Monday, December 31, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: a new year, no promises

For sophisticates like myself living 13 hours ahead of the lagging West Coasters, the New Year has already arrived. In fact, it arrived nearly 12 hours ago to great and glorious fanfare for the neutral nation of Turkmenistan. And we were playing Mario Kart Wii when it happened. It was as awesome as you think it sounds.

Interestingly enough, yesterday was a holiday in Turkmenistan. Well, sort of. By decree from the great and glorious neutral leader of Turkmenistan, they did a bit of horse-trading for the days. Basically, Saturday was a "normal" working day and Monday become part of the weekend in its place. So people with "normal" jobs had Sunday (as is typical), Monday (traded for Saturday), and today (New Year) off. Strange and magical indeed. Of course, the business I'm in does not take days off. In fact, Sunday was a ridiculous mash up of semi-panicked activity to get a few things out the door. In the end, it's yet another day off added to the already absurdly long list of public holidays in Turkmenistan.

Of course, since you are reading this, you are literate. It also means I'm back after a four week hiatus. I'm not sure where I have been. It was dark and a bit stuffy, so perhaps a broom closet or stuck under a large tea cozy, but I'm free once again. Free to post intermittent and irregular updates and also free to travel back Stateside on Friday. Eight weeks in this time and it is time to start taking some of my accrued days off. I have a few small items for myself, but do wish to share with people when I get back. The most novel one is the English-language Turkmen newspaper I snagged while I stayed in a hotel in Ashgabat earlier in my rotation. (Why was I in a hotel and not a staff house? The staff houses were full since several people were in town. Why was I in Ashgabat? Business totally and in no way related to activities of the CIA. Yes, that sounds right.)

I'm not sure what the game plan is while I am in the U.S. There are some nebulous plans to visit a guy from work who lives out in South Carolina. Perhaps a swing through my storage place and then a drive back across the Southwest with a stop in Los Angeles. It's all quite wonderfully vague. And something about furniture moving.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

earthquake, barely

There was an earthquake last night. It wasn't much of one as my first thought was that someone had hit the side of the building. Plus, it was far less rumbling than when the train goes by. However, it was distinctly an earthquake in that way everything moves that is hard to describe to people who have never been in one. My confirmation came this morning when several people mentioned it so it was obviously not the train or a building issue. Checking out the USGS site, it might have been this quake in Iran as nothing else listed remotely matches. However, that is a long way off in the eastern part of Iran, nearly in Afghanistan. It is possibly the same quake, and the timing sort of works out as well, but the distance is a bit much for me to believe we would feel something like that out here in Balkanabat.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: wrong ali

There's someone who works for one of our clients with the name Muhammad Ali. Actually, it's not spelled exactly like that, and he's obviously not the boxer, but every time I hear his name, it makes me want to say, "You spoke with Muhammad Ali? How was that?" This must be the curse of people who share names with famous people. You hear the same jokes time and time again so no matter how original someone thinks they are being, you have already heard the line before.

Even a seemingly not-especially-unique name like my last name attracts countless comments. (According the 1990 U.S. census, the last name of Love was the 330-something most common. I'd find you a link, but our network here has become insufferably slow.) For the most part, the comments are positive:
Someone: "Love? Really? That's such a cool name."
Me: "Yeah, it's working out pretty well so I've decided to keep it."

In all fairness, it is a good name. Short, rarely mispronounced, makes you memorable in a non-negative way, women seem interested in pairing their first name with it, etc. You learn to take it in stride, though the jokes do get old. I cannot recall the last original one someone said when referencing my last name. Still, better than being named Smith or Jones.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: where there was no thanksgiving

And never will be.

That sounds a bit gloomy. Actually, I did get something from my embassy while I was in Ashgabat last week. I received an invitation to U.S. Culture Days in Ashgabat. Sadly, but not really as that is not the emotion I experienced, I flew back to Balkanabat a day before the series of events started. I actually passed the invitation along to my manager. While he is not from the U.S., he previously worked there and his children were born there so they are U.S. citizens.

Interestingly enough, I saw a news piece on the event last night while flipping through the channels. Wait, first a bit about the channels.

We used to have various television channels. Let's say about 12-15 working channels. Over time, fewer and fewer of them were working owing to poor service and whatever kind of chicanery goes on here that I would rather not know about. This past weekend, just three days ago, they restored channels, though not all the same ones as we had before. One of them happens to be a local Turkmenistan television channel and this is what I saw last night.

During the segment, there was a voice-over presumably describing the performance. I assume the performers were part of the Della Mae bluegrass group based on some rigorous process of elimination while looking at the schedule in the link above. In shots that showed the audience, they seemed to be comprised of politely sitting schoolchildren, perhaps ages 11-14, who were not there on their own volition. Despite it being a Saturday, there were all wearing the traditional schoolgirl dress and hat, much like these students though they are older. And while they were a polite audience, they seemed less than enthused, no doubt attending not entirely on their own accord.

I wish I could get a TV Guide equivalent for the local news channel. I only know a few shows that will be on at certain times and this is because they are on the TVs in the airports while I wait for my flights to and from Balkanabat. Around 13:00, there is a program where performers play some sort of traditional stringed instrument. I believe they are called dutars. That's what we see while waiting for the ASB-BLK flight. The return leg usually has a news program on around 15:00. It often features government officials standing in front of either a carpet or a picture of the President or both while they update the President with various reports. I cannot tell if the news does a voice-over of this or not as the audio is never on in the BLK airport. Sometimes, they cutaway to show the President sitting at a large U-shaped desk with three monitors along one side, a laptop on the other side, and him looking very serious. His computer setup is undoubtedly pretty sweet, for sure he's a big Minecraft fan.

What I find most fascinating is the English-language reporting they did for a while last night. Two questions came to me. First, who is the target audience of an English-language broadcast that only airs in Turkmenistan? (Related question is why anyone like myself would consider the news to be impartial.) Second, could they have found someone with better English-language skills to read that segment. The fellow's accent was thick and the enunciation non-existent. I had to listen for a while to be sure he was actually speaking English.

In summary, I had curry for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: mary!

The city, not a person. And pronounced more like Mah-Rhee. Regardless, I'm there right now sitting in the airport at 21:45 and tapping this out on my phone one thumb press at a time.

Several of us came here on a day trip for work.  Early morning flight, then a two hour drive, meetings all day, two hour drive back, and then the last flight back to Ashgabat. Sadly, no sightseeing or visits to historic sites could be arranged. And the scenery was rather bleak. Tough-love cotton fields amidst the encroaching sands of the desert seen through the scoured windows of a bus that lacked a strong enough heater.  There may not be snow but winter has arrived.

If I have done this correctly, you'll see what passes for proof that I am here in the Mary airport.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: where i cheat with this post

The title should really read "where i cheat shamelessly with this post" as it is being put up two weeks late, has nothing particularly to do with Turkmenistan and is in fact a lot of random rambling. This is my gap entry, a missed TinT, that hasn't even nagged at me like these normally do. I'm simply too busy. I'll get into some generalized specifics in the entry that is actually supposed to be posted today (Nov 27), but this space is just filler. Idle words and bits in the digital abyss, like a overly stylized special effect from Tron 2.0.

My time off hasn't really been much in the way of time off. Plus, it ended not so great this last time. I went to London prior to my return to work. That should have been good. Conceptually, it was great. However, I somehow managed to hurt my foot (and I'm still not sure how I even did that), my first full day there so I spent the next couple of days gimping through the pain. I did take it easy the next day, but every step hurt. It is fine now and was seemingly some sort of deep bruise though there was no discoloration, perhaps a bone bruise, though I am not actually a doctor so this is lay speculation. However, it took more than a week before I was able to shake off the pain for good. It was also the first time I resorted to any sort of pain medication in several years.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

leaving on a jet plane

Leaving on a jet plane, still got that A380 route. (Sing it to the Peter, Paul and Mary tune.) Lufthansa is still running the A380 on this route despite now being on what I call their Winter schedule. Last year, they switched to the 747 in November. This year, according to the lady who checked me in, they will try to run the A380 to SFO until January. The route is popular enough that they are (were?) looking for 10 volunteers to take tomorrow's flight instead. The offer was rather generous and if I was not meeting up with a friend at a set time and place, then I would have more seriously considered their offer. As it is, I'm ditching the lounge soon and will go board in 10 minutes. See everyone in about two months.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: home so briefly

Whelp. I'm in California, but leaving again on Saturday. Another short-lived trip back, this time for a mix of travel and visa reasons. I will be spending a few days in London before returning all the way back to Turkmenistan. And my return to TUM is essentially fixed due to my visa expiration which is coming soon. I need to be in the country when it expires so they can process the extension with my passport.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

headed home again

I'm headed to the airport in about two hours. Hopefully, it will be less of a silly season than what was going on when we landed this afternoon from Balkanabat. I'll be in the Bay Area only about a week-and-a-half before heading out again, though I'll be stopping over most likely in London before a full return to Turkmenistan. Anyway, touching down at SFO in about 27 hours.

tuesdays in turkmenistan: airport shenanigans

The Ashgabat airport was a hot mess if silliness today when we arrived from Balkanabat this afternoon. It was evidently in the starting throes of a closure as the President will be arriving from Turkmenbasy later this evening (but hopefully before my own departure). When we landed, we were shunted away from the normal egress points of the airport for arriving flights back upstairs to the departing flight area. And then loaded onto buses. Buses that took us beyond the grounds of the airport and then we got off. Simple. Makes total sense.

Admittedly, our drivers who were supposed to pick us up rode in on the buses and then told us to get on since they had parked the cars near where the buses would be dropping us off. What I found amusing is that a group of about 15 Chinese guys who were on the flight from Balkanabat to Ashgabat refused to get on the buses. The police were yelling at them, they were yelling back, obviously no one was understanding anyone. They ended up going back inside the airport. I hope that worked out well for them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: karaoke

Wherein terrible singing is somehow universal. We had a karaoke night last Friday and apparently another one is scheduled for this coming Friday. Singing (often badly) is apparently universally popular. As for my own efforts, I was impressed by how much better (read: louder) I was after about two beers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Test post of mobile

Test post with the mobile app. Too tiring to type at length but potentially an interesting feature.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

a brief follow-up from yesterday

Perhaps you are wondering why I have chased this missing bag from yesterday so doggedly. It's not my bag. In fact, the guy is not even a colleague. And it's definitely not my job. We have a travel department here. Perhaps they should be doing this? Well, there's a lot of that "not my job" attitude here that I don't like. The fact that this is not my job is not the point. It's simply a decent thing to try and do for someone. The guy hasn't been in a position to do this himself since he's been traveling within Kazakhstan as well. He's been without his bag now 3+ weeks and I feel for him. It's a generally crappy situation all the way around and I have a suitably obsessive personality for this sort of thing. At this point, with the time invested thus far, now I have to see this to the end. It has become a mission that must be completed.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: wherein Turkish Airlines has let me down

I want to preface this post by stating that I have never flown on Turkish Airlines. However, I have spent several hours and called them 47 different times in an attempt to find a missing bag belonging to a colleague. It is a near universal truth that airlines typically have terrible customer service. Outside of a couple of the higher-end airlines (Qatar Airlines, Cathay Pacific perhaps) or possession of elite status, the call center experience is a byzantine maze of recursive despair. First, some back story!

Actually, this fellow is not technically a colleague. He is a contractor from Aberdeen who was here to perform some calibrations on equipment but I say colleague in my communiques to Turkish Airlines to keep it simple and will do the same here. He arrived to Ashgabat and his bag did not make it with him. He came to Balkanabat, spent a week here, then went back to Ashgabat. His bag had still not been found. He then flew to Almaty, Kazakhstan (for more calibration work) and his bag finally turned up in Ashgabat the day after he left. Wonderful timing. A plan was hatched, evidently a deeply complicated one, to send his bag from Ashgabat to Almaty via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Sadly, the tale of woe continued for my colleague as his bag never arrived in Almaty. There was quite a bit of insistence that it had, but several checks of the Almaty airport, luggage claim area, and lost and found told a different story.

At this point, I was probably 10-15 calls in already. It is astonishingly hard to find a phone number for the Turkish Airlines desk at the Almaty airport. The numbers on their website are definitely not the same as what their customer service line provided. Either way, no one picked up any of the numbers and people from our office in Almaty went down to the airport to check in person. Now was the time for further calls. I was armed with the certainty that the bag was not in Almaty and a scan of the baggage tag so I definitely had all the correct numbers, dates, flights to provide to Turkish Airlines. Good golly, what a mess. There are three primary numbers I have been calling, though only one of them leads to anyone remotely helpful. General customer service is a debacle. Some second number for luggage issues is not passable. A third number with an extension is marginal and depending on who you speak with, might yield some semblance of progress.

A word of advice to Turkish Airlines is that your departments should be staffed during business hours. If I call and everyone is busy, then put me on hold where I can listen to that snazzy two-line jingle of yours over and over and over. We are Turkish Airlines. We are globally yours. What you should not do is let the phone ring 11 times, then have the call end at the start of a 12th ring. I did not enter my pin code to call internationally, dial your 12-digit number, press 9 for English and then a 5-digit extension just so your system could hang up on me after 54 seconds. A second word of advice is that you should properly train whoever I spoke with on Saturday as he was incredibly rude and condescending. Also, I found his insistence that the airline possessed no system for tracking baggage utterly bizarre. Seriously, the guy insisted that the airline could not track baggage. Maybe my dear readers are thinking that he did not have access to the system to track the baggage based on the bar code and number. That’s what I thought too so I asked him if he could tell me what number to call to get someone who could track the baggage based on the luggage tag information. No one! Well, no one can according to him. The only logical conclusion based on this information is that nearly every bag reaches its final destination through nothing short of sheer happenstance and luck of the utmost proportions.

I try, I really do try to be polite when I’m on the phone with customer service. I understand it’s a generally shitty job and 90% of the complaints are routine and most of the callers are angry and frustrated so they are not very polite. Knowing all this makes me want to be as polite as possible because I want to live by the no-asshole rule. I realize the world is not so simple and that abiding by Bill and Ted’s insistence that we “be excellent to each other” is not always easy, but there is no reason to be rude on the phone. It will not improve the level of assistance you receive and it will not make the process go faster. If anything, being rude will lead to a lower level of service as why would anyone want to go above and beyond for a jerk? Back the fellow who said bags could not be tracked. He tried my patience and I was compelled to interrupt him more than once since it was clear he was not listening to me. Part of one of the baggage codes is ASBTK. ASB stands for Ashgabat and TK stands for Turkish Airlines. I was trying to explain to him that during one of the prior times I called, the code was read to me as ASETK and I was concerned that the reason he could not see the bag in his system (which is apparently NOT a system to track bags, but only a system to log missing bags) was that perhaps the code had been mistyped. Instead of hearing me out, he kept saying that ASE is not a valid airport code and that I was wrong and should call back when I had the correct information. I was looking at a picture of the baggage tag while I was on the phone with him so I most definitely had the correct information. His continued insistence that I was wrong was very off-putting.

Sunday yielded better luck. Recall that I previously mentioned having been given some information on an even earlier call. Yeah, that was last Wednesday. Six days ago, I spoke with “Hasan” who was helpful and told me they had the bag in Istanbul. Hot damn, we were in business! I e-mailed all this to the owner of the bag along with an e-mail address he needed to send his address to and provide his claim reference number. He called, spoke with a different person, and was told they had no record of his bag. Uh, ok, that’s a bit odd, but maybe someone misunderstood and perhaps “B” does sound like “E”. (By the way, this is why I use the NATO phonetic alphabet when reading letters on the phone so ASBTK is actually Alfa-Sierra-Bravo-Tango-Kilo.) Anyway, this info on failure to find his bag came back to me on Saturday which is when I resumed my call saga and ended up with the haughty fellow who claimed the airline had no way to track bags. Sunday, I spoke with the same “Hasan” again! This time, I was armed with the shipping address to get the bag home so I gave my own e-mail and phone number and took down the information again to ensure it was correct and sent my own e-mail to (TGS = Turkish Ground Services.) Two days later (today) and still no reply has led me to spend an uncannily large portion of my afternoon on the phone trying to speak with a real human instead of 11 rings and then dial tone.

I have made 25 calls today. I am sure of this, much like I am sure I possess the correct bag documentation, because I get an e-mail every time I use my PIN to make an international call. (The cost is not the issue as these route through our network, so the incremental cost is negligible, but the satellite routing does result in a bit of a lag during calls that adds to the difficulty.) I believe I have spoken to an actual person about four times. All other calls have not been answered. The sum total of my experience today is that my will to live has been crushed by the heartless automatons of the Turkish Airlines phone system. In all seriousness, this has been the most demoralizing customer service experience of my life. I called the number and extension to reach the department where “Hasan” works. I did not get a chance to speak with Hasan. Instead, providing the same information today as I had previously given to Hasan, I was told that the claim was now too old for them to see in their system and that they would transfer me to the Insurance (?) department. Sigh. I used the word recursive earlier so you might be able to guess what happened when I spoke with the folks in the Insurance department. That's right, they referred me back to where I had come from. If you ever call Turkish Airlines at +90 212 463 6363, press 9 for English then extension 15740 you get the starting department. If you enter extension 15640, you get Insurance or whoever they are. The sad thing is that I have called these numbers so often, I do not have to look them up to enter them here. They are now deeply burned into my damaged psyche. Also, if you're ever in a similar situation, you can try +90 212 468 4848, press 9 for English, then press 7 for missing luggage and +90 212 444 0849 and again press 9 for English, then press 7 for missing luggage but neither of those numbers were particularly helpful.

And now I am here. I have just entered all the relevant information into the Turkish Airlines web form and received their delightful automated reply. At least I know their system has this claim somewhere in the queue. However, even their online form is quite aggravating. It could not accept any phone number unless it was entered with no spaces. However, it had no separate field for the country code so it’s just one continuous number that is not clearly a non-Turkish number. Additionally, the flight information fields are required, but there was no red asterisk by those field indicating they were required. Also, you can only enter one flight number, which is silly since you cannot easily indicate your trip had multiple legs. All this was clarified in the text I could enter along with the recourse I have attempted thus far. We shall see if any headway can be made via this method. I can only hope for a resolution by next Tuesday lest I spend another post lambasting the shoddy customer service of Turkish Airlines.

Edit: I am aware that ASE is actually the airport code to the airport in Aspen, Colorado. The guy mentioned it was a U.S. airport during the call in the context that ASETK could not possibly be the code on the tag since Turkish Airlines does not fly there.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: deportation (not me)

Don't worry, or worry the same amount you had previously, for I am not one of the few being deported (and neither are any of my coworkers). Perhaps that is an outcome some of you slightly hope for, presumably only because you want me to come home and not because you would like to see me spend 15 days in jail before coming home. This is the outcome, or seems to be the likely outcome, for some individuals currently in the clink. Two weeks ago, there was an industry event attended by at least one of the major operators and many service companies. Post-event, there were post-events that evidently took on an adult theme. The word is that four people, a mix of operator and service company employees, are being deported as a result of the evening's "festivities" as I shall so discretely call them.

This is the real deal. This is why newly arrived expats get the lecture about being on good behavior and not metaphorically or literally screwing around. This is why we have an informal 11pm curfew. We get well compensated for being here and it is not because it is dangerous or there is some pervasive risk of malaria. It is because when you are here, it's not that there is no freedom, but there is a distinct decrease in the amount to which I am accustomed. It would sound much more dramatic if I could boldly proclaim that that there is no freedom here, but that would not be true.

What they have is much more watching. Sure, I can walk around the street and, if I am by myself and dressed discretely, I can blend in and won't attract a second look. Well, only if a walk suitably slow enough. My typical fast and purposeful walk seems to draw quite a bit of attention since fast-walking was evidently banned. However, in any sort of expat group, our English and everyone else's appearance will out us very quickly as foreigners. That's not really a problem, but it simply means you cannot lose yourself in a sea of anonymity. People will look, some will stare. Most of the ones who stare are likely staring at the arm sleeve of tattoos belonging to a colleague. I have no doubts that the security guards at the base make a note of every time I/we exit the base and return to the base in the evenings. My presence (and that of every expat) here must be registered. If we go somewhere else like Ashgabat or one of the port cities to go offshore, then that move must be registered. I am being watched. It is not sophisticated. In fact, it is rather clumsy at times. But being in a country with very few foreigners leads to a pervasive sense of always sticking out and attracting attention, not for what you are doing, but for simply existing in this place.

I will have to take solace in the knowledge that at least I am not a spy, because this would make it terrible to do my job. Maybe.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

natural gas, working through the overhang

Natural gas storage is almost off the record high levels that have persisted since November of last year. You can see pretty clearly here or here that storage levels are nearly back to the previous highs set in the last two years. It is not so much that production has declined (because it has not as seen here, though it did decline a bit late last year before rebounding early this year) but that the market is starting to stabilize when it comes to demand and the import/export market. With domestic production up (even with fewer rigs drilling for gas), it should be no surprise that net imports are down to their lowest levels in almost 20 years.

(Many of the rigs no longer drilling for natural gas have moved to liquid, read: oil, plays. Perhaps more on this later.)

What does any of this mean? To the consumer, will you spend more or less on heating gas this winter? To the investor, how can you invest into (or out of) these changes? To the voter, are you really basing your electoral decision on this single issue?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: a slow recovery

Been back nearly a week and I am still not quite fully adjusted. The hectic pace of my time back in the U.S. left me with a mild cold that persisted through the trip back. Flights seem to drag out an illness, however minor it may seem. One day becomes four days. The sore throat doesn't disappear. And you're always tired.

Everything here is the same, more or less. Work is work, people are people. Same in the sense that a certain degree of change is to be expected. Activity, clients, people, projects, etc. As boring as it may seem, the mundane is needed at times. Routine is part of progress. Even the weather is mundane, finally. We are done with Summer's 40+ degC days and Winter's icy touch is not yet here. Perfect weather to go for walk's in the evening, out on some Sunday Sundae strolls in our quests to get ice cream. In a country that is seemingly unpredictable, the sameness offers a bit of calm. A calm before the storm.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: that was fast

Two weeks went fast. Well, not even two weeks, more like 13 days. I'm hitting the road again today, on my way back to work. Some of the statistics from the last two weeks:
* 6 different beds slept in
* 1 wedding attended
* 650 miles driven
* 2 rental cars
* 5 airports visited
* 3 flights taken
* 2 upgraded seats
* 6 states touched
* 1 driveway resurfaced (partially)
* and 1 very cute nephew played with

Back in six weeks this time.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: labor law

This is the first in several back-dated entries. I started penning this entry during my last rotation and had intended to publish while I was at home. However, my busy home schedule precluded finalizing my thoughts on the subject. Additionally, it skirts along some potentially sensitive work topics that I am generally reluctant to avoid so my comments will be couched and somewhat vague as I will not discuss specifics about work. As always, my opinions are my own or those of my sponsors.

We have been rolling through some changes for local staff at work related to local labor law compliance. The issue is relatively straightforward in a broad sense. Work has a general compensation philosophy. There are certain ways we wish to pay people given the nature of the work (ie: field work, offshore, remote, etc) and to stay competitive with other employers in the industry. At the same time, there are certain ways we must compensate local employees according to the local law. Of course, local law trumps the company's general compensation practices. Furthermore, anytime you change how people are paid (not how much they are paid, but the nature of the way time is tracked, procedures, etc), they can become very defensive. I have seen this at two previous locations when somewhat similar changes were made. Even if you demonstrate to people that their overall pay will be either the same or higher, there is still a great deal of skepticism. This is normal, even expected, and taking the time to explain this to people is part of the job.

However, what has surprised me the most is who some of the most resistant employees have been during this process. I have certain expectations for our engineer population, both in terms of their work performance, but also what I would broadly call their world view. They work for a large, international company and are in a small and provincial (in relative terms) country. They could conceivably be working for local company, but they chose to work here instead. Working here is nothing short of an excellent springboard to get outside of the country. This includes the training opportunities that are afforded to them in other parts of the world as well as the chance for an international assignment. I like to view working here as an an excellent opportunity to "get out" for a local engineer. By this, I mean a chance to see, work, and live in other parts of the world. Some may want to do that for the rest of their careers and some may want to get out for a while, make more money, and then come back home. Either way, they have opportunities here. However, they only have those opportunities if they invest the time, effort, and have a decent view of the long-term. I expect the engineers here to have that long-term view, or at least a conceptual understanding of why it is important. Perhaps they have a hard time letting go of home, or don't really want to take an assignment outside of Turkmenistan. That is understandable, but they should comprehend why that will limit their opportunities in the company.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: departure edition

I'm headed to the Ashgabat airport in about 2 hours. Between now and then, I'll be going back to the staff house, taking a shower, and pretending I need to pack. In reality, there's nothing to pack. It was already done in a semi-panicked state during the lunch break in Balkanabat. Now, I have about 28 hours between myself and arrival at SFO. Good old SFO. I will see you soon enough.

When entering the US on an international flight, the first thing you need to do after deplaning is to clear immigration controls (which is not the same thing as custom controls). You inevitably have to stand in line. Perhaps in rare cases if yours is the only international flight to have recently landed and you are one of the first ones off the plane and/or you run past everyone else, then you might not stand in line. (Pro tip: Running in an airport is generally a good way to draw lots of attention to yourself. Whether that is good or bad is a separate matter.) In the queue for immigration controls, there are some TV monitors that play a video that loops every couple minutes. It shows people of various ethnic backgrounds engaging in various activities and various jobs in various settings with scenery shots of various flora and fauna. Did I mention that it is all quite varied? Combined with the upbeat and Copland-esque accompanying music, it is classic Americana like the family portrait that is in the family home of one of my friends. If you're a member of this family, yes, that is your wonderful portrait to which I am referring. There's something about the video in its overly wholesome and charming way that I find so endearing, kind of like many people from the upper Midwest. Combined with being back on American soil, it puts a nice little smile on my face.

By the time it is my turn to hand over my customs declaration form, I'm feeling pretty upbeat and I'm much friendlier than normal with the immigration officer. For sure I'm incredibly tired and want to shower, change clothes, and stop sweating, but I'm always friendly. For starters, I'm back. This is the culmination of a semi-long trip involving an equal number of take-offs and landings. Second, the immigration officer deals with a lot of people all day long, most of whom are probably tired and boring. I might as well liven things up a little bit. And finally, I cannot actually be turned away. As a US citizen, the only requirements for entry back into the country are demonstration of citizenship (ie: my passport) and filling out the customs declaration. Of course I'm never snooty about this but just knowing this makes me happy.

Getting back to that immigration vs. customs distinction. Immigration is the first check, prior to getting your checked luggage. This is when they check to make sure you are who you say you are. Then you get your bags. Then you go through customs, which usually only consists of handing the officer the form on your way out. Perhaps if you're (un)lucky (or had previously been running through the airport and are very sweaty) then they might ask to see what you have in your bags and why you are importing seeds and other undeclared agricultural products.

See you all soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

no expiration

Related to the post earlier today about local and expat staff, I remembered something else that can create problems for local staff when they try to travel overseas. The older Turkmen passports have no expiration date. Almost every country issues passports with a 5 or 10 year validity. (In the U.S., passports are good for 10 years unless you are under 16, then they are good for 5 years.) Until a couple years ago, Turkmenistan passports had no expiration date. Not having an expiration date means some visa applications cannot be completely filled out which then means the application cannot be processed. We had someone who recently was rejected because he still has an older passport without an expiration date. One more hurdle for locals to conquer.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

sundays in turkmenistan: continuing from tuesday

I wanted to get this done on Wednesday and call it something clever like "wednesdays in the world: global business" but will settle for this knock-off "Sundays in Turkmenistan" which is barely acceptable to read and not at all alliterative. Plus, these thoughts were all tumbling around then and were somehow fresher and made more sense. Now, time has either confused me or at least weakened the apparent newness of the ideas in my own mind. Regardless, we shall continue.

We wrapped up very quickly on Tuesday with an idea about training local staff. It came on the heels of the idea of where qualified people come from and how the industry is very specialized. The basic idea is that sometimes we need to bring in expatriates to certain locations when specific experience and skill sets are needed that are not locally available. Generally speaking, any foreign worker needs to be justified to the government (immigration ministry) and explain why the position cannot be filled with a local resident. The general explanations are lack of education, training, experience, etc. Of course, some companies could continuously make this claim, especially if they never give local staff opportunities to get experience and training. The response in some countries is that many expats are given a hard cap on how long they can be in the country. I have been told be colleagues who have worked in Angola that there is a three year limit for most expat workers there. The reasoning is supposedly that you should be able to train a local replacement to do your job during that time. This type of policy can produce some unintended consequences, the most prominent of which according to colleagues is the generally poor quality and unmotivated nature of much of the local staff because they know they cannot be easily released. (Angola, specifically in Luanda, also has a reputation as the most universally disliked location amongst people who have spent time there.) Their policies regarding time limits may not even be necessary. Companies have a few compelling reasons to train and develop local staff:

1. Mobility. Local staff are generally more mobile within the country. Things like border passes, permissions, registration are largely unnecessary because in most countries, local people can move freely within their own country. (I should note that at least for border passes, this is not true in Turkmenistan. Anyone going offshore, local or expat, requires a border pass document.) The flip side to this internal mobility is that for some countries, there is a problem with external mobility. Generally speaking, smaller and poorer countries have fewer visa-free agreements with other countries. For example, the number of countries that Turkmens can visit without getting a visa in advance can be counted on one hand. Another example is that in post-war Iraq, as the industry was going back for oil and gas work, it was very difficult to get visas for local Iraqis to go to training centers in other countries.
2. Money. Perhaps this should be listed first to emphasize its importance. Maybe I will simply list it twice. Local staff in less developed nations are paid at local rates. This is generally much less than what expatriate workers are paid as those employees are paid at international rates which are comparable to the rates in the more developed countries. It is in the employer's interest to have qualified local staff instead of more expensive expats. The flip side of this goes back to this being a global business. Once many locals in places like Turkmenistan gain training and experience, they want to work internationally themselves. It can become a challenge to retain and motivate some local staff members since they can take their skills to a competitor or client who might offer a more attractive deal or an international assignment. This becomes a management problem in terms of knowing your people, understanding their goals and having a plan with them.
3. Money. There, I listed it twice. Locals are cheaper and this is a business after all.
4. Business climate. You could call this a couple different things, but in terms of community relations, government dealings, and procedural matters, being able to have and present a strong local work force matters. This is a very international industry, but it is important to have local employees familiar with the less well published business practices of the region. This is particularly true in countries that have largely nationalized their natural resources so working with state companies is very important.

The general philosophy about local and expat workers here is that the company should try to employ as many people from a country as there are positions within that country. Let's say we have 100 people working in country ABC. Ideally, that would mean we have 100 ABC citizens working for the company, the vast majority of which will be working as home-country employees with a few working internationally. Perhaps 90 would be at home and 10 would work overseas. This would imply 10 expat workers inside country ABC. This being the ideal case also means it is not the reality in most of the world. In practical terms, a perfect balance would be almost impossible. More broadly though, some countries, usually better-educated ones, are over-represented worldwide when it comes to the numbers of positions the company has back in their home country. (Also, some people are from countries with no current operations so of course they are over-represented by this metric.) This imbalance will likely exist for a long time. We can take steps to minimize the imbalance through scholarships and internships and developing local staff. However, we cannot fundamentally change the quality of education available in local high schools and universities nor meaningfully redistribute the wealth of the world. We will settle for more training and go from there.

An unrelated note:
When I first started this entry on Wednesday, I had added notes at the bottom of my draft about internet quotes. I have no idea what prompted it four days ago since it is unrelated to the topic at hand, but I will leave you with this:
"The problem with quotes from the internet is it is hard to verify their authenticity."
-Abraham Lincoln

wherein there was pork!

There was an employees only party at the base last night. Sort of an end of Ramadan party. Amazingly, there was pork in one of the dishes being served. This is a first. Previously, everything served at parties and the canteen in general has always been halal. Also, I am not capable of matching our local guys drink for drink. This is hardly shocking, but can be a source of much learning.

TUM air force

The Caspian Sea has a problem of definition. What exactly makes a sea a sea? When does a sea become a lake? This matters because of how maritime boundaries are defined. Currently, the Caspian boundaries are under dispute. There used to be a clear line of sorts in the Soviet era. The border was simply between the Soviet Union and Iran and the Soviet Union had the power to define the terms more unilaterally. Now, five countries border the Caspian and they do not agree on which parts belong to which country. And what does any of this have to do with the Turkmenistan Air Force? Lots. Maybe.

The Air Force has been flying their Balkanabat-based planes several times in the past several weeks. They have a handful of Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft based here. Why have they been flying these planes? Well, the weather has been good so perhaps they are taking photos of the countryside. Alternatively, some combination of training and a show-of-force exercise. After looking at a map, it should not be shocking that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan dispute the portion of the Caspian that is between their two countries. Furthermore, there is an oil and gas operator that wishes to drill in a block that is in this disputed zone. This company was trying to conduct seismic operations there in the past couple months, but they ran into some problems with getting their work completed. This is hardly the first time some force or implied force has been used when it comes to oil and gas activity in the Caspian.

The uncertainty is bad for business. This operator needs to tender and solicit bids for services for the work they wish to perform. We are working on such a bid. That's not private or surprising information. We bid on almost anything possible that is related to our business. If an operator says they plan to drill a well, providing services for that is the business we are in so we will of course submit a bid. Perhaps there are cases where we may submit a bid, but then withdraw the bid or not really want to perform the work if the risks are too great or the legal climate is too uncertain. Nonetheless, a bid would still be prepared. But such a bid in this case needs to take into account the risk premium for being in a disputed area and the potentially uncertain and non-guaranteed security situation. These things push prices a certain direction and I can give you the hint that uncertainty and risk do not lead to lower prices. This is ultimately bad for the industry in the long-term because it raises the cost of doing business. This is where a stable and secure geopolitical climate, something that is very much taken for granted in the U.S., becomes incredibly important out here. The uncertainty here leads to me being able to hear from my office military planes flying around outside.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: red stamps

Sadly, the red stamps I am referred to are not special edition red postage stamps bearing the Coca-Cola logo. These are of the variety that go in your passport as a warning (the first time) and a deportation (the second time). While I myself have not "earned" one of these illustrious stamps, a colleague recently did due to a simple mix-up of how long he would be on one of the offshore rigs. He's hardly the first person to receive such a warning stamp and I doubt he will be the last.

The rules here are quite peculiar. That is my word for many things here: peculiar. That, and the phrase "because Turkmenistan" are the best way to easily express the, well, peculiarity of the situation. The rules and procedures are ever-shifting, questionably published, and can be potentially "finessed" in times of need. Here, the catch is that the location of all international employees needs to be registered each day. Well, it needs to be updated if any changes are made meaning if you go to the rig or a different city for a night, then your registration needs to be updated with the immigration office. This makes sense to a point. We're all guests here and the government has an interest in knowing what foreigners are doing. (Hint: not fomenting revolution). If I go to Ashgabat for a trip to see clients, that move needs to be registered. In theory, the government knows where I sleep every night. In practice, I am not sure what they do with this information or if anyone really cares. However, we are warned not to fool around, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. A few years back, one employee was deported due to spending the night outside the camp and thus not where he was registered.

For the most part, my own situation is straightforward compared to the field employees. I am in the base. Occasionally, I am in Ashgabat. Then I leave. Or I arrive. It's not more exciting or compelling. For the field employees, they have to deal with a limiting factor of location registration. See, I am registered in Balkanabat since I am here most of the time. If I go somewhere else in the country, I cannot spend more than 15 days away from Balkanabat before either returning for at least 2-3 days or leaving the country. For the field guys (and gals), this can be a problem. They need to be registered wherever they work the most. In particular, the ones who spend significant time offshore, they need to be registered at the relevant port the client is based from. However, if they go to a different client's rig or are in Balkanabat for an extended period, then they either need to have their registration changed (which is a hassle) or need to leave and spend a token 2-3 days in their normal registration location city (which is also a hassle). From a business perspective, the whole system is quite maddeningly frustrating. However, from a local perspective, it sort of makes sense. But only sort of.

These registration rules, and many others like how long and difficult the LOI/visa process takes, are all part of a process designed to make it harder to have expatriate workers. The reasoning is obviously that fewer positions filled by expats means more jobs for locals. This sounds good on paper and is arguably correct in many countries. Where this line of reasoning hits a bump is with qualified workers. This is not just about the oilfield. This is about any industry that relies on highly educated, trained, and/or specialized skill sets. Let's say a company wants to bring in an offshore rig and drill a well. At any given moment, there are probably about 100 people on an offshore rig. If you figure almost all of them have a back-to-back (since it is very rare to have someone stationed full time on a rig for 365 days a year), then you arguably need 200 people for operations. Then there is shore support, office-based staff, managers, etc. Let's somewhat arbitrarily say that's another 100 people. (Just humor me on the numbers. They are obviously not accurate, but are for ballparking purposes.) These people don't all work for the operator or the rig company of course, but belong to the various service companies that have been contracted for the work. Now I need 300 people spread out amongst many companies to drill a well, though they will presumably drill several wells. Are there 300 qualified local people available within the country right now? For many of the positions, yes. However, for certain specialized positions, probably not. Now we have this dilemma of do we stop all operations and thus associated employment due to a handful of people who are missing? Or do we bring in the few people we need to finish off the job? The latter wins out more often than not, but the hoops jumped through during that process are a reminder that we need to be building up and training as much local staff as possible.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I picked an e-mail address with Microsoft's new (more or less) service. It is the same as my gmail account except it ends in of course. I haven't used it for anything except to send and receive test messages to ensure it is indeed the name I intended to choose. At this point, no services are signed up with the account so it remains pristine in the eyes of spam bots and marketers attempting to purchase my information. Of course, random people could sign me up for all manner of services or even get their own e-mail address wrong. I have definitely had people send e-mails to my gmail account under the mistaken belief that I was their friend or family member. Neigh, I am not.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: which news to believe

I find the media coverage of Turkmenistan quite interesting. There's the obvious interest since I am here much of the time and ongoing events can potentially affect me. However, the disconnect between some of what is reported and what I can personally see and gather from the people I talk to is what I find most fascinating. Obviously it's not all sunshine and rainbows here, but the compelling question you should always ask yourself when reading anything is "Why should I believe the accuracy of this information?" Why should you believe anything I write here? Do we have a closer personal relationship built over many years that leads you to believe most of what I put forth? Do I seem genuine and interested in finding the "truth" of a situation? Is my writing crisp and professional (which it is obviously not) and thus carries more weight? I hope it is not the last one. A silver tongue is not the same as being truthful and honest.

A story about the abuses of the political leadership (original source) sounds very plausible. It follows with what you can reasonably expect in terms of behavior in a weak "democracy" and it matches with what you can hear "on the ground" from what people are willing to share. Of course, with no reasonable way to publicly quote sources without fear of reprisals, journalism cannot be as forthcoming.

I have seen a couple different articles (and now cannot find links!) discussing what how the Avaza (or Awaza) holiday resort area near Turkmenbasy along the Caspian coast is a failure and mostly empty. Most of these have come from .ru sourced websites, though most of the news aggregation on comes from .ru sites originally. This conflicts with what local staff here have told me about how popular the resort is and that it is very hard to get a room at any of the hotels and that people like to go there on the weekends when possible. I don't see a very compelling case for why local staff here would lie to me about the popularity of the resort. You could make the case for some national pride, but on other subjects, these same people are not exactly flag-waving zealots. At the same time, why would a media site report the resort to be empty and abandoned? That is the question that makes you wonder. Do Russian or other media sites have a compelling interest in making Turkmenistan look bad? Perhaps they do or perhaps it is even a personal animosity at the reporter or site owner level. However, there is plenty of fodder for criticism and they do not need to misrepresent the situation. There is enough low-hanging fruit to feast on when it comes to critiques of the place.

More suitable for criticism would be the home demolitions in the fifth paragraph from bottom. And this is true from what I have gathered from people who have been here longer. Another anecdote is about the Presidential Hotel where important visitors stay and it apparently costs up to 400 USD/night. The front facade is very nice, but when it was first built, s shanty-town residential area was behind the hotel and visible from rooms that faced that direction. That residential area is no longer there and I will give you one guess as to who insisted upon its "rehabilitation". You could make the argument for ideas like eminent domain and urban renewal and the like. However, eminent domain rests upon the idea of fair compensation, and while that value can be disputed, it is certainly larger than zero.

Then there are stories about troubled airline maintenance which are particularly eye-catching for the simple reason that I fly on those planes. Is this a believable story or merely a baseless disparagement of the state airline? I'll let you know after my next flight.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

melon day!

Today was Turkmen Melon Day, one of only 24 public holidays in the country. We celebrated by going out and and getting a muskmelon from a local shop and then only managing to eat a quarter of it before calling it quits. The rest has been saved for later. It looked like the melons in the foreground of this photo and the inside looks and tastes much like a honeydew melon. Celebrations like this were not to be found in Balkanabat, likely only really taking place in Ashgabat.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

modern pentathlon?

The modern pentathlon ranks very highly on my list of current Olympic events that are unworthy of this honor. I have no doubt it is an athletic endeavor. A great many things are athletic endeavors and they are not sports at the Olympic level. Rugby, chess boxing, MMA, American football are all athletic activities, even cerebral as well at times, but none of them are in the Olympics. Of course, there are certain criteria the Olympics put forth for inclusion such as global appeal, but a handful of competitors from many countries does not equate to global appeal. Perhaps what I find most off-putting is almost any sport that involves a horse. If the horse is doing most of the work, I'm not sure why the human gets the medal. Now if a person jumped over barriers and ran through water, that would be fun to watch. Actually, is is fun to watch and it is called the steeplechase. If the person carried the horse, or perhaps a smaller animal like a wolf, that would be far more impressive. A combination sport like horse-back riding mixed with archery would be fun and not horse-centric. It would be about accuracy while moving. That seems like something the Mongolians and some Central Asian countries might do very well in. But things like dressage or any activity that involves a tax-deductible dancing horse seem out of character with the seemingly egalitarian Olympic ideals.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: mario kart

That's right, Mario Kart. Harkening back to memories from days of yore playing Mario Kart 64, we have been playing the more recent incarnation of the game for the Wii, aptly and very originally titled Mario Kart Wii. The originality blows me away. As I noted before, one of the items I lugged here from the States was a Nintendo Wii along with a handful of games and I was judicious enough to get extra controllers beyond the lone one that came with the console. Now we can kart about with 4 players throwing shells, dropping banana peels, and generally acting like the overgrown children that camp life almost demands we regress towards.

It helps to have a handful of other youngish and single engineers in the camp. Apparently, most of the ones with wives and children do something silly like call home in the evenings. I will confess to playing the single-player mode, but that's only to unlock additional levels. I swear that I do not have a gaming addiction. Frankly, I don't have time to have a gaming addiction. Work is super busy right now, but all work and no play makes a man something something. Go crazy? Don't mind if I do.

The video games are really a symptom of something else. Much like the nostalgic 80s and early 90s movie nights, living in the camp leads to this peculiar regression. I lived on my own, alone, for more than six years. Four of those years were in the U.S. with all the usual trappings of paying rent, dealing with utilities, obtaining food, laundry, etc. Life maintenance tasks. And while I obviously got by, no one would ever accuse me of living a well-cultured life. Two-plus years abroad prior to here still required a reasonable level of looking after oneself. However, here in the camp, well, hmmmm. Frankly, we're spoiled. Food is prepared, dishes are done, rooms are cleaned (though mine is so empty, there is nothing to clean), sheets are changed, laundry is done. Of course, this is all to encourage and free up time to work as much as possible. You cannot work at all hours of the day if you are busy trying to get ingredients to test out that latest recipe you found.

Regardless, or irregardless, work cannot become all-consuming. There is a point, and it can be reached very quickly, where the brain simply cannot process meaningful work anymore and there's only one thing you can do. Let's race!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: simcity

I spent a couple days in Ashgabat last week. While there, I hit upon a realization about how I can describe Ashgabat. It's like SimCity! Yes, that SimCity, the computer game series of yore (and they are actually finally releasing a new game next year). Seriously, Ashgabat, with its gleaming white buildings paving over the old ramshackle domiciles reminds me of building out a city in SimCity. Perhaps it is a bit like one of those scenarios in the game where you start with an existing city that is about to be struck by some sort of natural disaster or is plagued by some sort of problem and you have to rebuild it back to its former glory. Or not. The point is that it is a struggling city and you control how to bring prosperity to your simulated people.

In this real-world scenario, Turkmenistan as a whole, but specifically Ashgabat is plagued by the struggles of post-Soviet independence and building its economy and infrastructure and gaining greater economic independence from Russia. Much like the computer game where you are the all powerful leader, Turkmenistan also has its autocratic leaders, first with Niyazov and now with Berdimuhamedow, who I occasionally do not cross paths with because the roads where his motorcade travels are cordoned back by a full block. Furthermore, much like the SimCity loans you could take to finance the city's construction, Ashgabat sees the proceeds of oil and gas sales flow towards its center.

Armed with existing infrastructure that is on the ropes in many places, top-down control, lots of money, and some open land, we have our SimCity. And boy has it been playing out like a game as well. Several of the local engineers are originally from Ashgabat and they tell me they barely recognize the city from what it was less than 10 years ago. The gleaming white marble and limestone, overly ornate lamp fixtures, lawns that no one ever walks on, 15m columns that support nothing in particular, and then there are the big projects. Huge city blocks that were either empty or emptied are turned into sports complexes, medical centers, ice skating rinks, new rows of apartment buildings. There's a whole half of the city that looks incredible. This is the public image that they want to project. To give them credit, it is a very fine projection. Of course, there's the other half of the city, where most of the people live and the buildings are not so glamorous. The tour buses will not be going there, but fret not for in our SimCity, with enough time and money, we shall bulldoze those areas and re-zone them and put something nicer in their place. Take note that I said some of the lots were empty, but also that some were emptied. So what if the view out the back of the fanciest hotel in town looked down on some shanty area. Those people are easily relocated and "compensated" for their troubles. This is SimCity, where anything is possible with the bold and always forward thinking of the leader.

Friday, July 27, 2012

2012 Q2 earnings, right?

SLB released Q2 earnings a week ago. Results were more or less in line with expectations. Business is steady, the macro picture is a bit uncertain, etc. Like always, Seeking Alpha has a transcript of the call and you can also download a .mp3 of the call from the SLB public website. One thing I have noticed in the past is a particular habit from the CEO during the Q&A portion where he will end sentences with ", right?" as he answers questions. According to the transcript, this happened 17 times during this most recent call. In person, you can get non-auditory feedback (ie: a nod) when you say something like this, but over the phone on a conference call, you don't get (nor do you really want), a bunch of "uh-huh"s over the phone. This makes you wonder if this is merely a habit of speech or if it serves some purpose, right?

5 kgs?!

Five kilograms! Outrageous. That is the new(?) and now enforced weight limit for carry-on bags for domestic Turkmensitan Airlines flights. It's absurd. Five kilos is nothing in a backpack that is rarely under 10 kg. Admittedly, many airlines have a weight limits for carry-on bags but those limits are almost never enforced. Lufthansa's limit is 8 kg. That's still very low compared to what I am usually carrying, but with a lone backpack slung over my shoulder, I have never been asked to put it on the scales. Today, they were weighing every backpack and roller bag and small suitcase that people had intended to carry into the cabin. The only things that were not getting weight were duty-free (and similar) style bags. I had to rather unceremoniously put my laptop and a few key papers into a plastic bag I was fortunate to keep in my backpack and hand-carry those items. Everything else was hurriedly reorganized into my backpack's main compartment and I threw a lock across the zippers. Certainly not foolproof, but at least it would no longer be the lowest hanging fruit for prospective bag accosters. A colleague in another department traveling on the same flight had to do essentially the same thing. We were both temporarily livid about the whole situation. Also, attempting to negotiate in English while answers come back in Russian is not altogether effective. In the airline's defense, I have previously seen all manner of abusively large carry-on bags make their way into the cabins of these 717-200s. However, the airlines are better off adopting a bag size limit and being much more relaxed about the weight limit. If my bag always fits under the sea in front of me, then it is not unduly taking up bin space from others.

Five kilos? Bah!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: a most tiring flight

I've come to Ashgabat for a couple days. Business-related of course as it is far too soon after coming back here to be going on days off. There is something oddly exhausting about that 45 minute flight from from Balkanabat. Perhaps it is because about half the time I take it, I am headed for days off so I have mentally conditioned myself to associate the flight with rest and a sense of departure. I am pooped, just downright pooped at the moment. There's no particular reason to feel so fatigued, but mid-day flights always put me out of sorts. During the day, I get up and walk around rather often. It helps me stretch my legs and let's me regain mental focus. For this flight, it is a bunch of sitting. Sitting in the airport waiting for the flight. Sitting in the plane. Sitting in the car ride from the Ashgabat airport to the office. It's a bunch of sitting still with nowhere to go and no way to really move about. All that sitting is exhausting!

Alas, I am in Ashgabat now, already gaining new insights into this place. For sure next week will have some more intriguing ideas.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: an emptiness

Owing to a particular set of circumstances, the camp here is quite empty at the moment. That should change in a couple weeks, but meal time is rather dull at the moment, despite my attempts to ramble on about anything and everything. And with Ramadan starting in a couple days, a few of the camp residents will be fasting during daylight hours so that will count the number of people at the regular meal times down another 2-3 bodies. The camp is just kind of dull. Of course, I can simply bury myself further into work, but that doesn't help with balance.

I also finished a few books I was reading. Towards the end of my last rotation, while I was working on the tender that occupied so much of the day time, I was crushing my way through The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy. They are very fast reads and went by in less than two weeks. Then I started in on Cryptonomicon after a recommendation from a friend. It was a bit slow going at first, but then it also went by quickly once I had more time at home. Now I'm in a rut. I want to start on Dune and made it about three pages in, but I've been a bit tired during my first week back. I'll give it another whirl in a few days as it has long been touted as a science fiction classic. That will help fill a bit of the emptiness during the evenings in the camp.

Also, even if this post is four days late, it feels very relieving to have something up than yet another void for Tuesdays in Turkmenistan. It is something of an obligation I feel and it does gnaw at me during the week if I haven't posted anything or I am late with the post. The empty space sits there, existing nowhere in particular, silently mocking me for my lack of ideas. At least this is something. Better than nothing? Perhaps, perhaps not, but now that it is filled the gnawing is gone.

Monday, July 16, 2012

form of e-mail

I am frustrated by people I work with (in my own company, not even counting clients and vendors), who exhibit exceptionally poor form with e-mail correspondence. It is not even about whether they reply quickly or not. It is about understanding that e-mail as a vehicle of communication, while fast, is still more akin to writing letters than it is to speaking on the phone or in-person. When you are speaking with someone, you have a direct and immediate ability give and receive feedback from that person. A hesitant pause? You can repeat yourself if it seems they did not understand what you just said. Garbled communication, too much background noise? Ask to repeat as well. Point not understood? Explain in more detail. Something said raises additional issues? Pursue that line of thought. This is not without its drawbacks of course because the instantaneous of the communication can lead to both inane rambling as well as difficulty extricating oneself from the conversation. It is apparently rude to just walk away from someone in the middle of a conversation. Who knew?

E-mail, though fast, is still a form of communication with lag. Therefore, if you are unclear with your message, you force a reply (or risk not getting the correct follow-up). This means e-mails should be clear and specific. Of course, there is a balance to how long and how detailed an e-mail needs to be. At some point, an overly specific message is not efficient. However, most people do not need to worry about including too much information. The opposite problem exists. Sometimes e-mails come in that make me wonder if they were read before they hit 'send'. Your nonsensical gibberish somehow manages to not answer any of my questions nor provide any clear course of expected action. In this case, I have to take the time to write back and ask you to basically re-write your e-mail so that it does not suck. Furthermore, out of some notion of professionalism, I have to phrase my reply politely enough so that you cannot tell how frustrated I am with your sloppy communique.

Related to this, I am particularly boggled by people who provide yes/no answers to either/or questions. In my head, I scream, "but that wasn't a yes/no question!" I have come to assume the person has simply misunderstood or incompletely read the question and is giving a yes/no answer to one of the options. However, when the answer with a singular "yes" or "no" and no further context, it doesn't provide any insight into the exact nature of their poor reading comprehension. Again, a reply is required to request additional clarification.

And no, I almost never read these before I hit "Publish". Of course, I don't work with you and have no expectation that any action be taken upon reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

a now empty suitcase

I brought a lot of stuff back to Turkmenistan. Those boxes and boxes in my room? It all fit in my bag somehow. This is mostly a function of the gross inefficiency of Amazon shipping combined with the magic of digitizing media onto increasingly small-sized, but large capacity hard drives.

For a single suitcase, I went right to the weight limit. Admittedly, it's somewhat esoteric if I exceed the weight limit on Lufthansa flights since I have status with them through Star Alliance. However, there is a limit on the local flight here and it is lower at 21 kg and that's the magic number I want to stay under. I'll admit that it is a trivial overweight bag fee here, but the method of payment of said bag fee is very annoying and slow and not worth the hassle so I aim to stay under the limit. Why they make me exit and then pay outside, then pass through security again is best explained as some "because Turkmenistan" logic.

All told, roughly half the bag's weight and volume were allocated to the Nintendo Wii I brought for the camp. The console itself was in my carry-on, but a Wii isn't just a Wii, right. You have the power adapter, cable, senor bar, manuals, and the controller which games with the console. But what are you going to do with just one controller and the one game that came with? So in went three additional controllers, battery charging station, plug adapters, and five more games. And all of it arrived intact to Balkanabat! Glorious. Of course, and I did not realize it until I arrived, the default power adapter for Wiis in the US is only for 110V. Almost all power bricks like the one for my laptop and even my mobile phone, can accept 110-220V (or sometimes 240V). I didn't even realize it was an issue until we were about to plug it in, but a borrowed voltage converter has smoothed it out. The remaining space in my bag was mostly additional items like coffee mugs, books, perfume, and electronics bric-a-brac that people had also had me order. My clothes made for excellent space filling and padding.

I am always amused by the inconsistencies in airport security procedures around the world. This isn't just about the peculiar nature of Ashgabat airport security. It is pretty much standard procedure to remove your laptop from your carry-on bag (or have one of those zip-down compartments that is security friendly). However, most everything else in the U.S. stays in the bag. There are some mixed messages about tablet computers, but being the stubborn person I am, I only remove my laptop. In SFO, there were no issues. In Frankfurt, my carry-on must have looked absurd. Even with the laptop out, they flagged it for additional screening. And then out came the Wii console and three Kindles (none of which were my own) that all received a second trip through the X-ray machine. In addition to those items, I had the usual power adapter, ethernet cable, lock, bag of flash drives, external hard drive, NC headphones, and other items obfuscating any clear view of my bag. Should I believe that Frankfurt was showing extra caution by running further screening on the Wii and Kindles? Or are the agents at SFO so good, they were able to make out every single item in my bag with an extremely high level of confidence?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

thursdays in turkmenistan: back in the box, again

And, I'm back in the "box", my slightly affectionate name for the camp here in Balkanabat. It appears that everything is still here. Office? Yes. Room? Yes. Dust? Yes. Heat? Double yes. It was 35 degC when I landed in Ashgabat last night around midnight. The airport in Balkanabat hs a bunch of rectangular concrete "tiles" that are a few square meters each with this rubber filling between them. I am not sure if this is to deal with the temperature extremes of the very hot summers and the very cold winters to give everythign room to expand and contract or if this is some particular construction method. Anyway, in the summer, I like to step on the black rubber filling between the cocnrete blocks because it is very soft and squishy. It is fun for an overgrown man-child like myself. Much like being here to begin with. This peculiar mix of work, summer camp, and exile.

Monday, July 09, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: where i fell off the wagon

Um, yeah, we're gonna need to move your desk downstairs into Storage B. That doesn't really have anything to do with what's on my mind other than the slightly sheepish way in which I do wish to say, "um, yeah" always ends up sounding like Lumbergh's voice from Office Space.

So, um, yeah. I really went blog AWOL for a while and even this post is two days late. Eleven weeks in TUM was a long haul last time and these almost three weeks at home went by very quickly. That's typically a good thing as it means I was busy at active and not whiling away my time doing nothing. And I was generally busy and active going out almost every day and seeing people. Unfortunately, now I'm at the end of my days off and I'm already tired. Or perhaps I am still tired. Either way, I'm headed back to work not feeling particularly rested. These days off were a peculiarly stressful in ways I am not all that interested in discussing. Suffice to say, once more into the breach I go.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: where june is more than half done

It's June you say? Where have the last two weeks of Tuesdays in Turkmenistan been you ask? They've been trapped inside of Turkmenistan! Metaphorically of course for an idea can never be held in a physical location. Except the brain. That's where ideas are stored.

Today marks 11 weeks since I departed from SFO. Eleven long weeks. It is somewhat odd that this feels so long, considering that I have certainly spent much longer periods of time elsewhere without a break. I went eight months between vacations from the time I went to Congo/Gabon till the time I had a vacation. And that included five straight months of being in Gabon, book-ended by my move from Congo to there as well as a 2-day trip to Paris to see a client. This has been a strange rotation. From the beginning, it was never going to be seven weeks. I had planned on working eight weeks as part of a future schedule plan for some weddings later in the year. But business needs are what they are and schedules invariably change. My own schedule can probably be pushed back on course with some finessing.

Not only is this an egregiously late TinT entry, it is also the first entry of the entire month. Let's just say that I reached a certain fatigue level that has just sort of carried for a few weeks, only to be interrupted by a thrilling four days in Ashgabat where I wondered the mysteries of 3-ring binders in an office with no 3-hole punch. Along with the A4 vs Letter paper size dispute, there is a predilection for an even number of holes in paper. Almost everything is either 2- or 4-holes. Is this fundamentally superior? Does it offer a more pleasing type of symmetry? Is there a subconscious desire to avoid discussing socially awkward 'third-wheel' situations? These are the mysteries that we must plumb and understand. Or not.

In about two hours, I will head to the airport, pass through four security check-points, three of which are useless, and then travel for nearly 24 hours. My plans: sleep and watch as many non-terrible movies as Lufthansa is showing. See people soon, sort of.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

continuing from yesterday

Things ended rather abruptly yesterday. It was partly due to time and partly due to a stomach that is ailing yet again. Twenty-four hour illness no more. We're rounding 72 hours now!

Yesterday, I rather casually (and parenthetically) mentioned that trust was the most essential element of any relationship. Other elements of the relationship, whether it is personal or business, are important, but they all ultimately spring from a foundation of trust. I should also throw in the caveat that this only refers to healthy relationships, again, both personal and professional. In the work context, which is what I want to focus on, this generally means doing what you say you're going to do. This could be for a colleague, manager, or client. People expect certain work product and output and you need to deliver.

The problem that stems from the cost recovery discussed yesterday is that it leads to state agency involvement which then leads to a tender process that treats all bids that pass the technical proposal as being technically equal and then it comes down to price and price alone. Price is not about trust. Price is about making your bid as low as possible in order to win and then immediately turning around and going back to what you actually wanted to do in order to make as much money as possible. It's called "up-selling" around here though I am sure it goes by many other names. You could view this as being somewhat dishonest if you are proposing something you never planned to do. The catch though is that the client knows you won't do it either. They know exactly what the "game" is and they play along with the whole process. Now, some savvy clients who are heavily involved and not just doing some copy and paste job from the last tender know how to be ultra-specific in the technical requirements. This essentially shunts you into a single offering that would actually be what is used. That process always feels more honest as it is clear what is going to be done. But the loosely-worded tenders with the bait-and-switch proposals are the norm. And that process, driven by this desire to appear as cheap as possible has no trust involved at all. There's no real dialogue to be able to offer the best possible solution. Instead, it becomes this twisted process of offering something that you will never, ever do, and it's not even for the sake of the client. It is for the sake of the usually clueless state agency that has no idea what their trying to review. The good news is that once contracts are awarded, the client and us as the vendor can go back to the dialogue we wanted to have and get back to solving problems and offering solutions. Every once in a while, that doesn't get to happen.

If a state agency is overly meddlesome, they will lock an operator (our client) into the offering in the tender and keep that as the targeted cost of the well for the purposes of cost recovery. This leads to the saying I was once told in my first location. We had been trying to remediate a well but the client kept going for the cheap option even though we recommended something else. After two failed attempts at remediation, the client finally agreed with our suggestion and it worked. The saying goes, "There's always enough money to do it wrong three times before spending the money to do it right." Basically, this is a cost versus value argument. You can cheap-out and have a bad or useless fix and then have to try again. Alternatively, you can spend more money the first time but only spend that money once. Cost versus value. It's the classic argument for any luxury brand maker. (Any good luxury brand maker as opposed to one that slaps an ugly logo an a handbag and then has people clambering to buy it for a thousand dollars.) Anyway, back to the state agency and our handcuffed operator. If the operator is compelled to use rock-bottom pricing from vendors of dubious quality and track record, they can easily find themselves in a position where they end up having to spend more money in order to redo work or fix mistakes from the first go-around.

Despite these drawbacks, it makes plenty of sense to have a tender and award work in this manner. In theory, if run well, a tender can help lower costs. It ostensibly makes the process transparent and prevents collusion and price fixing and under-the-table deals. Hahahahaha. This is Turkmenistan. There's a reason some competitors and clients say they can customs clear their goods in less then a week while ours take the standard 30 days to clear. And I assure you it is not a problem with our paperwork, unless it is due to inadequate amounts of paperwork that say "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private" on them. The catch with a tender is that it has to be run well, which means tight and specific technical requirements. But as I said earlier, that is not the norm in this business. Instead, I will churn through this wonderful exercise called a tender because, well, because it is my job and I'm a professional.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: wherein it's 23:15 and still tuesday

There's still time! Time for some sort of Tuesday in Turkmenistan-themed entry before the day runs out. I have time, I do indeed have time. There's simply the matter of proper motivation. As I mentioned last week, I've come into a major tender and proposal cycle with multiple clients, both current and prospective. And I really dislike doing tenders. More than anything, it's the process associated with them and how they strip out the most essential element of any relationship (which is trust) and instead boil the work down to technical qualifications followed by commercial qualifications. And low price wins (assuming technical qualifications have been met). Now, I understand why it works like this. In fact, one could argue it is necessary. Part of the reason it goes through this tender process is because the government is involved, which means there must be oversight. Why is the government involved? Pull up a chair.

Cost recovery. Those two magical words drive the tendering process to the lowest possible bidder. It is relatively standard for governments not called the United States of America to collect royalties on oil and gas revenue that oil and gas companies generate. This is a pretty standard model that allows governments to have a stake in their natural resources without doing the development themselves. Now, Turkmenistan has a few "state concerns" in the O&G industry, but there are also non-state companies doing business as well as semi-state controlled entities from other countries (specifically China and Malaysia). Another part of the standard model is that these non-state, non-Turkmen companies do not have to pay royalties until the "cost recovery" to drill the well is complete. That is basically the cost it took to drill the well. Thus the companies do not pay royalties to the government on oil and gas they sell until they are first able to recoup their own costs from the initial production. Thus, the government, with their interest in collecting as much royalty revenue as possible, wants the cost of drilling the well to be as low as possible. Of course the O&G company also wants that cost to be as low as possible, but they are usually more cognizant of the difference in cost and price. The tender process is not one where that distinction is always so clear. This is where my disdain for the process comes from. It ends up being a bizarre farce instead as everyone manipulates their offering to win the work. It's not necessarily bad or sinister that this occurs, but it is frustrating as things that are seemingly more expensive on the surface can end up saving money in the long run.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

tuesdays in turkmensitan: the indecision

I left California seven weeks ago to the day. I expect to be here for three more weeks. It's part scheduling and part work. Wait, it's all work, which is what is driving the scheduling and the need to stay the extra time. Part of it is client coverage and part of it is tenders. I really, really, really, really dislike working on tenders. Bids are great. Tenders are not so great. We turned bids around all the time when I was in Texas. The nature of the clients and the work environment demanded relatively high-frequency bidding. You won some, you lost some and that's how things worked. Tenders are for with much bigger stakes like multi-year contracts. You win, good. You lose, mini-disaster. The uncertainty of the whole process is what I dislike so much. Maybe we win, maybe not. Damn you Schrodinger's tender! We won't know the result until the envelopes are opened, the bids reviewed, and then some decision is rendered, hopefully without too much State Agency meddling and money under the table.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

yet another holiday

Yesterday was yet another in the long list of holidays here. Today is also a holiday, but since it's also the weekend, that's somewhat immaterial. I'm not even sure what Constitution Day is and how it is fundamentally different than Independence Day. I've conjured up a non-researched hypothesis that countries with lots of public holidays are trying to give their people something artificial to celebrate in order to distract the citizenry from the shenanigans of the leadership. With some grant money, this could really go places.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

victory day?

When I was first told today was yet another holiday here and that is was called Victory Day, my initial reaction was to wonder who they beat. Then I realized it wasn't specifically a Turkmen victory, but actually a Soviet victory. This is V-E Day, but a day later because of the time zone difference and what time it was in Moscow when the surrender occurred.

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This is a test post. Please ignore. Checking spacing and alignment. This could easily be deleted, but shall stand as a testament to the permanence of all things on the internet.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: not a sham

My entry from last week was strange and rambling and did not end well. It simply ran out of steam and I had no further energy to invest in the increasingly nonsensical train wreck. Today (or the night before), I finish it off. I mentioned two ideas right near the end of last week's entry. First, the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, it is the general tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their actual abilities. In very brusque terms, they are too stupid to realize that they are stupid. Conversely, there is also the opposite tendency whereby skilled individuals tend to underestimate their abilities and accomplishments. That phenomenon goes by the name of Impostor Syndrome. This feeling often plagues me at work (and in general) despite my awareness of this phenomenon. However, I am not a sham and I do in fact know what I'm doing (most of the time).

Last week, I held a review and training session with the other engineers I am responsible for. It was just an hour, but I wanted to cover some recent things that had either come up in other locations or general information it was important for them to possess. It went really well. It felt productive and useful and that I was imparting useful knowledge on them. I will be doing a follow-up later this week to address some of the points they raised that we did not have time for, but the asked good questions that led me to believe they were both paying attention and understood why the material was important. And while this did not dawn on me then and there as I have been aware of this for a while, it was a reassurance that I am some sort of expert on what I do. Now, what I do is perhaps a bit ambiguous as well, but that's not really the point. Also, perhaps I am not an "expert-expert" (especially not at using quotations correctly), but I do know what I'm talking about and I am able to help train and develop younger engineers. It's an almost strange thing for me to admit that experience counts for something. Not actually strange, but almost. I have long recognized the value of experience and the expertise to be gained from a lifetime in a specific field. However, I also believe that enough intellect and passion and verve and a little charm can also allow someone to carry the day. Perhaps on the edge of ideas that is more often true. The edge where new ideas and created and explored and tested and where experience can even hinder one's ability to try something that many might regard as impossible or never-been-done. In those areas, where no one was direct experience, it is the verve and risk-taking and intellect that need to lead the way. However, most of the world is not in that place. That place is the frontier and it is an exciting place and where new ideas come from. Most of the world is fixed in the interior and looking to grind out tried and true solutions to problems that are just as tried and true. Keep in mind that this is not anything against new ideas and risk taking. It is only an observation that the newest of the new is but a small (albeit very important) part of the world.

In this way, I am most certainly not a sham. Getting back to that review session, it was a reminder that while I will never have all the answers, I know a good portion of them in the field I am currently in. I know what I'm doing. This guy, not so much.

Monday, May 07, 2012

family day!

Two Saturdays ago (the one nine days ago), we had a Family Day at the base. I mentioned its existence about a week ago in another entry. This past Saturday (as in the one two days ago) was the Family Day for the people in the Ashgabat office. As luck would have it, I was in Ashgabat (and I am still there). I have been here since Thursday for various secret CIA meetings and go back to the main camp/base/office tomorrow. However, the prospect of spending a forced day of socializing with people I don't really know after being bussed 40 km outside of town did not seem enjoyable. Thus, I stayed in the office and enjoyed the peace and quiet of getting stuff done. Now, what brought me to the big city were meetings and an exhibition. For the meetings, it's been a solid success. This includes a night of unusually heavy drinking on Friday with some potential clients. I never knew Chinese business people drank so much. It is quite at odds with many Asian friends who are "cheap dates" in the sense that only a couple drinks will do them in. Many toasts were made. Most of them were not understood, but that did not seem to matter. It is evenings like that where I am glad I do not suffer from "cheap date" syndrome and that I'm a big enough person to hold it all together rather well. Also, my capacity for extreme introspection becomes quite active after a few drinks as I constantly try to examine my behavior to ensure I have not made any treasonous statements or committed any seditious acts. Best I can tell, I just talk a lot during such moments but manage to say nothing at all. It is a skill I have been carefully cultivating throughout my many mealtime ramblings that I mentioned last week. That entry was quite the whopper. I wonder if I will ever finish it. Perhaps tomorrow? Probably not.

The exhibition side of my visit sort of fell through owing to some rather pathetic miscommunication internally. That's really too bad, because it looked like it would be interesting since it was an exhibition of businesses organized by the U.S. embassy. We did have a booth on Thursday and Friday and I was supposed to be the booth babe on Saturday. Well, by booth babe, I mean congenial fellow who would chat up the company and the services we offer to anyone passing by our booth. However, due to the aforementioned Family Day, the decision was made to rig it all down on Friday evening and not attend Saturday. Now, this decision was made but not communicated to myself nor my manager so I arrived into town thinking my suit would do more than hang in the closet. It seems I have been wrong. At least it still looks like a sharp suit.

It is at this point that I have realized I have picked a strange title for this post. While I can change it to something more relevant like "ramblings: part 2" I think the mismatched title is more fitting.