29 March 2010

Shameless and Ineffectual

Moscow's magnificent metro system was hit by two terrorist bomb blasts today.  The attacks killed 38 people in a needless tragedy.
Terrorism is a shameless act.  Anonymous agents, often deluded to think that they act on behalf of a higher power or cause, attack randomly.  Innocent people are killed as a result and the daily life is made more difficult only temporarily.

I am not aware of any positive and long-lasting change brought by any act of terror.  This stands in direct contrast with courageous non-violent movements like those led by Dr. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi that brought lasting, positive effects precisely because they shamed the existing system into change.

This makes terrorism ineffectual, if not counterproductive.  Bin Laden's 9/11 acts, as spectacular as they were, brought forth negative net effects for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and almost everyone else.  Shining Path of Peru, FARC of Colombia, and multiple other and older Middle East-rooted terror groups have not had a better record.

One only hopes that would-be-terrorists would be smart enough to learn, but sheer lunacy seems to have no limit.

27 March 2010

That Twisted, Twisted Fate, Part II

A key point of "That Twisted, Twisted Fate" was that the world had managed to turn upside down in the last generation.  This trend continues as witnessed by my latest visit to the California, aka the Golden State.
 Ominous Image From a US Government Web Page
For reasons that are worth exploring at another time, I must prove to Russian immigration authorities that I have the education that I claim to.  Russian officials require the equivalent of "cross your heart and hope to die," except that they really mean it.  Verifying my education to Russian officials has meant:
  1. Finding my diploma in California
  2. Resending it back to my university so that they can notarize it to certify its authenticity
  3. Getting it back from my university
  4. Driving it up to Sacramento, California's state capitol, to get an official state apostille to further prove veracity
  5. Sending it to Russian officials with the hope that it does not get lost in the process, because steps 1 through 4 are fairly difficult when one lives 10,000 kilometers away from northern California.
Just by way of comparison, in the US, education verification is done electronically these days. The process is simple, secure, and instantaneous. As it is apparent from the steps above, the process is somewhat more complicated in Russia.

The trouble started from step 1. Because I had not needed to display the physical degree to anyone in the US, I had lost it. Getting past step 1 meant requesting a duplicate from my school, so that I could resend the diploma back to the school for notarization. After some back and forth, I got my hands on the duplicate degree and resent it to my school. On to step 3.

As the nature of my request is unusual in the US, a phone call and two follow up emails were required to ensure progress. In anticipation of getting my degree back by FedEx, I made a trip back to California to drive my verified degree to Sacramento for double verification.

I got to California and did not find a FedEx package as I had hoped. I emailed my school to figure out what had gone wrong. Here is the automatic response that I received:
Subject: Furlough
To: amir
The Office of the Registrar is closed from Monday, March 22 through Friday, March 26th. We will open again on Monday, March 29th
The great State of California, whose economy is larger than Canada's, has run out of money. To cut cost where possible, the state is furloughing, or temporarily dis-employing, its "non essential workers" where possible. California is a beacon for the US. Whatever happens in this state tends to happen elsewhere in the Union within a relatively short period. And the Golden State is in the state of being out of gold.

To underscore how much times have changed, I had breakfast with a former colleague who was a high flier at a well known and respectable tech vanguard in the Valley. He left the company to join a startup. As my friend explained, the startup did not do well and was acquired for less than $5 million by the same tech vanguard. His concluding remarks where:
The employees did pretty well.  They all have jobs now.
OMG!   There use to be a time that anyone who could fog a mirror got a job in the Valley; sometimes, they even became millionaires.  In the meantime, Russia has had to cut interest rates for the twelfth time in a year to contain the hot Ruble.  Russia is the only major economy to have this "problem."

The world is upside down now. So goes that twisted, twisted fate.

20 March 2010

Let's Plan to Plan

Americans are not the most punctual bunch on the planet, but are probably the most meticulous time planners.  Warning to Americans planning on visiting Russia:  Plan to have your time management strategies frustrated by a culture that operates on a different clock.
The Great Salvador Dali, 1931
In general, there is an inverse relationship between an American's education and income level and the amount of unplanned time on his calendar.  It follows, then, that the more accomplished a person is, the busier he tends to be.  I once invited Dr. Aart de Geus to UC Berkeley event.  Aart is the CEO of Synopsys and an exceptionally nice person.  His response to the invitation was something like "I am sorry, but my calendar is booked for the next year.  Please contact my assistant so that I can attend the following year."

Most Americans are not as busy as Aart, but his case does show the American tendency to plan the future with a high degree of precision.  This planning tendency applies to both business and social calendars.

Russian social calendar setting operates on a different philosophy.  The following dialog exemplifies the difference in an imagined conversation between two friends in Moscow, one Russian, the other American:
A:  Let's meet this Saturday.
R:  Sounds good.
A:  How is 3:00 pm?
R:  Why don't you call me on Saturday morning so that we can set a time?
A:  If you are busy at 3, how is 4:00 pm?
R:  OK, but call me on Saturday morning so that we can confirm the time.
A:  How about 2:00 pm then?
R:  Just call me on Saturday morning so that we can set the time.
A: What are you doing on Saturday?  Let's just set the time and be over with it.
R: I don't know what I will be doing, so I don't know exactly when I will be available.  Call me Saturday, because I will know then.
A: Why don't you fix this event on your Saturday calendar and plan you events around it?
R: Are you hard of hearing, or is there something else wrong with you?  I told you to call me on Saturday so we can fix the time.
A: Boy, what a strange place ... how can you guys live with so much uncertainty?
Looking at the US from the outside, there is something peculiar - and probably unhealthy - about our hyper-planned American lifestyle.  However, making plans to plan later is ... well ... at least un-American.

16 March 2010

It Is Not the Size, It Is How You Use It

Russia is a big country. Russians are big people. Russian consumer goods portions are small.

I lived in Texas and California for most of my life. I am used to big things. My sister's Texas-sized house is about 600 square meters (6,400 square feet). I did most of my shopping in Costco, where milk comes in 2 gallon (7.5 liter) packages and size 4 Huggies diapers come in a 200-pack (yes, eventually, your little baby will poop that much).

Earlier, I wrote that one reason for Moscow residents being thinner than Americans is big prices for little portions in restaurants. The same big-price-little-portion philosophy applies to nearly all consumer goods. A walk down to the local grocery store in downtown Moscow reveals that milk packages come in 1 liter (quart) sizes, baby diapers come in 36-packs, and paper towels come in smaller, thinner sheets in less hefty rolls.

There is a perfectly good explanation for why things are the way they are in downtown Moscow: Living spaces are smaller, long distant travel is more difficult*, few residences have an attached garage that leads directly to the living quarters, and the use of car is not nearly as common as it is in the US. This makes hauling big packages around - grocery or otherwise - a difficult proposition. Consumer items are thus sized for urban living.

I did have to adjust to the Muscovite shopping model at first. Emulating my previous behavior, I compensated for the smaller packages by buying more of them. Then, going through my days as I had to, I realized that I was using less than I was using in the US.

I have not fully understood why my consumption is less in Moscow, but it is. Although I am walking some 6 km per day (3.5 miles), I am eating less food. This means I drink less milk and eat less bread. And although I wear just as much clean clothes as I did in the US, my laundry load is smaller.  The most likely explanation is that I was significantly overusing resources in the US.  Here, in Moscow, groceries and consumer goods just seem to go farther here, despite smaller packages.

So, it is not how large it is, it is how you use it. The trouble is, I still have not figured out just exactly how I use it; I just know that it has gotten smaller.
* Long distant travel means anything over half a mile (800 meters) - the distant that usually prompts the American to use his car.  In congested California, my 12 mile commute to work took 30 minutes on the worst days, and was usually done in 20 minutes or less.  My 5 mile work commute in Moscow has taken more than 2 hours (in a car) on one occasion, and usually takes 30 minutes or more.  This is why I prefer the metro - reliably, it gets me to work in 1 hour or less.

14 March 2010

Anyone Heard of Spring?

It is mid March here in Russia, and pretty much everywhere else in the world as far as I know.  In the northern hemisphere, this equates to the beginnings of spring, and some places get an early start.  Trees were budding in San Jose, California, when I was there in mid February.

Moscow just got a new, fresh coat of snow.  This will add nicely to the two-plus feet of snow accumulated on the erstwhile grassy patches in the parks near my place - and the snow has accumulated because there have been only a handful of days where the temperature has peaked just over freezing.  And, there are no green shoots anywhere around to signal spring.

Wait, is that a bird's chirping I hear?  No, it was a passing car's squeaking.

09 March 2010

Marvels of Moscow Metro, Part II

A picture is worth a thousand words, or whatever.  You've got to be in the Moscow Metro to believe.

US subway stations range from highly functional mass-transit places to extensions of ghettos through which they pass.

Moscow takes a different approach, as some of its nicer metro stops make clear.

07 March 2010

Separation of Powers

This is what a typical US bathroom looks like:
The two critical elements are the commode and the sink.  They are next to or at least near each other.  One does his business and quickly disposes of the evidence by washing his hands clean.

The typical Russian bathroom layout is different.  There is a separation of powers, if you will, between the forces of good and evil.  Here is a photo of where the forces of evil lurk:
Basically, in Russia, the commode is really in a commode and the water closet (WC) is really a in a closet.  There is no sink or basin in the same space.  One does his business, opens the door, closes that door (if he is polite), opens another door, then closes the second door, and then washes his hand.  Then, with his clean hands he opens the now dirty door.

So, evil forces, being cunning and sneaky, manager to track their way over to dirty the forces of good.

I have not figured out the reason for this separation of powers; can someone more knowledgeable help?


People in the know tell me that it is about the flow.  This bathroom design was to address a population density problem inside apartments.  Soviet-era apartments were rather small; maximizing livable space meant fewest possible common facilities.  Because many people would live in the same small space, the commode was separated from the basin to alleviate resource scheduling issues.  With this design, these two shared facilities may be engaged simultaneously (multithreading), thereby giving better "flow."

Update 2

Of all my posts, this one has drawn the biggest protests from Russian readers. "Russian toilets don't look that ugly!  Come on, get a better picture" summarizes the complaints.  To reiterate the point of this blog, it is about "separation of powers" and not about "the Beauty and the Beast."

Hmm ... Bigger Exposure

Alltop, all the top stories
Alltop, a blog aggregation service - or an "online magazine rack" as they describe themselves -  have decided that this blog is worthy of their expat page on their site.

03 March 2010

That Twisted, Twisted Fate

I now live in Moscow; sometimes I stroll through Moscow's historic Red Square.  For most of my life, these facts were extreme improbabilities.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away ...
I was born in Iran at the time when the pro-Western Shah reigned supreme.  Historically, Iranians have been suspicious of their Russian neighbors to the north.  That suspicion turned into fear with the advent of Soviet Union, thrusting Iran toward the United States in the geopolitical game of the Cold War. Moscow, as a destination, was not on top of mind.

The Shah was deposed and Iran became an Islamic theocracy in 1979.  Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.  Iran's new religiosity did not improve relationships with the expansionist, officially atheist Soviet Union that touched all of Iran's northern border.  And the fact that Saddam Hussein's army was primarily equipped with Soviet-made weapons made matters worse.  Moscow became a more distant city.

The triple whammy of a revolution, a repressive regime, and a war prompted many Iranians to flee.  The West was the obvious choice for those who left, including my family and me.  We opted for the United States, where the very anti-Soviet Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.  The movie Red Dawn actually gave me apocalyptic nightmares in 1984.  Moscow was now far, far away, literally and figuratively.

So much changed in less than a generation.*  Iran is now anti-Western. Soviet Union is no more. Moscow resembles New York in the 1920s. Russia is capitalistic; and, according to some American right wingers, Obama is a communist.

In 1980, logic said that there was an infinitesimally small probability that I would be living in Moscow in 2010.  So goes the twist of fate. Now, sometimes when I stroll through the Red Square in downtown Moscow, I am reminded of the fact that some of my relations in the US are in the business of defending the country.  Indeed, some people I know are in the business of maintaining US' nuclear arsenal, some of which is aimed at the Red Square.  Because of the improving US-Russia relationship, logic says that the probability of a nuclear event is getting progressively more improbable.  However, the world did manage to turn upside down in the past 30 years, quite improbably ...

It has been a beautiful journey so far.  Let the twists of fate stop here.
* A few other notable changes:  
  • In 1980, one could fly from the Intercontinental Airport in Houston to Mehrabad Airport in Tehran.  In 2010 one flies from George Bush Airport to Imam Khomeini Airport between the two cities.  The irony would be so much richer if the transit point were at Saddam Hussain Airport.
  • In 1980, the best golfer was white and the best rapper was Black.  In 2010, the best golfer is Black and the best rapper is white.