Friday, June 13, 2014

saturdays in sakhalin: hurricane?

Well, at least one outfit is calling yesterday's storm that, though I would call it a really windy storm. Here are some videos of some of the destruction wrought on Friday evening. the worst of the storm seemed to roll through from about 18:30 to 20:30 which happened to include the time of the day I walk home from the bus stop. Perhaps it would have been advisable to duck into the hotel bar near my bus stop and wait things out, but I wanted to get home so quick-stepped it through the mayhem. The wind was actually strong enough that I was forced to stop at one point, turn sideways, and lean into the wind to keep from being blown over. Perhaps it was a hurricane.

This storm did seem very out of character or at least I hope it was out of character because the city was not very well prepared, especially in terms of tree trimming and securing temporary construction siding. Lots of branches and metal sheeting were on the streets. One of the streets I walk along had broken windows on about half of the cars too. The real kicker was that I saw three different bus stops that had been blown over. Good times for being indoors, which is where I went and stayed Friday evening. My building seems to have been unscathed except for some minor exterior damage and some rain gutter getting ripper off. The proprietors of the shop next to my apartment were not so lucky. Not the best picture, but this tree is a good 15 inches across:

Friday, May 30, 2014

saturdays in sakhalin: in search of balance

Another Saturday, another day in the office. Of course, my employment contract does stipulate working 6 days per week, so my presence in the office today is perfectly normal, even expected. The real issue is what happens tomorrow. Another Sunday, another day in the office? Probably yes. We have still not gotten the staffing situation to the level it really needs to be at and it wears on everyone else as a result. I have been in this situation before. In the short-term, people can power through and operate like this for a few months. In the long-run, this is not sustainable. Not just for me (though I really don't ever worry about myself in this sense), but rather for the people who work lateral and below me. I am a shepherd of of sorts, though no biblical analogies are intended. This is what managing is though: tending to your staff, developing them, making sure the work is getting done, offering support, and every so often you lose people, sometimes at their own volition and sometimes at your own volition. I know I can only push people so hard before something gives. I have often wondered how hard I can be pushed. Very hard is my answer from experience, but my most difficult assignments have also been relatively short. I can sustain the pace for roughly a year so that's what I know I can do, but a single year is not a long-term solution. However, I have come to (somewhat) jokingly say that there are never the right number of employees. Either we have too many people relative to activity and revenue and need to transfer people out or we have too few people. We never have "Goldilocks" staffing levels because something is always changing. Thus, the only balance is dynamic, like moving back and forth to keep a pendulum balanced above its pivot.

Friday, May 23, 2014

saturdays in sakhalin: where winter just won't let go

I arrived back in Sakhalin a couple of weeks ago and the snow had melted, the air was warm (or at least warm-ish) and I even ran the AC one night. It looked like Spring had arrived. Nope, not even close. The next weekend, a storm rolled through town, cold enough to make me consider bringing the long underwear back into the wardrobe rotation. The storm even dumped some snow up on the top of the nearby mountains, though all we got at town-level was wind and bitterly cold sideways rain. Being the stubborn person I am, I have yet to purchase an umbrella and my decision has not left my too terribly soaked yet. (Hey, I made it through rainy season in Gabon without an umbrella so it'll take a lot more than that to force my hand now.) Since the storm, the weather has been holding relatively steady just above freezing and with enough wind thrown in that it cancels some of the chopper flights up north. This isn't a problem in town, but it really messes up the offshore work.

For now, I am waiting to see when Winter will release its grip. It needs to be soon since we are headed into "Summer Projects" season, a time of uninsulated shipping containers, surface work free of sea ice, and platform maintenance. All this is contingent on non-freezing temperatures or else we're going to have some problems.

Friday, February 14, 2014

saturdays in sakhalin: sweet, sweet bandwidth

One of the (many) things that ground my gears in Turkmenistan was the distinct lack of available bandwidth. It seems strange to gripe about something which didn't exist in any meaningful way just a few years ago, but it is amazing how quickly you both adapt and take things for granted. I came of age into adulthood roughly with the rise of the internet. I started to purchase my own air travel tickets and have always purchased online. Never used a travel agency, never called an airline (except for one unusual set of ticket change circumstances, but the point still stands). In my universe, basically everything can be done online. Banking, shopping, paying bills, writing nonsensical letters to the editor, getting movie tickets, booking hotels, renting cars, etc. Not only can i do these things, but i can do them quickly.

Turkmenistan was a different story. Things were slow and pokey. Very slow, very pokey. And also annoyingly censored. Not well censored, but annoyingly so to the point where it was a mix of comical and incomprehensible.

Sakhalin does much better. Much of it seems to be courtesy of the HSCS, which is short for Hokkaido-Sakhalin Cable System (opens as .pdf). (Prior to this discovery, my knowledge of Hokkaido was solely from the episode of The Simpsons where Homer thinks he is Mr. Sparkle from a strange detergent box found at the city dump.) The telecom cable even makes an appearance in this handy-dandy map of submarine cables. Suffice to say, I can go back to my more decadent internet ways with plenty of bandwidth now.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

saturdays in sakhalin: sleds, for babies!

I've seen something quite amusing in a practical sort of way while walking about town. Baby strollers with sled rails instead of wheels. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. When the sidewalks are covered with snow and ice (and they are unless it goes several days without snowing and the plow people have a chance to clear the sidewalks), sled rails just make more sense than wheels. I only wish I could snap a picture without looking mildly threatening.

Friday, January 31, 2014

saturdays in sakhalin: where am i?

Short version: city = Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk; island = Sakhalin
Slightly longer version: People often refer to this place as simply "Sakhalin" and while that's sort of correct, that's not actually the name of the city. I'm in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the largest city on the island of Sakhalin. The island is part of Russia's Far Eastern Federal District, though that was not always the case. It is worht noting that the Far Eastern Federal District is not part of Siberia. It's even further east as the>Siberian Federal District is to the west of this region. So yes, there is a place past Siberia, though it really depends on what direction you're travelling.

Why are we all here? For the eminently originally named Sakhalin-I and Sakhalin II projects. What can I say, people like functional names. Though apparently all the fields in the Sakhalin-I project are named after birds. Probably tasty birds.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

life maintenance

Life maintenance is a catch-all term I use for the day-to-day tasks required to simply make it through the day in a reasonably comfortable manner. This is most assuredly a first-world problem sort of term since what I consider to be life maintenance is what much of the world might view as survival. I'm talking about cooking, eating, hygiene chores (shower, shave, laundry, dishes, etc), grocery shopping, and those sorts of routine tasks you do on a regular basis that are important but not necessarily interesting. (Yes, if you're really into what you eat, then food is important, but if it is simply a means to an end for sustenance, then it becomes a maintenance task.) While I view many of these as a minor annoyance, I have no doubt that many people would be thrilled to have these sorts of tasks as easily as accessible as I have them. Even less frequent but still ostensibly routine things like seeing the doctor or dentist fall under the category of life maintenance. I would argue that very few people are eager to go to the dentist, but most would recognize the importance of going and why it is something worth putting up with.

Life maintenance feels like a waste of time while it most certainly is not a waste of time. If I don't eat and bathe, then I'm probably going to run into some problems. It's not that I don't understand why these things are important, it's that they feel inefficient, as if there ought to be some way to speed things up. And this is part of what I have tried by living relatively simply. I don't spend much time cooking (and thus have minimal dishes to wash) by having simple or small meals. Not owning a car certainly cuts many life (and auto) maintenance tasks from my to-do list. And it's not like I suck at these things either. While I am no master chef, I am certainly capable of looking after myself and am reasonably sure that I do so at an above-average level, though I guess the average depends on the pool of people being considered. Regardless, it's not like I have some deep inability to operate a vacuum or washing machine or shave competently. To borrow a quote from Office Space, "It's not that I'm lazy, it's just that I don't care" and that best captures the essence of the problem. Well, assuming there's a problem. It's as if my approach is fundamentally wrong. All of these tasks have the potential to be fun and even challenging with the right outlook. And yet there are so many more interesting things to do.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

the daily routine

I have now been in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for over a month now. Time to give a basic run down of what a normal day here is like. I get up, go to work, work, go home, sleep, and repeat. Exciting, isn't it?

Ok, I kid, I kid (sort of). The typical day is slightly more compelling, though I'm not sure what you expect. My first three weeks here were actually quite atypical because of both my arrival to the location and the holiday season. Being new always means a steep learning curve. While I'm still on the curve, it's not as steep as it was my first few weeks here. The holidays were interesting as well because January 1-8 was treated as a holiday for local staff (and so the office was basically gutted for an entire week and since that time period straddled a weekend, many people took a few extra days off at the beginning and end to take a full 16 days off from work (going from Saturday, December 28 to Sunday, January 12). Now things are more even, though we're in the midst of what I will obliquely call some lumpy staffing coverage owing to factors which regular readers (if any are left) will know I never provide details on. Suffice to say, this is the hand I inherited from my manager and predecessor and it's something that can be worked through.

The set-up here is quite good, at least in terms of convenience. I usually get up between 06:00-06:30 and stroll out the door by 06:50 to head toward the bus stop. My employer runs buses to the office/base facility since it is at the edge of town (and then some). On weekdays, the bus comes at 07:13 and I'm usually at my desk between 07:30-07:40 depending on the traffic (aka: depending on how much snow is on the ground). There is a later bus, but it arrives after 09:00 and is for shamefully late employees. Office work is office work, some people to meet, things to review, numbers to crunch, e-mails to ignore, etc. Lunch is provided in an on-site cafeteria. It's nothing fancy, but a nice warm meal does eliminate the need to put any time or thought into lunch plans. From a business perspective, it's really the only sensible thing to do. The base is several kilometers from shops and restaurants so on-site meals allow employees to spend more time at work and less time eating. Well, perhaps the same amount of time actually eating, but the one minute walk to the cafeteria is much shorter than the time it would take to go out to eat every day. At the end of the day, there are a few more bus options, leaving at five past the hour from 17:05 to 20:05. Want to stay later? Then you'll be taking a taxi home unless you have your own car.

About cars, I don't have one here. I could purchase one, but lack most of the reasons others have for doing so like family or living far away from the bus stops or a need for speed or desire to go off-roading or any of those sorts of things. A car would not simplify my life. It would moderately complicate my life. Sure, it would be convenient, but you know what's even more convenient? Not having to drive to work. I can sleep on the bus (or at least close my eyes since it is a very bumpy road), read, avoid any form of socialization with grim-faced Russians, etc. I never worry about parking, being too tired to drive, or ice on the roads. I have not had a daily commute in nearly three years and have not owned a car in more than five years. (In both Hungary and Gabon, I had an assigned company vehicle and drove myself to work.)

Regardless of my commute to and from work, I usually get home in the evenings, have a light dinner, water my plants, and consume some fiction-based media. It's as exciting as it sounds. Yes, I've been out a few times, but until our lumpy work coverage gets sorted out in a few weeks, I do not have much time for making it rain at da club. Seriously, the days here take on a routine, much like anywhere else. Routine drives most days, provides normalcy (and often sanity), and generally keeps things far less dramatic than they otherwise would be.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

well, that fizzled out

I was genuinely eager to return to blogging upon my arrival to Russia. And then I had some trip delays getting out here and ended up stuck in Moscow a couple extra days. Then arrived here in the midst of holidays and several different personnel moves. And now I have settled into a routine at work that does not involve writing. Well, it involves plenty of writing, mostly of e-mails, but not of blogging in this space. And those are all excuses. Lame excuses at that. At the very least, I can console myself with the knowledge that I have spent my time on other tasks which mostly fall under the category of what I call "life maintenance". Thing like getting the new apartment up to snuff with light bulbs (so many light bulbs, to be explained another day), cleaning, and the purchasing of housewares and linens. I know, downright domestic. Plus, a fair bit of reading as I have been cruising through the very good Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons. And those are yet more excuses, albeit slightly less lame.

Thus, here we are. The weather report today is moderately sunny during the day which made the daytime high of -11 degC seem more palatable. I ride a desk so it doesn't really matter and am generally outside all of 30 minutes a day, most of which is spent walking between my apartment and the bus stop. And blah blah blah and other useless drivel. You didn't come here for daily minutiae, though perhaps why else would you (family excluded of course) be reading some random person's blog. Time to start tapping and typing away.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

actual first impression

I need to amend my previous post. My first impression upon arrival to Sakhalin was that there was only one conveyor belt in the baggage claim area. This was reminiscent of the airport in Turkmenbasy, Turkmenistan. It's quite a nice looking airport, see here and here. However, the Turkmenbasy airport has a single very long baggage claim conveyor. It snakes around an entire large room that must be close to 50 meters long. It baffles me why they'd make it like that when they could have easily had two (or more) shorter conveyors which would of course mitigate the problems whenever the conveyor needs maintenance. Anyway, that was such a typically Turkmenistan thing, to have something be deliberately fancy for the sake of fanciness (or perhaps an attempt at some obscure world record) that was ultimately not very practical.

Back to the topic at hand, the lonely single conveyor in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport (IATA code is UUS for reference). This seems to have been borne more out of necessity given how tiny that room is relative to the number of passengers it is attempting to accommodate. Also, the passengers displayed the same poor baggage claim etiquette as nearly everywhere else I've been which is that they crowded around the belt and did not let anyone else in to reach their bags. This didn't really matter to me because my bags did what they nearly always do which is arrive almost last (but never get lost!) so they crowds had finally thinned by that point.

Bonus picture: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport.