Thursday, December 29, 2011

live blogging from frankfurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

55 days

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the joys of domestic travel

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: the holidays

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

the unsendables 2

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

the unsendables

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: opaque-nost?

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

neutrality day

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

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

lacking insulation

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

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: anti-glasnost

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

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

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