31 January 2010

Frosty Reception

A benefit of Moscow chill is the ability to ornate public places with ice sculptures.  The park visible from my apartment window is hosting a nice variety of these creations, and for some time now, thanks to the seeming permafrost.  At night, the sculptures become even more fantastic as they radiate neon colors and refract ambient light.  As it happens, Google is the sponsors of this frozen display.


I like Google; I just do not like Google in Russia.  My personal issue is that Google tries to be clever by a half when I use it here.  This otherwise magnificent internet engine localizes my experience; basically, when I attempt to connect to google.com, Google notices that I am contacting it from Russia and redirects me to google.ru (Google’s Russian site).  Here, I am forced to improve my Cyrillic reading skills as search results are presented in Russian.  I have memorized Google’s English menu options and click on the equivalent Russian links by remembering their locations.  Hey Google, if I wanted Google in Russian, I would just connect to google.ru directly, catch my drift?

My personal annoyances aside, Google has a bigger problem in Russia.  Despite its global might, Google is second fiddle to yandex.ru in this country.  Yandex diligently and cleverly copies Google’s functionality and presents a Russian-friendly interface to local users.  Yandex had the first-mover advantage in creating a localized experience and has thus garnered loyalty amongst Russian internet users.  Having realized this, Google  now is in a hyper-localization mode and is attempting to buy market share through public advertising, including billboards and sponsoring ice sculptures.  In this case, Google's icy critters embody Russia's 2009 zeitgeist - as captured by last year's top search trends.

My observations say that Google’s publicity stunts will have limited success in Russia.  Yandex has become as central to Russian’s internet experience as Google has become to American’s.  Russian friends send map and search links to me by leveraging Yandex exclusively.  When I reciprocate by using Google, I am nearly always told “let me show you a better way,” and that “better way” is invariably the Yandex way.

I am now at the risk of being shown data to the contrary by some Google product manager.  Dear Mr. Google product manager, my point is that you will have limited success with your Russia outreach attempts.  Yandex stole your thunder long ago and, basically, you are in for a frosty reception.

29 January 2010

The River Flows, but Should It?

Moscow never sleeps; apparently, the same is true for the Moscow River.

It has been colder than usual in Moscow.  The 2010 high thus far has been 25 F (-4C) and it has been much colder recently.  I have seen Moscow River completely frozen in warmer days but, despite the bone-chilling temperatures of late, she has been flowing lately.  I asked several people about this phenomenon; the most clever and cavalier answer was "it's not water, it's milk."

There are, indeed, a few peculiarities about Moscow's water.  It has a very distinct taste; I have been warned by locals several times not to drink it.  Bottled water is even bigger business in Moscow's restaurants than in the US eateries.  If you were to ask for water from a waiter, the follow up question would be "with or without gas?"  Both option always come in expensive bottles.  Tap water is not an option.  And my formerly white undergarment is now gray precisely because I have been washing them regularly.  I do not know whether Moscow's water has its characteristics because it is full of innocuous (or perhaps beneficial) minerals or because it is polluted; locals' warnings point to the latter.

Russia is an incredibly rich country in many aspects, including abundant natural resources like water.  I wonder whether Russians are too cavalier with their stewardship of their natural richness, as the "it's not water, it's milk" answer suggests.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio.  It took a shock like this to motivate Americans to demand the Clean Water Act of 1972.  I am hoping that Russia moves more proactively than we did to make sure that rivers flow only when they should.

27 January 2010

The Weather Is ... Still Cold

Apparently, it has been an unusually cold winter, even by Moscow standards.

Click on the Chart for a Larger View

The temperature "spiked" to a high of 25 F (-4 C) on 8 January.  The lows have been hovering around -4 F (-20 C) for most of the past 10 days.

I took a 1 mile stroll on the outskirts of northern Moscow around midnight of 26 January and really did feel the cold.  My face, the only exposed skin, went from being cold to burning to numb.  As I neared the metro station, some woman asked if she could use my mobile phone.  According to the phone, her call lasted a mere 51 seconds; subjectively, it felt like some ten minutes.  The most painful part was taking off my glove to dial the numbers for her.  Fingers do not work well at -17F (-27 C).

26 January 2010

Marvels of Moscow Metro, Part I

Two legged creatures make the bulk of Moscow metro's passengers.  On occasion, I see winged bipeds flapping their way through stations.  More frequently, I see man's four-legged best friend strolling through.

While Popular Science's take on dogs in Moscow's metro system seems fantastic, it makes for a good read.  Intriguingly, the title of the article is "Moscow's Stray Dogs Evolving Greater Intelligence, Including a Mastery of the Subway."

RIP, Malchik

And so, as the copy and paste world of blogs go (shamelessly, including this one), the Pop Sci article is itself a blog of an original article that appeared in the 16 January 2010 edition of Financial Times.  In case you are keeping track, this makes a "meta blog."

You can also visit Metro Dog to view the Muscovite documentation of these friendly, furry creatures that have a higher sense of urban intelligence.

P. S.  Michael S. - thanks for the tip.

24 January 2010

Perils of Passage, Part I

One of Moscow's many marvels is its metro systems.  This marvelous mass-transit system is a discussion topic of it own.  This blog is about the dangerous affairs of transit through Moscow roads (and airports in a future posting).

I used to think that LA's traffic was bad until I landed here.  Moscow's traffic is horrible.  This statement is about now, during a time that Muscovites describes as "the [economic] crisis."  I have been told that the roads were far worse during the petroleum boom days; an article in the Wall Street Journal confirms this sentiment:
Some Moscow residents are finding a silver lining to Russia's deepening economic malaise: This city's legendary traffic jams and ceaseless rush hours are easing to a level that is merely annoying.
Here are some photographic evidence of the "good days" when money was flowing in as fast as oil prices were climbing up:

Regrettably, the annoyance is not confined to moving vehicles.  Parking is another stain on the soul of this great city.  The basic rule is that "parking is allowed unless explicitly prohibited."  Because there are no rules unless stated otherwise, one sees very creative, sometimes annoying, and often dangerous parking jobs.

Yes, it does help to be skinny in Moscow

Volvo + Vodka = Parking Under Influence
The traffic movement is hazardous for everyone sharing the road, from the fellow driver to the poor pedestrian.  You may conclude, as many of this city dwellers have, that it is the Muscovite that is at fault because of his driving ways.  Nay, the root of the problem is deeper than that.  Put the average US driver on Moscow's roads and, before long, they will be driving and parking the same way.

One of the random phenomena of this city's roads is the number of lanes on the road at any given time.  For no explicable reason and without sufficient signage, a road may go from 3 down to 2 and up to 4 traffic lanes within a mile.   On faster roads, side guardrails usually are right next to the lane markings (i. e. no shoulder).  In the worst traffic hot spots, three lanes of traffic merge into another five, making it a contest for drivers to try to get through without (hopefully) putting a dent in their cars.   

The WSJ article referenced above provides other reasons:
Traffic analysts blame Moscow's circular-road layout, rampant construction that blocks routes and the city's failure to redevelop the traffic structure to accommodate growing demand, as other European cities have done.
The lack of a city grid and a rapidly growing city are reasons, but they are reasons that cannot be addressed in any meaningful way.  It is not to Moscow's interest to limit growth.  Moreover, Moscow is an historic city; as most historic cities go, Moscow has grown in a radial pattern.

There are simple changes that can be made to improve traffic flow in the city such as making the roads more predictable, making road markings and signs more visible, and metering the traffic and parking in the city (and creating a new revenue sources for the city).  This makes the city more pleasurable and safer for everyone, and diminishes the role of road travel in population control.  But, much to my dismay, most of Moscow seems resigned to accept this situation as is.  There is no clamoring for better.

There are those who do want better, and are in a position to afford it.  For a fee, special license plates can be had that look ordinary to the average observer, but have alphanumeric designations that make the driver of the car immune from the law for the most part.  These privileged license plates are expensive and are affixed to posh, luxury cars.  It is a common scene to see $200K+ cars racing through the streets recklessly, cutting off their fellow drivers in the most flagrant way, and further creating perils of passage for the public.

Alas, Moscow seems resigned to the situation and does not clamor for better.

21 January 2010

Skinny in Moscow

Obesity is a US epidemic.  Over eating is a common explanation of the expanding US waist size.  Thanks to the agriculture miracles in the past 40 years, a 2,000+ calorie meal can be had for less than $5.  Things are a bit different here.

I experimented with KFC (called Rostik's KFC locally) and paid $12 for what would have been a $3 meal in the US.  I also tried grilled Australian steak with potatoes at a nicer place called Coffee Mania (pronounced cafe-monya).  This dish costs 1,300 rubles, or approximately $45.  The meat was good, but not exceptional. $45 bought 3 ounces of meat and some potato slivers.  By way of comparison, a 16 ounce Ribeye steak at the Black Angus Restaurant in Albuquerque costs less than $23.  Oh, for that price, Black Angus also throws in "warm, sweet molasses bread and partnered with any of two of our 16 craveable sidekicks."

Basically, in Moscow you pay 200% more for 20% of what you can get in Albuquerque for restaurants that are in the same league (Coffee Mania is a nicer joint).  That is a 10X difference, and that is one way Moscow keeps skinny.  Just some food for thought.

18 January 2010

X, Y, and Other Genetic Variations

Warning: Gross exaggerations below, but there is some truth in any stereotype.

In ninth grade biology, I learned that a simple matter of the alphabet was the only genetic determinant of the sexes in humans. Namely, the fairer sex is homogametic and is thus identified by XX, while the brutes are heterogametic and are denoted by XY. Otherwise, there is no other genetic difference between the genders.

Observing Russian men and women strongly challenges this notion. Clearly, there must be other genetic variations at works; or, it must be concluded that Russian men and women come from different gene pools.

A Russian woman is slender, tall, yet strong. She projects great poise, but is capable of subtly telegraphing emotional fragility. She wears stylish clothes and is as comfortable in high-heels as she is in snow boots, and she uses both of them to conquer Moscow's icy streets, melting the snow with every step. Her skin is soft and glowing. Her hair is coiffured and styled. Basically, she is a subject of admiration. I know because I married one.

The Russian man is a stoic stump, has a horrid haircut, and a turnip-shaped torso with four protruding toothpick limbs. That's about it.

You may think I am making this up, but a little market data delivers the point home. Men's magazines, ranging from Playboy to Men's Fitness, have done notoriously poorly in this country. At the onset of perestroika, men's magazine publishes rushed in expecting a goldmine. Instead, they found an audience that was largely apathetic and deaf to their message. From the local man's perspective, there is no need for a skin mag like Playboy because - I am guessing - there are armies of Sharapovas walking the street and in-person is better than in-paper. And, there is no need for a self-improvement magazine like Men's Fitness because - I am still guessing - of the overabundance attractive members of the opposite sex; in other words, when it comes to love, Russian men have a buyer's market.

Women's magazines, like Cosmo, entered the Russian market after their men's counterparts. Publishers of men's magazines did all they could to dissuade their counterparts from making the same silly move, but the ladies were smarter. They entered the market and they made a killing. As it turns out, you cannot sell enough women's magazines in Moscow; just look at the variety in any newsstand.

If you still don't believe me, then observe below and believe your eyes. I tell you, there is more than X and Y genes to explain the difference between Russian men and women.

-- Hot --

-- Not --

10 January 2010

Ayn Rand Applauds When the Plane Lands

Russians passengers have a habit of applauding when an airplane lands. This is a peculiar habit from the Western perspective.

Russians have explained to me that this is their way of congratulating the pilot on a "job well done." In the West, we expect the plane to touch down safely. It is considered normal for the pilot to do his job, namely to land the plane without killing, injuring, or otherwise harming passengers in the process.

This points to one of the biggest differences between Russians and Westerners that I have encountered. In the West, there are certain institutions that folks take for granted. Examples are food and drug safety or police that is, at the minimum, difficult to bribe. In Russia, there are no such expectations. Basically, caveat emptor.

Whereas the Soviet Union offered a towering state with deep reaches into individuals' lives, the new rule seems to be that the individual is responsible for himself. Ayn Rand, having left Russia in 1926 in disdain of the Bolshevik ideals, probably would be proud of Russia in 2010. The modern Russian pharmacy experience is illustrative of this point.

In the US, the pharmacy is typically part of a larger store, and it is tucked in the back almost as if it is an effort to hide an embarrassment. Very much in a Soviet style, the patient approaches an official in a white uniform and submits a prescription from yet another official in a white lab coat. Then, the consumer provides rationing information as mandated by the insurance bureau. Often, not all things go well and the patient must trudge through a few more bureaucratic hoops and hurdles to get access to what may be a life-saving medicine. However, the patient is fairly certain that he will get the right medicine and that the medicine is safe to use.

In Russia, pharmacies are modern, elaborate retail chains. There is no "back of the store." The customer goes in, specifies what he wants, and gets it on the spot. There are no doctors to intervene and no insurance company hassles. Most surprisingly, Russian retail drug prices are generally lower than insured prices in the US. The experience is refreshingly efficient and liberating. But that freedom comes at a price: Caveat emptor.

In one particular pharmacy, I asked for anti-inflammation medicine. I received what I wanted, but then pharmacist pitched some allegedly Icelandic potion to me that would apparently help me "think better." While there is probably an insult somewhere in the pharmacist's recommendation, the pitch is rather amusing. I like to think that drug companies have pitched all that they possibly could have pitched to me in the US, ranging from blue pills that are intended to cause priapism (aka runaway erections) to cures for restless leg syndrome (I think regular exercise would be the cure for most people); but, no one has yet pitched a "better brain" medicine. If anything, this is entrepreneurial genius - but I digress.

I told a close Russian friend about this experience and indicated that the pitch seemed reckless and that the product was a potential health hazard. I then asked if the equivalent of the FDA existed in this country. My friend said, with some conviction, "In Russia, we believe that the individual should look after himself."

Assuming that there is no irony in this statement, it explains the delight of the average Russian when the plane touches down safely. Caveat emptor, because there is no big brother watching over you. And thus, safety is a happy surprise. Now that I think of it, I am certain that Ayn Rand would be amongst the most joyous passengers.

04 January 2010

It is 7 January. Merry Christmas.

Today, in Moscow, where Eastern Orthodox Christians are the largest religious group, it is Christmas. Счастливого Рождества.

Now, here is something curious: Why are there different birth certificates for Jesus? Apparently, the difference in this very significant birthday celebration lays in the calendar that different Christian churches use. If the church uses the Julian calendar, as the Eastern Orthodox national churches do, Christmas is today. If the church uses the Gregorian calendar, it is what most Westerners are familiar with.

Actually, no one really knows Jesus's precise birthday. Nonetheless, Merry Christmas.

Moscow Never Sleeps

The title of this blog is a common refrain, often said proudly, in the city. I do not know the genesis of this phrase yet, but Andrey Shirman (aka DJ Smash) seems to have immortalized the phrase, or have capitalized on it, in a 2007 hit single that was remixed and re-released in 2008.
The Moscow News, an online news paper, published a namesake article just six weeks ago. The gist is that if you are bored, hungry, or in need of a sauna, there is a place for you somewhere in the city regardless of the hour. Ominously, the article's last section is "if you are in trouble ..."
I spent a year in Switzerland from fall of 1993 through the summer of 1994. As a student, I was always confused and confounded by the hours that the Swiss kept. Basically, the stores were open only when I was in school; to run errands, I needed to cut class. And I never figured out what the Swiss did in their homes. Whatever it was, it must have been mightily interesting as the streets become deserted after 6:00 p.m. The shops, and even most restaurants, were marooned under the Swiss order.
In the same timeframe, the Spanish had a referendum on whether they wanted the right to work on Sundays. The measure was soundly defeated. Obviously, the logic must have been either that a right leads to an obligation, and when the obligation is to work, I am enslaved; or for strong religious reasons, I refuse to work on the Sabbath. It is hard to pick between these two lines of reason because they are both so cogently compelling that they seem to have impenetrable logic. Just to have a frame of reference, on a July Sunday in 1993, I purchased my airline tickets to Switzerland at 3:00 a.m. and then went to do my groceries. I was in Texas, which is arguably more religious than Spain and has a strong streak of independence among its citizens.
A decade and half have gone by since my time in Western Europe; clearly, my experience is dated and things probably have changed significantly. But this much is true: Western Europe has deep cultural roots in its every corner and is a stable spot on the world map. Progress comes at a steady and slow pace. Tales of visitors to the Soviet Moscow describe empty streets after 6:00 p.m. similar to what I experienced in Switzerland. When perestroika was introduced in 1987, the average Muscovite had to stand in line for daily staples. When I visited Moscow for the first time in 1997, there was no visible shortage of anything, except there were fewer cars on the road than one would expect. It is now 2010 and "Moscow never sleeps" says it all. On 1 January at 4:30 a.m., my wife and I came home after making a trip to the local grocery store. Restaurants and bars were still going strong. Traffic jams are the norm and there are more Bentley cars in this city than in London. At the pace that Moscow is racing towards its future, many Western European cities may wake up and wonder why they spent so much time sleeping.

P. S. If you want to read a novelist's perspective on "Moscow Never Sleeps," read Martin Cruz Smith's account in the National Geographic. Martin's article is accompanied by nice photographs by Gerd Ludwig.

03 January 2010

And the Weather Is ...


A few weeks ago, the temperature dropped to -13 F (-25C). During the same period, I called my mother in Texas. Without knowing about the weather here, she complained about the bitter Austin winter weather that been brought to town by a nasty norther. The temperatures had dropped to a miserable 41 F (5 C). I just commiserated with her.
I was in Austin for Christmas (the Western one celebrated on Dec. 25). On 23 Dec., I was walking around in a T-shirt enjoying the 70 F (21 C) weather. Here, in Moscow, it is 7 F (-14 C) now. Incidentally, that is the warmest it is supposed to get for the next 24 hours. This snapshot of wunderground.com-provided info will give you the full picture.

Weather tales like these send shivers down the spines of my friends, most of whom are located in the San Francisco Bay area. However, those from colder climates will chuckle upon reading this blog. Frankly, -12 F (-25 C) does not feel as cold as you might think. My poor mother has a point when she complains about Austin's frosty weather. At 98% relative humidity, 41F (5 C) feels very cold as the plentiful water in the air effortlessly sucks the heat off the body. At -12 F (-25 C), the relative humidity is a trivial figure because the absolute humidity is pretty much zero. There is, effectively, no water in the air to make you feel miserable. So, as long as you have decent thermal underwear, a good jacket, a hat, and a pair of gloves, you will do just fine. A 2 mile urban hike with my breezy Asics running shoes was no problem.

To be honest, weather is a mundane conversation topic, but everyone partakes of it. If you are curious about Moscow weather, you can pick up some conversation material here.