29 April 2010

F---ed Up English in Russia

Shame on me, I do not speak Russian (yet).  This forces my friends and colleagues to commit an unnatural act:  They speak English in my presence to ensure that I am included in the conversation.

Naturally, this unnatural act - namely English dialog amongst folks who would normally speak Russian to each other - leads to, shall we say, interesting linguistic situations.  For instance, after being irritable in a meeting, a colleague sent an apology email to the attendees stating:
Sorry I was a little bit turned on in the evening because of [stressful, work-related] activities.
I asked my colleagues how he could be possibly turned on with five pasty nerds spouting geeky gobbledygook for an hour.  In fact, my colleague intended to say that he was "stressed," or "frazzled."  "To be turned on" is a near transliteration of a Russian expression that indicates a stressful state; happily, this transliteration translates into chuckles.

Another English-related phenomenon in Russia is the casual use of strong language on publicly worn T-shirts.  The F bomb ("fsck" to Linux and UNIX fans) is a popular adornment, worn publicly and with impunity.  It does not even turn heads because, to foreign speakers of English, there is no context by which the vulgarity of the word can be measured.  Not surprisingly, lack of linguistic awareness diffuses the F bomb.

I have witnessed quite a few creative uses of the F bomb, the most memorable of which was a the following T-shirt inscription:
F--- you,
you f---ing f---.
The above phrase is rather remarkable because three words (really two words and a variation) form a complete, grammatically correct, five word English sentence.  An analog sentence would be:
Go home,
you hapless lad.
As you can see, there is a verb (go), an object (home), a subject (you), an adjective (hapless), and a noun (lad).  This is yet another example of an interesting linguistic situation - and a testament of the flexibility and the f---ing unfortunate international reach of the F bomb.

28 April 2010

No Parking? No Problem!

The sign prohibits parking from 9:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.  I took the photo at 10:15 a.m.

No Parking?  No Problem!

In Perils of Passage, Part I, I wrote "The basic rule is that 'parking is allowed unless explicitly prohibited.'"

Scratch that.

The correct statement is "The basic rule is that 'parking is allowed.'"

Marvels of Moscow Metro, Part IV

There are two familiar voices that makes announcements on the Moscow metro. One of those voices is masculine; the other is feminine.
Voices of Moscow Metro Train Announcers

The announcer's gender provides directional clues for the riders. If one is onboard a train that is traveling towards downtown Moscow, one hears the masculine voice. Onboard a train traveling away from downtown Moscow, one hears the feminine voice.
On the beltway train (the brown line), the woman's voice indicates that the train is moving counter-clockwise while the male voice lets riders know that they are moving clockwise.

25 April 2010

Russia: The Multi-Ethnic Society

Americans have multiple images of Russia, many of which linked to the Cold War.  Most of these images of Russia are uneducated, unsophisticated, and at times, bigoted. 

Two of the more common images that I have encountered are "the wasteland" and "the xenophobe."  According to the wasteland image, Russia is a boring, barren, gray country with people whose psyche and physique reflects their industrial wasteland ambiance.  According to the xenophobe image, Russia is a highly homogenized society where everyone is tall, blond, Slavic, and intolerant of other ethnic groups (or "nationalities" in Russian vernacular). 

The Xenophobe Image:  Russians All Come From the Same Mold
Sadly, "the xenophobe" is a popular image amongst some of the more educated Americans.  Repeatedly, I was warned that I would not be welcomed in Moscow because I am obviously neither Russian nor Slavic.  My personal experience debunks this image of Russia.

Some readers will want to point out that my experience are not in the mainstream as I am in Russia's most cosmopolitan city and I have the privilege to associated with some of the most educated and gifted people in this country.  Both points are true, but they are non sequiturs.

Moscow is a world-class city and like most world-class cities, it has a very multicultural population with a large intellectual class in the population.  More importantly, if one were to find himself in any provincial location in the world, as I have in the US Deep South or Venezuelan Andes, one would find that people tend to be more homogeneous and less aware and tolerant of other groups.  In other words, "the xenophobe" is not descriptive of Russia; it is descriptive of most places on this planet.

In its 15 April 2010 edition, The Economist published a book review titled "Russia's war against Napoleon: How Russia really won."  The key paragraph of this book review is:
The central point made by Mr Lieven’s witty and impeccably scholarly book is that Russia owed its victory not to the courage of its national spirit or to the coldness of the 1812 winter, as some French sources have argued, but to its military excellence, superior cavalry, the high standards of Russia’s diplomatic and intelligence services and the quality of its European elite. Thanks to the intelligence he obtained, Alexander was able to outwit Napoleon, anticipating his invasion.
The article further makes the point that the victory over Napoleon "demonstrates the strength of Russia’s multi-ethnic empire and the depth of its integration in European affairs and security."

While Moscow is not Russia, a walk around Moscow confirms that Russia is a multi-ethnic society - and has a rather wonderfully pleasant people. 

A More Accurate Depiction of The Russian Society

24 April 2010

Probably Just a Coincidence ...

Blogging on the security of massive transportation systems like the Moscow metro or US air transportation system, I quoted from Jeffery Goldberg's Atlantic article.  The quote was:
To slip through the only check against the no-fly list, the terrorist uses a stolen credit card to buy a ticket under a fake name. “Then you print a fake boarding pass with your real name on it and go to the airport. You give your real ID, and the fake boarding pass with your real name on it, to security. They’re checking the documents against each other. They’re not checking your name against the no-fly list—that was done on the airline’s computers. Once you’re through security, you rip up the fake boarding pass, and use the real boarding pass that has the name from the stolen credit card. Then you board the plane, because they’re not checking your name against your ID at boarding.”
As I traveled through Washington Dulles to Moscow on Wednesday, a peculiar thing happened.  United Airlines announced that the TSA would instate a random security check at the gate.  True to United's word, I was "randomly" checked.  The procedure was to verify my face against my passport photo and verify my name in the passport against the name on my boarding pass.  Basically, the TSA closed the security hole described above.

This event is probably just a coincidence, but an interesting coincidence nevertheless.

The other breaking news is that the Moscow metro system is now safe - or one would have to conclude as the Russian militia are nowhere to be found.

23 April 2010

Green Shoots and Snow

It is spring, as in 23 April.

Vernal equinox, the official beginning of spring, was 1 month ago on 22 March.  It snowed today.  There are projections of snow flurries all through the weekend.
Spring  √† la russe

Green Shoots and Harleys

Having been kept away from Moscow due to the Icelandic Eyjafjallaj√∂kull, I missed a big transition in Moscow.  There are now green shoots on trees everywhere, and Harley Davidson motorcycles with menacing-costume-laden riders are omnipresent.  At spring time, bird songs are nice, but Harley muffler howls and thunders annoy me to no end, especially when I am trying to sleep at 3:00 am.

Green Is In for Spring

18 April 2010

Where is a Fatwa When We Need One?

The onset of the Internet age also unleashed the spam era.  Ah, lovely spam:  The useless, sometimes dangerous email clutter that oozes into our in boxes daily, robs us of productivity and clogs up our networks.

In the West, one is used to getting photos of young, attractive women like the one below as a hook for unrepentant men who (for the most part) like young attractive women. 
Call me, please!
Being in Russia, and assuming that the closer proximity to the Middle East has something to do with it, I am now getting regional-ized spam, like the one below.
I only appear to be underage; call me, please!
Again, you have a young, attractive woman who is trying to lure men into whatever it is that another man is selling.  The poses are nearly identical; the trouble is, the Middle Eastern spam pictures a very young women, one that is probably younger than eighteen. 
We could chalk this up to regional cultural differences.  After all, the young lady is wearing Islamic garb and this will surely avoid a fatwa of some sort.  But, if it is regional cultural differences that allow the peddling of underage but properly dressed women, let is be known that Spam, the original term from which "spam" was derived, contains pork.
Clearly, to close this cultural gap, we need a fatwa that declares Spam and spam as un-Islamic offenses. 

11 April 2010

There Was No Sex in USSR

Now, Russia is making up for lost time.

"There is no sex in USSR" is a popular catchphrase and refers to the comments of Liudmila Ivanova.  Ms. Ivanova's comment were aired on a perestroika-era TV Show, US-Soviet Space Bridge.  An American asked about sex in the Soviet Union.  Ms. Ivanova intended to say "There is no sex in the USSR... there is love," but the last words were cut off of the broadcast.  The memorable catchphrase is the baby of an unfortunate accident.

I'm Too Sexy for the West:  Soviet-Style Sensuality
A bit of Soviet context is required to understand the import of Ms. Liudmila's remark.  In USSR, "sex" was a dirty word and the moral equivalent of pornography.  All sexual topics, including lightly erotic displays, were strictly prohibited.  Given these attitudes, one would never see sexual activity out in the open.

On my way to work and back, I walk by Petrovka 38, an address seared into the Russian mind (of a certain age) by a popular 80s television show.  Petrovka 38 is the street address for the equivalent of the Russian FBI.  Internal Soviet order enforcement emanated from this location.  The country's top police officers still work there; they investigate the toughest and dirtiest deeds, including crimes of passion.

Spring is now is coming around in Moscow.  The deep freeze is gone and there is no longer snow on the roads.  The birds and the bees are at it once again.

Recently, walking home from work near midnight,  as I was strolling in front of Petrovka 38, two young lovers were reminding passersby that it is indeed spring time.  The birds and bees were the utmost topic on their minds; and they had found new utility out of a skateboard's quick back and forth action.  I imagine that this could have been considered a "crime of passion" in USSR, but Petrovka 38 was not to be bothered.  Besides the young lovers, all else was calm on the street.

Spring is the time for new life; from what I witnessed, it is possible that another baby will be born of another accident.  However, this spring event in front of the venerable Petrovka 38 is a clear sign that the Soviet Union is dead.


If you are interested in seeing some action (not the kind you may be thinking about), check out the clip below.

Tighten Your Suspention:  Petrovka 38 Goes for a Ride

09 April 2010

Marvels of Moscow Metro, Part III

Multiple people, both local and from the US, have urged me to stop taking the metro - at least for a while, until the dust of the recent bombings settles, so to speak. 

Even if Moscow's roads were as safe as those in the US, they would not be nearly as safe as the metro system is, despite the occasional insanity caused by a handful of delusional criminals.

According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a service of US's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 37,261 traffic crash fatalities in the US in 2008, or about 1,000X higher than the deaths caused by the 29 March 2010 Moscow metro bombings.  Basically, the daily carnage on the roads of any major US metropolitan area is in the same league as the annual accident-induced deaths on the Moscow metro system.
Killer Alien Terrorist Bots Making US Roads Dangerous

Just for the record, I was stopped by the militia for the third time today.  The identity query was courteous, sensible, and effective.

Moscow's metro system is safe.  It is also a spectacularly well-organized and well-orchestrated system.  Operations Research and Linear Programming enthusiasts, you can learn a lot here. 

07 April 2010

There Are No Handicapped People in Russia

Or, so one would conclude by simple fact of observing the crowds in the streets and public facilities.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's combative president, visited the UN in September 2007.  On the occasion of his visit, he was invited to speak at Columbia University (and be mishandled by the host).  An audience member asked Ahmadinejad about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran.  Ahmadinejad said, "in Iran we do not have homosexuals like in your country."
Translated somewhat liberally, Ahmadinejad's comment could be interpreted as "in Iran we do not acknowledge the existence of homosexuals like in your country."  Be that as it may, and back to the topic of this blog, it is clear that Russia effectively does not acknowledge that it has handicapped people in its population.

Returning heroes of WWII forced the US to recon with the reality of handicapped people.  Considerable progress has been made in the past 50 years.  Public places are handicapped accessible now.  Moreover, many consumer products, like computers and operating systems, have provisions for people who may lack vision, auditory, or tactile capabilities.

Physical and mental handicapping are two separate phenomena, and a person's mind is ultimately more valuable than his body.  In some parts of the world, like in the Iran that I recall, physically handicapped people are ofter treated as though they were mentally deficient.  While I have not seen strong evidence for this, circumspect conversations suggest that this is somewhat true in Russia as well.  This is unfortunate both for the handicapped for the society at large.

Let's start with physical access:  In Russia - and in Europe to some degree - there are almost no accommodations for handicapped people.  This point was delivered home when I witnessed a wheelchair-bound person being carried down a flight of stairs at the metro station.  The builders of sidewalks, metro stations, trolleys, buildings, and so forth have all assumed that every person who wants to use their facilities has perfectly functioning limbs.

There is also a more insidious side to this story: Psychological effects.  The only time I have witnessed handicapped people in public is when they were begging - effectively praying on the pity of able-bodied people to make a living.  The implication is that handicapped people are lesser humans than the rest.

The physical and psychological barriers creates a substrata of society that is locked out of major economic activity.  Handicapped people cannot hold normal jobs due to societal attitudes and unforgiving infrastructure.  The trouble is that the rest of the Russian society cannot tap into the minds of the physically handicapped people.  This is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

A friend commented that only wealthy societies worry about the well-being of their physically handicapped members.  While there is some truth to his remarks, many wealthy societies in Europe effectively do not grant  full status to their handicapped citizens.  However, the observation misses a major point:  In order for a society to become wealthy, Russian, American, or otherwise, it is to everyone's benefit if every member of the society must have the means to contribute.

Russia will take a giant step forward once handicapped people start existing in the society.

05 April 2010

Price Check Please

Moscow's food prices are quite expensive, or so I thought.  Under attack by a weak will and a starving stomach, I visited McDonald's in the northern edge of Moscow.  It appears that McDonald's is the great international equalizer.

The Equalizer
For approximately $6, I gorged on a Big Mac, large fries, and a medium coke.  This is roughly the same price as I would pay for the same meal in Silicon Valley.  This is in contrast to the up to 10X price difference that I have witnessed in other eateries. 

Curiously, according to The Economist's Big Mac Index, the Russian ruble is undervalued by some 30%.  In other words, one US dollar should only purchase 20 rubles instead of 30.  That makes the theoretical value of my Russian meal $9 instead of $6, but a far cry from the $60 that my earlier analysis suggested.

In the macro-economical sense, this is wonderful news for Russian consumers as they have a higher purchasing power.  In a public-health sense, Russians should ponder heavily on America's weight problem.

Children Are Our Future

03 April 2010

April Fools: Government has Secured Mass Transportation

Because of the tragic Moscow metro bombings, Russian militia is now visibly present in the underground system.  My identification has been checked twice thus far.  Getting past security has been just a matter of showing my passport and explaining that my keys are that which makes the metal detector wand squeal.
 Tell Me:  Why Does the Bulge in Your Pocket Excite My Wand?
Moscow's metro system is a fabulous, world-class mass transit system. By some estimation, the metro moves some 7 million passengers daily in 10-million-people city. A system that big, with that many passengers, is impossible to secure completely. As a case in point, militia's presence is more pronounced in downtown (where core government functions are) than on the edges of the city. Basically, it is easy for a determined troublemaker to slip into the system from the outskirts.

Because of that idiot Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber, we now have to take off our shoes when going through American airport security (most world airports ignore this practice). After the crazily insane Christmas bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka the underwear bomber, my concern was that raising security levels would lead to dropping underwear. This proved somewhat prescient: Body scanners, which effectively remove the subject’s clothing, are now in vogue. Pity those who have to view the resulting images; most of us look better clothed.

It is valid to ask whether there have been significant security improvements to US’s air transportation system. Jeffry Goldberg explains that the system only appears to be more secure in an excellent article in The Atlantic. Here is a telling excerpt:
To slip through the only check against the no-fly list, the terrorist uses a stolen credit card to buy a ticket under a fake name. “Then you print a fake boarding pass with your real name on it and go to the airport. You give your real ID, and the fake boarding pass with your real name on it, to security. They’re checking the documents against each other. They’re not checking your name against the no-fly list—that was done on the airline’s computers. Once you’re through security, you rip up the fake boarding pass, and use the real boarding pass that has the name from the stolen credit card. Then you board the plane, because they’re not checking your name against your ID at boarding.”
Goldberg’s article was published in November 2008. The vulnerability that he describes is still a big gaping security hole in US’s air transpiration system while you fly the friendly skies.

The US air transport system is bigger than Moscow’s metro system by any meaningful measure, including the consorted effort, resources, and time that have been expended for security. The system is still insecure today, as the dimwitted underwear bomber managed to demonstrate. In his January 1st New York Times column, David Brooks astutely pointed out the following:
… it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The [underwear bomber] plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.
The TSA and Russian Militia put up good shows in US airports and Moscow subway stations respectively. In societies where individuals deem their freedom important, like in the US and in the current-day Russia, the real security of the nation comes from individuals willing to take action for the better, and refusing to be cowed by a few mad bombers.