27 June 2010

Low Credit Card Density = Many Service Points

Americans use their credit cards fast and furiously.  Credit cards in the US are by far the most prevalent form of payment.  They are used for groceries, school tuition payments, traffic violation settlements, utility bill payments, ongoing subscriptions, and each morning's cup of Joe.

Credit card usage is becoming more common in Russia, but their usage is far less common in this country.  Nevertheless, Russians consume similar services as Americans (cell phone, cable TV, etc.) and, perhaps more frequently than Americans (for various reasons - to be discussed later), are stopped for traffic violations.  Given the relative low density of credit card usage in this country, local entrepreneurs have created a nice alternative:  Payment kiosks.
Payment kiosks are ubiquitous, and they accept cash.  I have seen them in the lobby of my office building, in convenient stores, large grocery stores, and even in posh restaurants.  They can be used to pay for most commonly consumed services - and soon for settling traffic violation scores.  Their basic function, aside from facilitating financial transactions, is to provide people with convenience while saving their time.

At some point in the future, these kiosks will become "e-waste" as they will be replaced by smart phones or personal computers connected to high speed networks in the hands of people who carry multiple credit cards in their wallets.  Until then, they are a huge productivity booster for Russians.

20 June 2010

X, Y, and Other Genetic Stuff Revisited

On 17 January, I wrote a blog that basically said that the hotness index of Russia women and men was so far apart that it was reasonable to assume that Russian men and women came from different gene pools.

Google agrees.  The first page of image results for a query on "Russian Beauty" returns these two images:
 Should Be In Pictures
Should Only Take Pictures
Presumably, he is taking a picture of her.  Power to him.  But, there is a more serious side to this blog; namely, why is there a vast difference between the appearance of the sexes in Russia?

Tim Hartford, Financial Times columnist, has written a curious book called The Logic of Life:  The Rational Economics of an Irrational World.  It is hard to describe what the book is about because there is no central theme other than the demonstration that economic analysis will explain the rationality of seemingly irrational behavior patterns.  The disparity of African-American male and female population distributions is one of his topics, as well as exploring various pathologies of city dwelling.  Here are a few interesting quotes drawn from the book:
You might think that a slight scarcity of men would cause the women some modest inconvenience, but in fact even this tiny imbalance ends up being very bad news for the women and very good news for the remaining men.  Scarcity is power, and more power than you might have thought...
The dramatic increase in the bargaining power of men doesn't merely harm the women who don't get to marry but also those who do.  Their potential partners have too many options to allow a fair bargain ... [so women may resort to] plastic surgery or workout in the gym.  In short, there are all sort of ways you can make yourself a more attractive catch ... This is indeed how rational women tend to respond to a shortage of men ...
Per Wikipedia, there are about 1.05 boys for every 1 girl in Russia up to the age of 15.  Between ages 15 and 64, the age range for most procreative types, there are 0.92 men for every woman*.  Looking at Tim Hartfort's analysis, for behavior patterns of African-American women in the US who are responding to similar dynamics (because there are a large number of African-American men locked up in US prisons), we have an explanation for the "Russian Beauty" pictured above.

For whatever reason, there are more women in Russia today than there are men.  This creates competition amongst women, thereby explaining the high numbers of slim, fit, and attractive women on Moscow's streets.  The men, in the meanwhile, basically have to wait until one of those attractive ladies approaches him for courtship.  Russia is not a bad place after all ... for men.

I should add that my observation is mainly of Moscow.  Recently, I spent sometime in Moscow's countryside and I discovered the situation to be very different.  There, women and men distributions seemed more "normal;" but Tim Hartfort even has an explanation for that.  When discussing city behavior pattern dynamics, he writes:
As [costs of living in a city] rise, it will be the unskilled men who give up and move to the country before the unskilled women do - or who never bother to move to the cities in the first place.
This behavior pattern exasperates the male-female population disparity in cities (while increasing the man to woman ratio in the countryside).  As such, Muscovite men have a double advantage:  They live in one of the most expensive cities in the world - hence depopulating unskilled men - in a country that has a shortage of men to begin with.  From firsthand empirical evidence, with with my sincere appreciation to the ladies, I attest that Muscovite men have it good.
* This population disparity is further exaggerated after the age of 65 where there are only 0.46 men for every woman.  Too bad for grandpa because, at this age, grandma has no interest any more.

14 June 2010

Moscow Never Sleeps, Part II

On my 3 January 2010 posting I wrote:
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.
I have just returned from a weekend in a well-known Western European capital.  My conclusion is that if Russia can hold it together, Moscow will be one of the top five European centers within a generation*.

Western Europe utterly confuses me.  Governments are big, expansive, present, but benign (that is the good part).  Government employees that provide services behave pretty much as responsible civil servants:  They work for the wage they are paid, do not show a high degree of motivation or creativity, and definitively do not work when the clock stops.  The result is strange situations where no one has clearly thought about, or is motivated to think about, the consequences.

For example, I was after a tax rebate in a big European airport.  I found the correct customs office, but I found no one working at the desk.  Instead, I found eight customs agents standing around enjoying their break at the same time.  When I asked for help and indicated that I was in a hurry, the response from one of the customs officers was to point at his watch and remark that they were all on break.  Ah, it is nice to see government "work."

Government works pretty much as I expect it to; the reason I am confused is that Western Europe's private sector behaves pretty much in the same way.  I see very low levels of initiative or creativity.  At the point where companies meet customers, employees tend to hide behind rules and regulations; ensuring customer satisfaction and "going the extra mile" is not a priority.  So, for example, it is common to wait in a restaurant for 20 minutes before a waiter comes by.  The assumptions seem to be:
  • Customers have plenty of free time
  • Capturing the customer does not matter because there is little competition for that customer
  • Customer satisfaction does not matter because the (government regulated) wages are steady and stable
  • Bad performance does not matter because it is really hard for an employer to fire anybody
Western Europe's strangeness stems from the fact that service provided by both private and public sectors in this part of the world is similar:  Begrudgingly slow and just good enough to clear the “awfully bad” hurdle.
 Western European Customer Service:  Cannot Get It to Work
In comparison, while Russia’s public sector is worse than Western Europe’s, the former Soviet member offers superior and improving private sector services.

Look out Europe:  Russia is transforminng.  And you may want to get a head start on booking your flight to the next major European hub; do this while your pensions are still solvent.

* My list of Europe's top five cities are below; the bet is that within a generation, Moscow will be on this list (if Russian can hold it together).
  1. London
  2. Paris
  3. Berlin
  4. Madrid
  5. Milan

13 June 2010

Perils of Passage, Part III

I used to live in an 11-floor apartment building in downtown Moscow.  This apartment complex was built specifically to house Bolshoi Theater's performers.  Some mornings, I was awakened either by the aura of someone practicing his or her opera lyrics, or by my next door neighbor who was a maestro when it came to making the cello sing.  The building was perhaps the richest artistic housing project in the world.
A Russian National Treasure:  Karetny Ryad 5/10
I have witnessed many great performers in Europe and the US.  Bolshoi Theater's best performers eclipse the greatest performers elsewhere.  They are Russia's national assets. I expect more from Russia to protecting national assets.

My apartment complex had one exit door.  There were two elevators and a stairwell, but they led to the same, single exit door on the ground floor.  There was no external, secondary, or emergency exist system.  If there were a fire that consumed the building, my options were either to jump out of my eleventh story windows to splatter on the concrete below or let my ashes flow down gently after the fire had gotten to me.  Disregarding my self-preservation motives, I kept thinking about all that talent housed in the same apartment building.  How could it possibly be the case that Russia's national treasures were put into such a dangerous situation?
Fire, Fire:  Mikhail Baryshnikov Dashing for The Exit
Regrettably, the lack of safety provisions is not just visible in the building meant for some of the most talented performance artists in the world.  It is everywhere in Russia, including showcases to the external world, like the Domodedovo International Airport.  Most foreigners that arrive into Russia via Moscow pass through this airport.  The experience is fine and world-class if the infrastructure is handling one arriving aircraft at a time.  If multiple aircraft arrive at the same time, safety design flaws become painfully apparent.  There are multiple bottlenecks.  Each can imperil human life in case of an emergency.
World-Class Domodedovo:  Not for Big Crowds
The first bottleneck is at the immigration control kiosks.  There are two locations for these kiosks where immigration officers perform their passport and visa control duties.  One is at the same floor as the arriving passengers and the second requires a climb through a tight, cramped stairwell.  Most often, second floor kiosks function, forcing all passengers to go through the tight passage and then select a queue behind any of the passport control desks.  Because there is no flow control that ensures a single long line for all passengers, passengers self-organize into clusters, with each cluster corresponding to a passport control desk.  In case of an emergency, many panicking passengers will rush for the same exit point, crushing some passengers to death.  Get beyond this danger point, and many other perils await you in Russia's best airport.
Passport Control, but No People Flow Control
The second bottleneck is at the luggage carousel.  Carousel 4 is a particular hazard point because the genius that designed it decided to create passenger comfort at the location by placing a row of affixed folding chairs for weary passengers.  The problem is that these chairs make an already narrow passage between the wall and the luggage carousel even narrower.  In fact, the passage is so narrow that one cannot push a luggage cart through this space if someone were to sit on these chairs.  Basically, both the folding chairs and the passage are useless.

The third, and perhaps the most dangerous bottleneck is at the customs.  At this point, many passengers have arrived together, they have picked up their luggage and placed them onto bulky rolling carts, and are attempting to reach their family and kin; but, they must go through one of the two narrow openings and engage with the customs officers first.  I described the clusters of passengers at the multiple passport kiosks and their related danger above.  Imaging the same situation, except this time with more people, fewer exit points, and tens of mobile obstacles by way of bulky luggage carts.  If an event led to passenger panic at this point, potentially hundreds of people would be crushed to death.

The fourth bottleneck is the throngs of illegal taxi drivers and passenger greeters that congregate right outside of customs.  These potential service providers and happy greeters will just add to the crazy confusion in case of a panic-generating event because, as we shall see, there are yet two other exit obstacles that make leaving the airport somewhat of an Olympian feat.

The fifth bottleneck is the narrow staircase or two tiny elevators that connect to a cramped isle that leads passengers to the parking lot.  The bulky luggage carts I mentioned above are mostly waiting for the elevators here.  Each elevator can handle at most two luggage carts at the same time.  It is a happy event if both elevators work.  I have arrived at the airport when neither does; this makes the stairwell essential.  Those stairs are especially "fun" to descend with heavy luggage when they are wet and slick due to ice, snow, or rain (which is most of the time).  Imagine those passengers, their luggage, and their greeters all trying to use the same narrow passage to reach outside in a hurry; this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Finally, there is the great sport of leaving the airport parking lot.  Like most modern facilities, airport parking is a paid service.   Unlike most modern  facilities, there are very few exit points, and the payment system is located right next to these exit points.  As such, on very cold winder days, drivers all jockey to be close to these payment systems to avoid the bitter cold outside.  In the process, they create a massive traffic jam that prevents access both to the payment systems and the airport exit.

It has taken me more than two hours to go through the entire process described above.  My worst time in the San Francisco International Airport - which is probably a busier facility than Domodedovo by a wide margin - has been just over 40 minutes.  In any case, welcome to Moscow.
9 December 2009: A Day to Learn From
On 9 December 2009,  a nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, killed over 150 people; another 160 or so were injured.  This was a sad day.  There was a palpable shock, and shocks sometimes motivate a notion into positive action.  Russia is a land rich in history, heritage, culture, and innovation.  In the grand scheme, Russia's only true treasure are its people.  I should hope that there is some attention being paid to most valuable of resources - and people are protected from unnecessary risk and from bad construction design that seems to be everywhere.
Lost Needlessly and Tragically

08 June 2010

Engineered for Social Engineering

For a while, my apartment was located in a large, meandering building block that nearly wrapped around itself, just like the structure pictured above.  From the outside, these structures look like large contiguous monoliths that house hundreds of folks.  From the inside, the experience is very different.
Large apartment blocks are commonplace in Moscow.  Most were built in the Stalin or post-Stalin era.  They were built in response to the demand for non-communal housing where individual families could live in the privacy of their own apartments without having to share their livelihood with multiple other families in a dormitory-style residence.
A close up shot of one of these apartment blocks shows their density.  From the outside, one would expect long corridors running through each floor of these structures with multiple exit routes.  However, having lived inside one of these large blocks, I came to realize that their internal structures are quite different than what the exterior of these buildings would suggest.

Internally, these large blocks are subdivided into pods of a handful of apartments on each floor.  In my apartment building there were four apartments to a pod, with each pod having access to two small elevators and a stairwell that led to a common exit on the ground floor.   Subdividing these building into pods creates big safety issues for the apartments' inhabitants (subject of a future posting), but - as I have been told - these structures were engineered in this manner for a very particular purpose.

Individual apartments address the need of private living for each family.  The size of these building structures creates housing efficiency.  However, these two design factors do not explain the subdivisions, or pods, created on each floor.  The design goal of these pods, as I have been plausibly explained to, was to create social isolation.  In other words, these buildings were engineered with social engineering in mind. The goal of that social engineering was to prevent self-organization that would potentially lead to anti-government sentiments or movements.
Engineered Social Isolation, US Style:  I Choose
Newly constructed buildings in Moscow have a more familiar Western design.  Moscow's outskirts sport posh housing in gated communities; in this case, social isolation is voluntarily (as we sadly see in the US).  Newer apartment buildings are designed so they sell more easily to the target markets.

The changing building architecture is reflective of how Russia's social architecture is changing - a welcomed and healthy change for all.