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.