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.