to project himself across the room and keep the audience's attention.

The weakness from yesterday's presentation was with the presenter, not his slides. His voice was flat, the pacing was the same speed the entire time, his use of a laser pointer was needless when he has these built in pointing tools called arms, and he stood in the same place the entire time. Afterwards, I expressed to him that he needs to view the presentation as a story and that he needs to tell a compelling and exciting story to his audience. While it is a business presentation, he still needs to engage the audience, control the room, and make his material come alive. That's not an easy thing to do, but a good first step is to sound confident, even if you don't feel confident.

I told him to "fake it till you make it" because projecting confidence, regardless of how you feel on the inside, will eventually lead you to feel confident. Additionally, your outward confidence will give others confidence in you and if you sound authoritative, then people will listen to you. This is a basic fact that almost anyone in a leadership position knows. This is also something that every playground bully knows, even if they lack the understanding of why this works.

Furthermore, speaking up and out in a room will also make you more aware of how to vary your speech. There is a volume other than 3 and a speed other than waytoofast. Speak up, slow down and continuously get feedback from your audience. If you're making a key point, but the audience is reading some miniscule text on your slide, then they will not be listening. My basic rules for slides are:
* If it appears on a slide, you must mention it.
* If something is not on a slide, you can still mention it.
That second point often seems lost on young presenters who equate their slides as their presentations. The slides are a presentation aid, but the words that come out of their mouths should be the most memorable thing the audience remembers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: security theater

To enter and leave Turkmenistan, I understandably fly through the capital city of Ashgabat. That airport is actually quite decent. Sure, there's no free Wi-Fi, but it is a nice building and a definite step up from the airport in Libreville, Gabon. Spacious terminal and gate areas, basic facilities, a couple shops, etc. I might even call it comparable to Washington-Dulles, but that's mostly an indictment about how shabby Dulles is as an airport and not a true comparison. However, it is plagued by the same problem U.S. airports now have, which is a great deal of security presence, but a questionable amount of actual substance.

When I left for days off more than a month ago, that was my first time departing through the international portion of the airport. To enter the airport building, your bags all go through an X-ray and you pass through a metal detector. This is an understandable security measure to prevent people from bringing in weapons into the airport building. However, it's just one guy watching the X-ray screen and sometimes one guy on the metal detector line. If you're discrete, once you are inside, you can watch the guy and his X-ray screen and see what he is looking at. I understand the basics of looking at such an image but short of handgun, I am not sure what would be flagged. Furthermore, without additional assistance, he has no way to stop people and control that access point. Once inside, it is a long walk to the international area and again, there is an X-ray for your bags (keeping in mind that you still have all of them as you have not checked-in yet) and a metal detector for you. Within 100 feet of that checkpoint, there is yet another X-ray for your luggage, but no metal detector for you. the purpose of this immediate X-ray is strange because there is nothing between the two checkpoints where you would pick-up or drop-off anything. You seriously leave one checkpoint, walk 100 feet, and then reach the next checkpoint. (The airport did seem somewhat oddly laid out as if it was meant to accommodate something else.) Go for another nice walk and then you get to the check-in counter. Finally. Checked bag drop and once more through security. Again, an X-ray for your carry-on and a metal detector for you. This feels normal in the sense that this is what you would see in a U.S. airport. Everything else prior to this point was bonus material. To tally it all up, that was three X-rays of my check-in luggage (that I saw), four X-rays of my carry-on bag, and three passes through a metal detector for me. You know what makes me feel safe? Reading the safety briefing card showing the airplane exits and oxygen mask procedure.

For flying to Balkanabat, it is much the same, but without the strange, standalone X-ray-only station. Security when entering the airport. Again to reach the check-in counter. Then once more after checking-in. Though at the last point, while you passed through a metal detector, they did not care if you set it off. It's a great deal of show, but how much is necessary and how much is beneficial. Certainly, anything other than the first and last check-points are redundant. And the first check-point can also be eliminated if baggage screening occurs after checking-in.

In the end, the real question is what is the purpose of airport security. In the U.S., it has become a theater meant to make people think it is safe to fly. In Turkmenistan, the impact it has on travelers is less clear to me. Is it meant to dissuade people from traveling with weapons or contraband? They only opened my bag because of some batteries, which is quite understandable since a pack of dense, metal cylinders could be bullets or something like mini gas canisters. However, this was at the second check-point, not the first, so what was the first guy looking for? Is it sophisticated enough to catch someone purposely trying to move something illicit? Probably not, since all the song and dance of U.S. airport security cannot stop that. Time and time again, the TSA has shown it cannot screen at anything close to a perfect success rate. Instead, I think all the security is there because they think it is supposed to be there. It feels like the good old, 'fake it till you make it' concept. Be doing it and acting like it is serious (and it is to some degree), it gives them an air of legitimacy and projects a sense of official power. Over time, appearances become reality and projections are built into actual substance.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


9/11, 10 years on, from the perspective of someone living overseas for the last 2.5 years.

No one here cares. I say it bluntly, not to be rude or callous, but to be simple and clear. This is not a day of significance here at this work camp. Admittedly, it is a small sample size of people and this work camp is more insulated than most from the outside, but no one ever mentioned today as an anniversary when I was in Hungary or Gabon either. I am sure I could find mention of it on the World News and CNN channels, but no one here has mentioned it at all and I have no expectation that anyone would even recognize this day as being significant to the U.S. without seeing something on the news first. Contrast this to the 4th of July where I had two different people point out to me when it was that day this year.

It is not a day that has significance to most non-Americans. It is a day that has prompted deep changes to American policy, both foreign and domestic. The impact and consequences of such changes have no doubt reached much of this world, even if only indirectly. However, most people will not know or associate those changes with this day from 10 years ago.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

rental car review: Dodge Caliber

It's been a good couple years since I posted a rental car review, but it's also been a couple years since I actually rented a car. Without further ado, let's tear into the Dodge Caliber I drove for a week in California.

I had the car for a week including a sojourn down to Los Angeles and back as well as plenty of running about in the Bay Area. The Caliber is adequate. That really feels like a suitable word for the vehicle. It is neither good nor bad. It's like the handrail on an escalator. It does it's job, but you would never actually buy one. The engine was terribly under-powered, though this is true of most rental vehicles. They are almost always base trim and base engine models since people who rent cars are short-term users who are not exactly investing in the long-term health of the vehicle. As a result, fuel economy in practical terms suffered due to a rash of peddle mashing. I am sure the car is capable of better fuel economy, but it should not have to be so carefully coaxed from the engine. At first, the steering felt stiff, but that was only in comparison to the rather soft minivan steering at home. I eventually came to decide that the steering felt properly stiff. To go with the suitably stiff steering was also very good engine braking. There seemed to be no easily findable light switch for dome light in the front. At the very least, it was not where it should have been, which is on the ceiling in the middle just aft of the top of the windshield. And the rear hatchback cover, to hide what you are keeping in the trunk does not actually cover the entire trunk. There are rather auspicious gaps on both edges that are a couple inches wide.

It was hardly all bad. There was only one DC power port, but they more than made up for it with an AC outlet (for prongs and everything) under the middle armrest. I could plug my normal phone charger straight into the car and it was glorious. The audio jack was also in plain sight instead of being squirreled away into some dank corner. Though once I realized the car came with Sirius satellite radio, the audio jack saw very little use. In terms of user functionality, it made for a good road-trip car for me. I had plenty of room, was able to almost get my seat perfect, no headroom issues, and only lacked some lumbar support. A second person would have also been fine as there was certainly plenty of trunk space for more bags. However, I am not sure if persons three and four would have been a good idea. It's not because of the rear seat leg room, which I never tested, but because the additional passenger/baggage weight would have only further bogged down the under-powered engine.

Friday, September 09, 2011

democracy, or something close to it

According the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, I have been living in some rather interesting places for the last year-and-a-half. Congo (non-DRC one), Gabon, and Turkmenistan are not exactly on par with Norway, but hey, only one country can be first.

There is a cement factory opening in the Balkan province (which is the region of the country that Balkanabat is in). That, along with other official business, is apparently bringing the President through town in the next week or two. One of my colleagues told me that the city is rounding up stray cats and dogs (and presumably killing them) because of a request that no animals run across the road in front of the Presidential motorcade. I can see how that can be viewed as a security measure, albeit rather far-fetched. However, it might also be for cosmetic reasons. That same colleague told me that he has to change some windows in his house since it faces the main road and that all houses and apartments that face the main road need to have the same type of window installed before the President arrives.

The President is up for re-election in February of next year. If my work schedule stays more or less the same, it looks like I will be in the country when the it occurs on Feb 12, 2012.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

a frustration and a realization

I work for the man. Nor really, but it is a large, and more or less faceless corporation, which is to be expected when there are 100,000+ employees. Sure, there is the new CEO, but wait, this is such a publicity-shy company that even the CEO doesn't have a photo up on the public website. As this is a corporate environment, we partake in the great corporate activity of conference calls on a regular basis. And I absolutely despise anyone who does not mute their phone (except the speaker) during such calls. Yes, modern conference call systems can mute all the non-speakers' phones, but when a call is opened up for questions, there is the inevitable murmur of background noise. Then comes the moron who thinks this is now a good time to take another call and put the conference call on hold. You fool! You are using an office line that has hold music and now everyone who is still on the call has to listen to your infernal muzak. And since you aren't on our call, the desperate pleas to turn off the music fall, not onto deaf ears, but onto soft saxophone rhythms since you're that guy. If you don't know know who that guy is in your office, then there's a good chance that you are him (or her). You are the inconsiderate boob who is so oblivious that you do not even realize it which makes you a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This frustration has come with a basic realization. Every single time that I want to yell at someone (which is disappointingly often), it is actually a chance to ask a question. I have been slowly acquiring the skill of phrasing things in such a way as to get that desired outcome of an interaction with someone. Rather than yell, "You thunderous dolt, don't put the conference call on hold because then everyone has to listen to muzak" I can instead ask, "Did you know that our phone system has hold music?" Yes, I can take a more direct (and still polite) approach and say, "Placing the conference call on hold causes them to hear our phone system's hold music" but I have found that when people reach the answer more on their own, the realization is much more pronounced and memorable. It may take a few leading questions, but getting someone to proclaim a basic concept out loud is much stronger than force-feeding it down their throat. So as much as I may wish to mentally stab someone with mind-daggers for being obtuse, I know it will rarely help to browbeat them into submission. I feel like my year in Texas would have been dramatically different with a bit of this maturity that I have been acquiring overseas. So many ways it could have gone differently, but then again, there's no changing the past. Just going to ask more questions.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

travel notes

I often drop these in after a trip, so before my most recent treks fades too far from my memory, here goes.

It has actually been quite a bit of travel within the last two weeks starting with the run to Vegas, then onward to D.C. before going back to SFO (via LAX) and then the big trip back to Turkmenistan. Flying domestically, I was reminded how terrible the legacy carriers are in the States. It seems I will be flying with United when possible for the sake of miles and flyer status, but my cross-country trek with them to D.C. made me realize how awful they are. No personal entertainment system, no included meal, $25 for the first checked bag, older planes and at least one awful employee working in Washington-Dulles. (In the interest of providing customer feedback, I did indeed lodge a complaint with them about their check-in counter service in IAD.) At least the checked bag fee will go away once I get my Premier Status with them, which I will have as soon as they recognize my first trip to Turkmenistan. That trip recognition is another thorn in my side as I mistakenly flew under Lufthansa's program instead of United's program. In order to get the miles moved over, United is asking for me to get a written letter from Lufthansa certifying that they have removed the miles from their program (so they are not double-counted) and then mail that letter along with my original boarding passes, ticket receipt, and my account number (which they already have) to a PO box in Rapid City, SD where they can then proceed to handle it like a valued guitar. One more thing. The only reason I rented from Hertz while I was in D.C. was to get miles with United, but Hertz is now giving me some garbage about getting the rental to count for United's program. Based on this, I will never rent from Hertz again unless I am forced. It will be all Enterprise, all the time which always has very good customer service.

Whatever. Once I get status with them, they will treat me like a real person. Until then, it's crap, crap, and more crap from them. Or I can try to fly with Delta and keep my status I have with them so it doesn't expire. I flew so much with Delta and their partners while living in Hungary and Congo/Gabon that I hit status with them very quickly. But United keeps a hub in SFO so I'll at least get something out of them.

Lufthansa operates a new Airbus A380 on their daily San Francisco to Frankfurt route. It is a nice plane, but don't end up in a middle seat on a 10-11 hour long flight. Flying international reminds me of all the things I like about flying. There is something about the strange mini-versions of everything that I really like. Overseas flights allow me to catch-up on all the movies I have missed living in bustling metropolises like Port Gentil, Gabon and Balkanabat, Turkmenistan. Fast Five? A tour de force of cinematic excellence if I may say so. Those tiny little meals? You can think whatever you wish of me, but I like airline food. I find it so amusingly novel, perhaps in the same way that people like little kittens and puppies. It is by no means the fine dining of In-N-Out, but the food as this single-serving-ness (a la Fight Club) that I like. I also enjoy most of my single serving seat mates. It gives me a chance to practice having banal conversations and acting normal.

Frankfurt airport is huge. It is the hub for Lufthansa. It's the kind of airport where there are not enough gates so the less glamorous flights (like the one to Ashgabat via Baku) is reached by taking a bus from the gate. And it is a long bus ride. We definitely went more than a full mile from the gate off into the Lufthansa Cargo area as we passed some windowless MD-11s with their no-longer-current trijet engine layout. Speaking of trijets, a Boeing 727 used to be the plane from Ashgabat to Balkanabat, but this time it was a very new 737-700. Before I left Frankfurt, I had a chance to buy cigarettes for the first time in my life during my layover in Frankfurt. Of course, they were not for me, but rather for a co-worker who told me that due to customs problems in Turkmenistan, prices here had tripled and quality had gone down. Apparently, I am not knowledgeable about which Marlboro brand (classic red, silver, gold, menthol, etc) is their "light" version. I consider this a good thing.

The Frankfurt to Ashgabat flight does a one hour layover in Baku where about 90% of the passengers get off. Does this mean no one goes to Turkmenistan? Not really. I imagine most people who enter from Europe fly on Turkish airlines to Istanbul or with Turkmenistan Airlines which flies directly to Frankfurt with no stopover. Though It is strange to be on a plane that is almost empty and where there are probably 2-3 passengers for every crew member. And then all of a sudden, I'm in Ashgabat, this time with a visa so not having to wait in that line and getting to breeze (in a relative sense) through immigration. Home sweet home.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: false identity

In less than two days back in Turkmenistan, I am pleased to report that no fewer than five different people have mistaken me as or made a comment that I look Kazakh or Turkmen. It started with two different comments in a client office in Ashgabat. First, a comment at a morning meeting when I was introduced to several people for the first time. After the meeting, we ate with the client and while doing so, someone everyone else knew came into the restaurant and came up to the table to shake everyone's hand. When I said "Hello" as I shook his hand, his reply was "Oh, you are not Turkmen." Indeed, I am not.

Back in the office, I was setup in the visitor's room since I'm not based in Ashgabat and there were a couple new to the office engineers including a Turkmen guy transferred back here from Nigeria. He thought I was Kazakh. The other guy in the office was Kazakh and he thought I was Turkmen. Nice to know I'm so visually flexible.

At the end of the day, I went with a local employee to have dinner and we took a taxi and since about all I can muster in Russian without having m pronunciation mocked is privet (hello) and spasibo (thank you) so of course we were speaking to each other in English. But the taxi driver just kept looking back at me in the mirror and I realized he was confused, or at least puzzled as to why we would be speaking English. Upon getting out of the cab, the driver asked my colleague a question. It was apparently to ask if my colleague was an English teacher. Not exactly.

Finally, I was having dinner in the canteen this evening and a new engineer trainee (not in my segment) was at our table trying to guess where I was from. I thought the accent was a dead giveaway, but she guessed Kazakh. Trainees have so much to learn.

In conclusion, I guess it's good to be back at my home away from home. Or maybe it's just my home. Whatever.

Monday, September 05, 2011

back in Turkmenistan

Whelp, I am back in Turkmenistan, ready to swash-buckle about for seven weeks before I can continue to rack up frequent flyer miles. Blog posting will certainly be resuming. I have a lot of half-formed thoughts that I am eager to poorly articulate into this 7 reader forum.