Wednesday, February 29, 2012

leap day?

Neigh, more like leaped day. Or was it leapt?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: closing in some more

This month's presidential election here serves as an excellent example of what seems to be the regression in progress that has been occurring here. Of course it was a sham. The results make that clear with 97% vote share for the president on 97% turnout. The next nearest candidate had 1.2% of the vote, but like the other non-incumbents, was never a viable candidate because this is not a viable democracy. I can lament on the restrictions of the U.S. system that will endlessly shunt us into a two-party system, but that's still a choice. Here, choice does not exist, at least not when it comes to the government. At this point, the question I most wonder about the election process here is if there will be another presidential election in five years like the current rules say there should be, or if he will simply declare himself "president for life" before that time.

Four weeks ago, I commented on report season, wherein Turkmenistan was universally getting some of the lowest marks. Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, Economist Intelligence Unit, Transparency International, and probably several others I have missed have all conducted different surveys measuring different things using different methodologies. However, the common thread is that any study ranking freedom, rights, choice, etc is one in which Turkmenistan fares poorly. There was a U.N. report that came out late last year that was highly critical of some elements of the situation here. It is available for download here (and this is a direct link to a .doc file). It points out concerns with several aspects of society including discrimination against ethnic minorities and women in education and employment, poverty, concerns about worker rights, insufficient access to education, domestic abuse, human trafficking, and the list just goes on and on. I'm not sure what presence the U.N. has here, but for an anecdote, I remember seeing a U.N. plane on the tarmac at the Ashgabat airport back when I was going on days off in October. It was a small jet with large "UN" letters on the side.

Another way it is slowly closing in here is a rule about dual passport holders. There are many people here who hold dual Russian and Turkmen citizenship. However, by the end of this year, they will be required to give up one of those passports. It strikes me as another form of the Turkmenization of ethnic minorities that occurred during the rule of the previous president. There is particular animosity towards Russians, and while the historical reasons for why it exists are clear enough, that hardly excuses it nor does it make it acceptable. Anyway, about this passport rule, this is going to have a very clear impact on some people I have met here. At least two people I know intend to move out of Turkmenistan as a result of this rule about no longer being a dual Russian/Turkmen passport holder. It is something management is aware of as well and attempts are being made to place and accommodate people within reason. Valued employees are valued and if they go from being home-country Turkmenistan to home-country Russia at least we sort of draw at a corporate level. The real loser is Turkmenistan for marginalizing useful members of society and coercing them to leave.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

a dysfunctional electorate

Yesterday, I followed my frustration with the Republican primary to its roots with the voters themselves. It lacked eloquence and meandered a bit from the original point I thought I was going to make when I started writing. Looking for some better words, I found this series from last August in the New York Times asking various public figures what they would do if they were President. The words of Neil deGrrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and science educator, put so well what I was trying to put forth yesterday:
The question, “If I were President I’d…” implies that if you swap out one leader, put in another, then all will be well with America—as though our leaders are the cause of all ailments.

That must be why we’ve created a tradition of rampant attacks on our politicians. Are they too conservative for you? Too liberal? Too religious? Too atheist? Too gay? Too anti-gay? Too rich? Too dumb? Too smart? Too ethnic? Too philanderous? Curious behavior, given that we elect 88% of Congress every two years.

A second tradition-in-progress is the expectation that everyone else in our culturally pluralistic land should hold exactly your own outlook, on all issues.

When you’re scientifically literate, the world looks different to you. It’s a particular way of questioning what you see and hear. When empowered by this state of mind, objective realities matter. These are the truths of the world that exist outside of whatever your belief system tells you.

One objective reality is that our government doesn’t work, not because we have dysfunctional politicians, but because we have dysfunctional voters. As a scientist and educator, my goal, then, is not to become President and lead a dysfunctional electorate, but to enlighten the electorate so they might choose the right leaders in the first place.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
New York, Aug. 21, 2011

Obviously, the core issue is the one that lacks a cohesive answer. How do we educate and enlighten people? How do we get people to be scientifically literate? How do we teach people how to reason and make logical conclusions based on evidence? These are hard enough questions to address on their own, but are complicated by another layer of obfuscation for many people. How do we get people to want these things? To want to be scientifically literate and educated and logical? It's quite clear that many of the people who lack those things are quite content with that lack of knowledge.

a primary and the people

With Turkmenistan's presidential election now behind us and the country finally getting a chance to calm down from all the excitement, I can cast my eye upon the current American political landscape. Suffice to say, what I see is deeply dismaying. It might even be humorous were it not for the seriousness of what is at stake. My interest is obvious enough for while I do not live there at the moment (you got that IRS?), it is my homeland and I expect to live there again in the future.

Watching the Republican primary unfold from afar is both troubling and further reaffirms my abandonment of the Republican Party and political right a few years ago. (In may ways, many of the feelings I went through when I wrote that post two years ago are resurfacing again as another election cycle rolls around. It is fascinating to see how little has changed, both with myself and the system.) I am not certain if large swaths of the Republican party have fully embraced the irrelevancy of being right out of genuine belief or if they are simply cynically preying on the basest fears of the electorate. Either way, it is something I want no part of. While it is not the entire party that's gone astray, enough of it has and isn't being sufficiently called-out by more moderate members that it gives the air of tacit approval by them. The end result is a somewhat moderate candidate (in relative terms) besieged by a has-been former House Speaker and a man who lost his last election by 17 points. And yes, also Ron Paul, lest we never forget him.

Despite his foibles, Mitt Romney strikes me as a pragmatic person. To govern a relatively liberal state like Massachusetts as a conservative requires that pragmatism and mostly sound policy making trump partisanship. This has been the core appeal of Romney. He is moderate enough to be electable and he appeared to combine enough conservatism (fiscally so) and "family values" (whatever that means) to appeal to the primary voters. However, that's gone sideways now.

It is almost cringe-worthy to watch Romney attempt to shuffle to the right and proclaim that he is "severely conservative" in his attempts to thwart first Gingrich and now Santorum. He's being pushed off his talking points by social issues in a country where the economy is always paramount. Of course, he isn't helping himself with his inability to relate to those of us who do not treat ~350K in speaking fees as "not very much". At least W. was able to play up the regular guy role despite being the son of a President and grandson of a U.S. Senator by clearing brush at his ranch. Power tools Mitt. Use them. He's so disconnected from most people that I half-expect working in an office with him is like working with Gob in Arrested Development.

Santorum's staying power in this primary speaks to something that goes beyond him as a candidate. It is something far deeper about the American populace and not about the leadership and the candidates. Fundamentally, there is a problem with the people. If a man who says such bizarre things can have this much appeal to the country, and this much popular support, what does that say about the American people? Rick Santorum is practically the dream candidate for the Democratic Party. He lost his last Senate re-election by a large margin in a swing-state, has a serious internet search term problem, has a strange and very public obsession with your sex life, and again, he just says crazy stuff. And not Joe Biden crazy, but actual crazy crazy. And yet he could win the Republican nomination and be the next President of the United States. He has a lot going against him, but the fact that he's even making it close is what is troubling. There is a saying that in democracy we don't get the leadership we need, but instead get the leadership we deserve. Apparently, a lot of people deserve Rick Santorum as their leader.

Like always, this election will hinge on the economy more than anything else. Remember 2004 and how generally unpopular Bush was for dragging things along in Afghanistan and then Iraq and his general level of Bush-ness? But the economy was recovering (sort of) and that's what carried his reelection. This year will be similar. If the economy is doing well, Obama will be reelected. If not, he's looking at much slimmer odds. Meanwhile, the Republicans have a semi-legitimate chance of nominating a crazy person. A crazy person who could be President, not because he is a great or in any way capable of leading, but because people actually think his craziness has merit.

It's undoubtedly a quote that will haunt me in my future political career 28 years from now, but the American people are kind of stupid. The frequency with which people vote against their own best interests is staggering. Of course leadership will not represent you when they never had your best interests in mind. We should not be surprised this is what happens when so many people are low-information voters and even misinformation voters. The question becomes not what is wrong with our leadership, but what is wrong with our people?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

that is not how sprinklers work

Yesterday, I mentioned that I was generally tired of having to explain to people that being out in the cold does not by itself make you sick. I may have also discussed something else, something far bigger of an idea, perhaps on why being right is irrelevant but that's for yesterday not today. This cold myth is one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to people being wrong about something. A perhaps somewhat random and strange second pet peeve about something that is not right is the depiction of how fire sprinklers work in movies and television. Fire sprinklers are almost all temperature-activated and thus are not activated as a group or by smoke. And yet you so often see people in TV and movies somehow activating sprinklers by blowing smoke up to them or be setting off a bunch on one floor by holding a lighter up to a single one. That is not how sprinklers work. Also, windmills do not generate wind.

Friday, February 24, 2012

being right is irrelevant

I have been fiddling with this idea for nearly three months now. I know this because of the date on the draft version of this entry. Seeing Jack's entry on what he learned while working at LinkedIn reminded me I had this post that needed to be finished. Of course, it's been more than a month since that entry but I was on days off then busy at work and now we're finally here.

Before I go any further, if you took the time to read Jack's post, you might be wondering how I'm connecting his ideas with the idea of rightness being irrelevant. He certainly doesn't say that being right is irrelevant, nor was that the point of his entry. However, very briefly, his points on influence winning and relationships mattering are aspects of my own on the irrelevancy of being right. The connections, if not clear, will become so by the end of this post. For now, a brief detour.

I was good at school. I am a generally sharp guy (despite the many grammatical errors in my posts and my absurd use of parentheses), interested in learning, and an unusually good test taker. For many years I thrived on being right because that's what correlated with success in school. As a young child, answers are almost always either right or wrong. It's not so much about interpretation and justification. Facts are facts and that's how it works. It is particularly true in math and science where right and wrong are very cut and dry. Along with needing to be right, I also hated being wrong. Wrong answers meant a failure, maybe not in a grade sense, but in the stark contrast of rightness and wrongness, being wrong was a failure. In that miniature world of school, I was an excellent student. Within those confines, that's how and why rightness came to mean much to me.

My story is hardly unique and in fact probably rather pedestrian. When you are very young, right and wrong hold a lot of meaning. However, we do not remain children forever nor do we get to sty in school, at least one of clear cut facts, forever either. It still matters to me to be "right" but I have come to realize how limited the utility of rightness actually is in this world. On it's own, rightness will get you nowhere.

I am not pitching some moral relativism where all truths about the world are up for grabs (though that is arguably in play), but I am saying that the stark world of right and wrong that exists when you are a child must fade away as an adult. The "real" world is not about rightness and wrongness. It is about what you can convince people of and that is often how right and wrong end up being defined. In this way, it is about how you can influence people and how you can forge and build relationships with people/groups/super PACS/etc to convince others that you are "right". Your rightness might be political and how you are the best candidate or why someone should invest in your company or why someone should buy your product or why the jury should find you not guilty on all counts. Regardless of the issue, it's not about whether you are "right" or not in a truthful and objective sense because without context that term means nothing. It is about whether you can convince the requisite number of people that you are worth agreeing with.

Need an example? We can reach into something incredibly topical that is surprisingly not about the Republican primary, or at least not directly about the primary. The Utah state House has passed a bill that would prohibit schools that teach sex education from teaching about contraception. I'd like to think that the following is not how this bill came to be viewed as a good idea:
Legislator #1: "How can we stop kids from having sex?"
Legislator #2: "Hold on, I've got an idea. We'll tell them ... not to."
Legislator #1: "Brilliant! This can't possibly fail (you know, because it worked so well in Texas)."

Sigh. This is obviously a hot-button topic and politically loaded so it is perhaps odd to use as an example of the irrelevancy of rightness. Still, I will soldier ahead because in theory legislation has purpose. I assume the purpose of this legislation is to reduce teen sex, teen pregnancy, and the spread of STDs. Of course, it doubles as an attempt to promote a certain type of moral agenda and I won't pretend to be unaware of that fact. That secondary purpose is fine in a sense, because the primary goal should be the reduction in teen pregnancy and STDs and the general improvement in public health. Of course, they really should look to Texas to see if abstinence-only sex education is effective at improving public health. It is not. As much as there is a "right" answer from a public policy perspective, it is clear that abstinence-only sex ed is not the most effective course. However, that rightness is not relevant to the advancement of the bill as it gets closer to being law. The issues and the facts and the actual answers have been subverted and the issue is now one of morality instead of sound public policy. Influence won out over being right.

If you want an example that is not politically charged, take a look at the idea that being in the cold or out in the rain can cause you to become sick. This is on my mind since I have had this discussion twice this week. I find it oddly curious that I need to explain to otherwise educated people how the common cold or flu is caused by a virus and not some reaction to being in cold weather or having wet hair. I feel like this is basic science and the right and wrong answers are very clear cut. (I am aware that enough exposure to the cold can reduce your body's temperature and thus weaken your immune system, but that is not the point under debate.) However, as basic as it is, my "rightness" on this topic take a back seat to the sources people muck-up correlation and causation and are more willing to be believe the words of their mothers than my own. I have to win people over and influence them not with the blunt facts and railing about their ignorance, but instead with building up a relationship and trust. Can my influence and persuasion win out? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But the facts alone and being "right" by itself are never enough.

I do not celebrate this irrelevancy of rightness. In fact, it is quite frustrating and disappointing to see so many false facts promulgated in society, media, culture, etc. Truth should not be marginalized, but people do not necessarily believe facts simply because they are true. People more often believe facts that fit with their world view, life philosophy, religion, or whatever set of beliefs they claim to be important to them. Packaging helps too and successfully influencing people often depends as much on style as it does on substance. In this way, being right is irrelevant if you cannot find a way to educate people and win them over, but if you have no relationship with them, they have little reason to listen. And if they will not listen, you cannot influence them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: on hiatus this week

This week's "tuesdays in turkmenistan" is taking a break. It's partly due to how busy I have been and also due to not having meaningful internet access for the last 72 hours. Some routine maintenance went astray and we were network-less for longer than we should've been. I had some limited connectivity through my phone tethering, but it was slow and only just enough to address urgent work-related items. Plus, I will refuse to access this blog through the local internet.

I am also a bit disappointed with the lack of posting between last week's entry and now this week's non-entry. I have been kicking around a lot of ideas, particularly about the U.S. presidential election and what it means for America and how it compares and contrasts with the recent election here. However, with work being what it is, I am having a hard time finding the time and energy to string together the series of posts that I want to put out. Yes, there is some time pressure, but I'm striving for more timeless ideas and not ones that hinge on whether or not Santorum can implode before Super Tuesday.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: what a nail biter

Reminiscent of the 2000 U.S. presidential election with recounts and hanging chads, this past Sunday's presidential election in Turkmenistan was a true nail biter. However, in the end, the incumbent president won his bid for re-election against a field of spirited opponents. Voters were no doubt swayed by his diplomatic leadership for the past five years and powerful oratory skills that led some to call the president a Turkmen Stephen Douglas. The president was able to carry the razor thin election against his next closest opponent by the narrowest of margins: 97% to 1.2%. (Sorry, the 82% guess is not close enough to win the prize.)

It is clear that the president was able to rally not just his base, but also the base of everyone else as voters turned up in droves to the tune of a 97% turnout. It is possible that some "corrections" had to be made to the count to compensate for the unusually cold weather that may have encouraged some to stay at home. And the fraud. The massive, massive fraud.

I view the 97% turnout with more suspicion than the 97% vote share for the president. This is based on what I perceived to be the challenges of being able to vote and just what it means for turnout to be at 97%. Let's start with the latter. A 97% turnout rate means only about 1 in 33 eligible voters did not vote. With suffrage for all citizens 18 and older, that's a large base of eligible voters, even in a country of only 5 million. Why someone might not vote could be for a myriad of reasons which we'll get to in a moment, but for every single person who does not vote, it means 32 other people must vote. That's a very high bar to clear. So, what might be the challenges to getting 32 out of 33 people to vote? As already mentioned, the weather was quite cold on Sunday so perhaps many sick or elderly stayed at home. Some people had to work (even on a Sunday) and might not have had reasonable time or access to vote, especially in my industry if they were in the field or offshore. Voting also required your domestic passport which is like a national ID card. However, it needed to show your "home" address but if you're in the middle of a move like one person I spoke with, then you need to turn your passport into the authorities so your new address can be registered. This of course then leaves you without the passport and no way to vote. Others said you needed your ID to match your current address and since many engineers here are from other parts of the country where they maintain a permanent address, they could not vote while here. Again, these are perhaps challenges that disproportionately face people I work with given their professions and mobility, but they are still obstacles towards a 97% turnout. Finally, the most compelling and likely reason for why turnout was not at 97% is why bother voting if you already know the outcome. Every single person I spoke with, whether they planned to vote or not, knew what the outcome of the election would be. That's surely one of the most compelling disincentives for voting.

As to the matter of the president winning 97% of the vote, that too raises some eyebrows, though far less than you might suspect at first glance. As compared to the turnout figure, I think it's more likely that the actual vote share was closer to 97% than the actual turnout was to 97%. Of course, I don't think either one was all that close to 97%, but there is a distinction to be made. Why might the percentage of votes be closer? Simply put, who else is there to vote for? Those were essentially the words from one person I spoke with. People did not know the other seven candidates, certainly not on a national level. The Commonwealth of Independent States had some voting monitors and they declared that the election was within democratic norms and there were only minor irregularities that would have had little impact on results. Of course minor irregularities would have little impact on results. That's because they pale in comparison to the massive irregularities endemic to the entire process. Of course, CIS has a history of dubious election monitoring and their concept of a democratic norm was likely crafted during the Soviet era. Still, the real driver for any sort of "irregularities" was not the way voting was conducted on election day. I am reasonably confident that the majority of people who wanted to vote and had ID were able to vote. What was irregular was the nature of the entire election cycle, not merely voting day. Yes, there were seven other candidates and there were some posters up, but none of them had anywhere near the level of exposure that the president had. No one else is on TV for several hours a day or on the front page of the newspaper every single day. (I'm almost surprised there isn't a website like this one for the president.) There were no debates and there was no campaigning. In fact, I saw more sophisticated campaigns for student body office in college than I did here. If you wanted information, you had to seek it out, but that's not easy when there are so few open sources. Thus, when it comes time to vote and it is one name you recognize and seven you know nothing about, either you will leave it blank (though someone else may later fill it in for you) or you will pick the name you know.

In the end, there's certainly no surprise with the results. The only bet was just how much of the vote the president would garner.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

election day!

Today was election day in Turkmenistan. For only the second time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the people of Turkmenistan had an opportunity to "choose" their next President. Of course it's already in the bag. It was never even out of the bag. In speaking with people, or trying to speak with people, I've come to realize that many people here are reluctant to discuss politics. This is hardly surprising, though I had hoped people would be more forthcoming since I am clearly not a Kazakh spy.

While perusing for additional articles, I was mildly pleased to see news of the election had made it to the Washington Post. Further information can be found from the Financial Times and you can even see who all the other candidates are courtesy of Radio Free Europe. After learning about the stiff opposition the current President will face, the next most interesting thing about the Radio Free article was the quote from the Commonwealth of Independent States group stating that the election had "equal opportunities" for all candidates. Yes, "equal". That's only slightly more of an exaggeration than when that one network calls itself "fair & balanced".

Friday, February 10, 2012

2 more days!

At work this morning, all the expats received an e-mail instructing us to keep a low profile for the next several days until Sunday's election had passed and the outcome was clear (as if we didn't already know how it will go). Of course, we already keep a low-profile. While we are technically allowed to go into town and eat at restaurants and be out of the camp, it was recommended that everyone only go out for work-related business. It's not an unreasonable request, particularly since there's no scenario in which agitating about the election would result in anything positive. Interestingly enough, three days ago there was a surprise visa registration check at the camp after dinner on Tuesday. A couple immigration officers showed up around 20:00 and all the expats had to come back to the office and I suppose demonstrate that we were actually there (as opposed to somewhere else I assume) and had our passports with valid visas.

Getting back to the election, this recent piece makes an interesting assertion about the election. It suggests that the president is using the election and his "opponents" as a way to gauge which ideas are supported (or not) and what his own level of popularity (or lack thereof) is like. When the voting is done, I suspect there will be two very critical tallies that are determined, though only one will be released for general consumption. The first is the officially released figure that the people here, that the world hears, and that if it's at 82% for the president, then someone "wins" a trip to Turkmenistan. The second is the actual count. The one that lacks all the fuzzing, adjustments, and rounding that will occur as votes are counted, added, collated, and rolled up from city to province to state to the capital. It's quite possible that this figure of the true vote cannot be known depending on how many separate officials make their various "corrections" along the way.

In continuing to chat-up people about the election, while many said they would vote, few seemed to believe in the true legitimacy of the process. I wonder if that will show up in the unofficial numbers.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: election soon

This coming Sunday's election fascinates me. It's a sort of firsthand look at how democracy functions (or doesn't) in another part of the world. The particular aspects that are most compelling are whether the people here believe in the process. It's one thing for Americans to feel jaded about the democratic process with the influence of money that lobbyists and Super PACs bring, but it's something else entirely when this is just the second post-Soviet era presidential election. Not only does the country lack a tradition of democracy and regular elections, it also lacks free press and multiple political parties. Indeed, all eight of the official candidates are from the incumbent's party. One cannot help but believe that they are carefully chosen straw men to give the election the outward appearance of legitimacy.

I have been trying to chat up anyone I can about the subject, both local and expatriate employees. Inevitably, I end up talking with people who are disproportionately younger and more educated than the average Turkmen voter. Still, the sentiment amongst people I have spoken with is that the election is largely for show. It has multiple candidates, posters, and maybe even whistle-stop tours during this final week. However, it has not exactly inspired the electorate into a frenzy of patriotism and fervor for the democratic process.

One interesting aspect that is contrary to at least American elections is that if this is a fairly administered election, young people might vote at higher rates than older people. This is only plausible if the election is fully open. However, the polls might show near 100% turnout along with some zombies, erm, recently deceased also managing to cast ballots. It's possible, despite the people I have spoken with, that the youth might believe more in the process and want to affect change. Further, older people here do not have the same history of being able to vote like their American counterparts who turn out in droves. Of course, the youth might also be the most cynical about the process given their relative education and exposure to the rest of the world.

I will continue to chat people up about the election including afterwards once results are out. I am curious to know if people voted, who they voted for (if they are comfortable sharing that), what the polls were like, did they feel like their vote was able to be cast secretly, what did it take to register to vote, how efficiently run were the polls (though I already know the answer to this one based on how efficient everything else is), etc. If you're interested in the process, what else should I ply people for?

Jokingly, I have suggested that the expats start a pool on what percentage of the vote the President will capture in what we largely assume will be his inevitable reelection. Will it be a massive landslide (>90%) that demonstrates the unity of the country or will it be a more "modest" victory (60-70%) to give the election an air of legitimacy to outsiders? Anyone care to venture forth with a guess?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

one more week

One more week until next Sunday's presidential election. None of the candidates have made whistle-stop tours yet, but I'm sure there will be a few in this final week before the election.

Friday, February 03, 2012

riding the rails turkmen style

I had to be in Ashgabat the last few days and was supposed to catch yesterday's flight back to Balkanabat. It was not to be as some serious weather swept in from the Caspian canceling both the flight to Balkanabat and all flights to Turkmenbashy which is also in the western half of the country. Several other domestic flights were canceled but most international flights appeared to be operating based on what I saw while at the airport. And yes, even though we all knew the flight would be canceled, we still had to go to the airport and wait until it was officially canceled in case by some miracle they were able to clear the runway in Balkanabat. After the cancellation we went back to the office but Ashgabat traffic was a mess. What normally takes less than 30 minutes took more than an hour as we trundled through the traffic created by the snow and ice and malfunctioning stoplights. People in Ashgabat were saying that they had not seen this much snow in 20 years. Perhaps there is some hyperbole baked in to statements like that, but Ashgabat was ill-equipped to handle the weather. Despite the wide boulevards and fancy looking intersections, the ill-designed roundabouts and lack of protected left-turns manage to exacerbate even moderate traffic. Combined with the weather and Ashgabat traffic was slowed to a crawl.

It is fortunate we were even able to get train tickets because with all domestic flights to the west canceled, many more people than normal were trying to take the train, mainly to Balkanabat and Turkmenbashy. It was also good that there were four of us. (Actually, there were eight of us, four expats and four local employees on the train, but I mean four of us in the cabin together.) It did mean all four beds were taken and there was not much room for maneuvering, but it also meant that when people walked by and opened the door looking for an empty bunk to sleep on, they would see the room was full and keep on moving. And yes, not everyone has a cabin. In fact, not everyone has much of a seat. There are some cars with seats more akin to what you would see on a bus and no beds. Then, in the hallways, there are little fold-out seats that just have a place to sit. Imagine a little jump-seat that flight attendants sometimes use on smaller planes. Now imagine that it is even smaller than that with no back other than the wall. People in seats like that are always looking for a place to lie down and sleep. Anyway, though it was rather crowded with four of us in the cabin, it was good to not have an empty bed. Also, there's not much need for lots of room because after eating and using the restroom, I stayed in my bed the rest of the trip. With the nighttime travel, there's not much to see and all four of us slept almost the entire trip. I woke up a few times, usually from an unusually graceless stop. And though the heater seemed to struggle to keep up with the cold outside, it was a pretty restive journey.

There is a sort of secondary bonus that comes from being a night trip. There is no food or drink service available on the train. You can bring your own food and drink, but if you forget then you're just going to have to deal with not having food for the next 11 hours. And while we brought a bit to eat, I consider it a benefit to not have to pack a bunch of food (since we'd be sleeping most of the time) along for the ride.

In fact, we all slept so well we almost slept past our stop. I woke up around 0615 and the train was stopped and since in theory the train arrives to Balkanabat at 0600, I thought it was our stop. It was not. We had stopped, though I am not sure why, at the edge of town. Then the train inspector came to knock on our door anyway to let us know our stop was coming so it would have been unlikely to actually miss our stop. Still, if we had somehow missed our stop, we'd end up being stuck in Turkmenbashy for an unknown length of time. With a room only about 7 feet deep and six feet wide, it took some shuffling to get all our stuff and bodies out of the room. It is fortunate that the base is close to the train station. We had been told the night before as we were departing from Ashgabat that the roads were so bad that they could not send a driver to pick us up at the station and that we would have to walk. Now, it's less than a 10-minute walk normally, but if the roads are bad enough that they cannot send a driver, then it's also going to be a difficult walk for anyone with luggage. I only had my backpack but the two guys with suitcases definitely struggled through the snow.

It was by no means glamorous, but the train cabin had the beds stacked like bunk beds with two on each side, blankets, lights, and heat. It was a nice and cozy box. And cheap too, at least compared to train tickets in Europe. Each individual ticket only cost about 3 USD. Seriously, for 12 USD, we can send four people from Ashgabat to Balkanabat. Still, despite that great value, it is not the best place for couch surfers, backpackers, and anyone seeking a cheap no-frills vacation.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

who owns shares?

Related to what I wrote about on Saturday about the earnings release, it is interesting to take note of who holds a stake in Schlumberger. The short answer is that the largest stake holders by far are institutional holders and mutual funds. According to the 2011 Proxy Statement, executive management and members of the board of directors account for about 0.5% of total stock ownership. While high levels of insider ownership are often viewed as a positive sign about their faith in shareholder value and control of the company, it's hardly surprising that insiders control such a relatively small portion of the outstanding shares. Given the company's size, age, and lack of family control, it would be unusual for any insider to have amassed even a 1% stake in the company which would be equivalent to about $1 billion. If you dig deeply enough, you'll see that there used to be a member of the board who held about 32 million shares which was good for a 2.7% stake at the time. In the 2008 Proxy Statement, Didier Primat held or controlled those shares until his passing later that year. Unsurprisingly, he was a descendant of the founding brothers. With his passing, it is most likely that those shares are now split amongst several people (who are not on the board) and/or in trusts. The only remaining current board member with familial ties is now Henri Seydoux who is both relatively new to the board (since 2009) and holds relatively few shares (4,500 as of the 2011 Proxy Statement).

Note: All Proxy Statements are publicly available online from the company website (and probably from the SEC).