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.