31 July 2010

Trend Spotter: Stealth Cars

Moscow has a lot of cars that look like the "fabled" 1980s Knight Rider.

These cars have lots of black all over them:  Black paint, black windows, and black wheels.  Except, I am noticing a new phenomenon:  Gloss is out and matte finish is in.  Basically, instead of the shiny, gleaming cars that we are all used to seeing, I am seeing many black cars whose sheen is as bright as graphite (pencil lead).
I'm Too Sexy To Shine ... So Sexy I'm Stealth

I think the point of these paint jobs is to give the cars the allure of "stealth."  When I was fourteen, I thought that was pretty cool.

My Other Car Was Also Designed By Air Force

29 July 2010

We Have A Record!

The official high today was 38 C, or 100 F.  Moscow has never been this hot in recorded history.
Note that the average maximum temperature is 20 C, while today's minimum temperature is 26 C.  Yup, the minimum temperature today is higher than the maximum average temperature.  Wow!

The record heat comes on the heels of a record cold winter.

27 July 2010

The Weather Is ... HOT!

I used to blog about the coldness in Moscow.  Some examples are here, here, and here.  I am embarrassed to say, but I long for those days.

It has been terribly hot for a long time in Moscow.  The chart below shows the temperature trend from 1 June until today.  Notice the trend, and you will note that hotter days are likely to come in August.  Also, notice that it has been steadily hotter than average for nearly all of July.
There are many rivers, lakes, and swaps around Moscow.  This means that we have a miserable humid heat.  And, unfortunately, there is a big swamp fire nearby that tinges the humidity with a nice touch of musky smoke.  Let me put it another way:  this ain't no Club Med (whose moniker these days is "where happiness means the world").

Moscow is far better equipped to handle the cold than the heat.  Walls are thick, windows are well insulated, and air conditioning is not ubiquitous here.  But, Muscovites are dealing with the wether remarkably well given that temperatures and humidity points are enough to make any tough Texan fan himself with a stetson, wipe the sweat off of his brow, and cry AC.  Yessir, it's pretty darn hot over here.

How HOT you ask?  Let me tell you, and let me tell you and we have gone above 40 C (104 F) in parts of the city.
For those who like to track ranges, here are some official 2010 statistics (according to Wunderground):
  • Coldest day:  January 26; -14 F | -25 C
  • Hotest day:  July 26; 99 F | 37 C
  • Span:  182 days
  • Temperature swing:  113 F | 62 C
  • For nerds only:  Yes, there are some rounding errors in the numbers above

26 July 2010

Another Important Step In The Right Direction

I first visited St. Petersburg in 1997.  The city was reputed to be very beautiful; during that visit, I could see why the city was indeed a beautiful city in the past.  But, the St. Petersburg of 1997 was not inspiring.  The city had fallen into disrepair and, outside the principle route in the city, felt very industrial.

A mere 13 years later, St. Petersburg is a different city.  I had complained that Moscow had lost the opportunity to be as beautiful as London or Paris, but St. Petersburg is as beautiful.  The city is magnificent now and as glorious as it was intended to be when it was first conceived by Peter I in the early eighteenth century.

The glory of Church of the Savior on Blood is impressive and tells the story of the city within one edifice. The very short version of the church's (and the city's) story is:
  • Built by a czar
  • Immaculately decorated and ornamented over many years
  • Ignored during the communist era to a large degree
  • Improbably survives a vicious enemy attack
  • Is resurrected like the mythical fire bird, Phoenix
  • It is once again an international city and a gateway to the West
St. Petersburg should be on anyone's list who wants to see the best of Europe.  

And, hopefully in due time, the rest of Russia will flourish on the same trajectory.

25 July 2010

An Important Step In The Right Direction

Article in the 23 July 2010 Issue of St. Petersburg Times:

By Alexander Bratersky
The St. Petersburg Times
MOSCOW — A Moscow court has ordered a leading publishing house to pay an unprecedented 7.6 billion rubles ($249.6 million) in damages to a smaller rival for copyright infringement in a lawsuit that lawyers said highlights the shortcomings of Russia’s intellectual property rights laws.
Effective enforcement of intellectual property rights is a key issue blocking Russia’s 17-year bid to enter the World Trade Organization.
The Moscow Arbitration Court ruled Tuesday that Astrel, a subsidiary of AST, had violated a copyright held by the Terra publishing house by publishing books written by renowned science fiction writer Alexander Belyayev (1884-1942), whose novels “Amphibian Man” and “Professor Dowell’s Head” enjoyed immense popularity in Soviet times and still have a devoted following.
The 7.6 billion rubles in damages — a sum that matches AST’s annual turnover — was calculated by multiplying the number of Belyayev books published by AST by the price of a luxury six-volume leather-bound edition of Belyayev books that Terra printed in Italy. AST’s books sold for 160 rubles ($5.20) apiece, while the luxury set cost 114,650 rubles ($3,760). The luxury set had a print run of 620 copies.
Terra praised the ruling as a signal that Russia would honor authors’ rights.
“A musician makes a disc and sells it for $100, but pirates sell it for $2. The real damage is still $100,” Terra lawyer Viktor Abdurakhmanov told The St. Petersburg Times.
But AST lawyer Oleg Bartenyev complained that the ruling was unfair, noting that Terra also published Belyayev books in regular editions priced significantly less than the luxury set, RIA-Novosti reported.
An AST spokeswoman said the publisher would appeal but refused to elaborate, saying paperwork for the appeal had to be prepared first.
Whether Terra has any claim to the rights to Belyayev’s works might be a matter for another lawsuit. The publishing house, which specializes in historical literature, dictionaries and classics, says it obtained the rights through a contact with the writer’s daughter Svetlana in 2001.
But AST says the works passed into the public domain in 1992, 50 years after Belyayev’s death.
Terra based its lawsuit on a clause in the Civil Code that allows copyrights for authors who worked during World World II to be extended to 70 years after their death.
But Irina Tulubyeva, a property rights lawyer, said the clause was introduced in 1993 and could not apply retroactively to Belyayev’s writings.
She also said the size of the fine was unrealistic. “First of all, claims should be reasonable,” Tulubyeva said, adding that 5 million rubles ($164,000) was the maximum compensation awarded in most copyright cases.
Tulubyeva said Terra’s suit appeared to be the latest volley in a long-running battle between the two publishers.
AST claims to have won several property rights lawsuits against the Terra Book Club, an independent company previously headed by Sergei Kondratov, head of the Terra publishing house, and is demanding 11 million rubles ($361,000) in compensation, the Marker.ru online business news magazine reported in May.
The web site of the Moscow Arbitration Court indicates that Terra Book Club was put under bankruptcy receivership in May as the result of a lawsuit by Astrel.
But Terra’s lawyer Abdurakhmanov said neither AST nor its subsidiary Astrel “have won a single suit against Terra.”

Lenin’s Mausoleum

At my father’s behest, I got around to seeing Lenin’s Mausoleum.  For reasons unbeknownst to me, Lenin’s tomb is a big attraction.  International crowds line up early in the morning, in a quite a long line, give up all of their recording devices like cameras and smart phones, and go through a metal detector.  Once the security check is complete, there is a long procession that takes the visitors by the graves of many Soviet heroes, including Khrushchev and Stalin.  Finally, one arrives at the door of the mausoleum and is greeted by strict and formally dressed military officers.
Curious foreigners chat amongst themselves.  They are repeatedly reminded that this is a dead man’s resting place, and hence respect and silence is warranted.  As the visitors were hushed by the guards, my father, being hard of hearing, kept asking in a loud voice what the guards said after they told him to hush.  The guards would then hush my dad some more; and that was followed by my dad even more quizzically asking again what the guards said.
After going through a winding subterranean hallway, once gets to see Lenin.  After a 270 degree tour of the dead man - or a replica - lying in state, one starts to climb stairs and emerges from the underground lair. 

Overall, it was an unsettling experience for a number of reasons.  First, the mausoleum creates a cult of personality around Lenin, where – whether you appreciate or agree with them – Lenin’s ideas are what should be discussed.  Second, the mausoleum seemed like a house of worship.  This is an extension of the personality cult criticism, but there was something rather church-like about the experience that left an eerie feeling.  Third, this mausoleum is a historical anachronism in 2010.  Russia is capitalism’s new frontier; its markets are generally unregulated and near the polar opposite of communism. 
 Ending the Lenin Era:  Mikhail Gorbachev
I do not understand how a tourist attraction can be built around a dead man but, evidently, it can; and tourists come flocking from the earth's four corners despite the oddness of the display.

24 July 2010

My Father

My father is visiting me in Moscow.  He is curious.  He asks many questions.  And he does not hear well.  So, the dialog between us goes something like this:
Father:  Why is X and why is Y?
Son:  X is explained in this way and Y is explained in that way.
Father:  What?
Son, speaking more slowly and loudly:  X is explained in this way and Y is explained in that way.
Father:  What?
Son, shouting now:  X is explained in this way and Y is explained in that way.
Father:  Why are you shouting?
Son:  Because you don’t hear well.
Father:  What?
Son:  Sigh … never mind.  Dad, while we are on the topic, why don’t you finally get a hearing aid?
Father:  A hearing aid?  I do not want to become dependent on anything.  Besides, it will make me look old.
Son:  Make you look old?  You are eighty-six years old.
Father:  What?
As for the last question, my father chooses not to hear me.

20 July 2010

Passage for the Pure: No "Buggy Features"

I am in the process of getting a work visa in Russia.

Obtaining this mythical visa is much like playing a video game.  Once I clear a set of obstacles, the next, more difficult stage begins.  Only the fit and the resolute make this seemingly endless journey.  It also helps to be "pure."

Passage for the Pure

One of the work visa's requirements is to be certified as "disease-free."  I got such certification for AIDS a while ago.  Today I went for a second battery of health tests.  The tuberculosis (TB) examiner was not available, so the nurse decided that I was TB-free by virtue of a visual exam (I did not cough at the moment).  But the nurse were not willing to give me such an easy pass for a complete test for venereal diseases.  It was insisted that my blood be drawn!  So, I bled to prove my purity.

It makes me wonder:  With so much emphasis on sexually transmitted diseases, what sort of "work" was I expected to do with my work visa?  Or perhaps it was Russian government self-protection, as I am certainly getting a "working over" trying to get my work visa.  

05 July 2010

Distorting Reality with a Myth Filter

A group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and a journalist descended in Moscow at the end of May.  This was a first-ever tech investor gathering in Russia.  It was backed by the Russian government and had a strong support from the US government as well.

Both Russia and US have strategic interests in bolstering Russia’s technology sector.  Russia’s interest lays in the desire to diversify the economy and lower dependence on natural resources.  US’s interest is forging stronger economic and political ties with Russia. 

The gathering was quite successful.  Based on my individual conversations with the US delegation members, most were convinced that Russia is invested in its technology future and is making the right structural changes.  However, reading the sole report that came from the journalist, one would conclude that members of the delegation wasted their time and that Russia is far from being investment-friendly.

The journalist in question is Matt Marshall.  I know Matt; he is a decent person and an experienced journalist.   He worked for two respected US newspapers, Wall Street Journal and San Jose Mercury News.  He now leads an influential technology blog called VentureBeat.  Yet, his writing about the May event is riddled with factual errors and anti-Russia biases.

For example, Matt starts his article with the following phrase:
Russia is the sixth-largest economy in the world, but it’s also a country relatively untouched by foreign investors…
In fact, and according to the CIA, Russia is in top twenty and ahead of India in foreign direct investment.  As such, any reference to “untouched by foreign investors” is wrong.  And Matt’s headline of “Investing in Russia? Better hire bodyguards and hunker down” tells you all that you need to know about his bias.  Reading his article closely and watching his supporting videos, one notices that many of his quotes were taken out of context.  Indeed, people that have been quoted by Matt have complained to him precisely about this.

My personal conclusion is that Matt came to Russia with preconceived notions and looked for clues that would reinforce his preconceptions. The question is why a journalist of Matt’s caliber would report in such a manner.

As it happens, Matt is human and is not alone in his manner of interpreting facts.  Having had more international exposure than most people, I have noticed a plethora of examples where people from different backgrounds observe, report, and reflect on events in completely different ways.  A prime example is how America sees itself in the world and how many foreigners view America from the outside.

I recently heard Stephen Kinzer, an award-winning American foreign correspondent and a former New York Times journalist, speak at The Commonwealth Club of California.  Mr. Kinzer was describing America’s role in the overthrow of the 1953 democratically elected government of Iran when someone asked him why there are not more journalists like him that describe the harsh ugly realities of some of America’s actions.  In response, Mr. Kinzer cited the tens of thousands of American books on World War II events and stated that (my paraphrase) “America sees itself as a spreader of liberty and democracy throughout the world.  World War II was an example of that, and this is why Americans are obsessed with World War II history.  However, a closer examination of America’s interaction with the outside world indicates that America’s role in World War II was the exception.  Most of America’s actions have been about thwarting democratic regimes.”

The bigger point in Mr. Kinzer’s remarks are that self-definition, and therefore the definition of the outside world, largely rests on the premises, or the myths, that one holds.  Reality serves to reinforce those myths and therefore perpetuate the definition of the self and the outside world.  As such, facts are cherry picked, subjectively interpreted, and fit within the existing mental models of how things are and how they work.  Matt’s article on his Venture Beat blog is yet another example of this. 

This is an unfortunate reality, but, regrettably, this is how we work.  And although I have focused on the United States and their international relations in this posting to make a point, I do not mean to single them out.  There are numerous such examples of this type of reasoning in Russia.

To illustrate the point, consider Russia’s vast territory, formerly spanning 11 time zones (now simplified to 9).  The country of Russia spans the eastern edge of Europe and covers the entirety of the northern part of Asia, the largest content.  After defeating Napoleon, Russians briefly occupied Paris.  In northern California, an ocean away, there are many former Russian settlements. Russia was the engine of the Soviet Union, a mighty world military and scientific power.  And Russians have a history of excellence in literature and the arts.  These are significant accomplishments for a nation that at its peak only had 150 million people.  These accomplishments in territory, power, the sciences, literature, and the arts, are the hallmarks of an intellectually aggressive people.

Understandably, many of Russia’s neighbors, like Ukraine, view Russia with mistrust and apprehension.  This mistrust and apprehension is not fully understood by most Russians that I encounter.  The Russian myth is of a friendly nation that shares its bounty with its neighbors and not of an aggressive and conquering culture.  Most Russians know that Russia is not loved by a large section of Ukraine, and most Russians attribute this to jealousy, ignorance, obscure historical relics, or current Ukrainian political shenanigans.  As it happens, the Russian myth gets in the way of analyzing the world, just like America’s self-image myth prevents a more comprehensive American world view (and a more effective foreign policy regime).  

And as it happens, Matt’s personal myth of what Russia is all about - thanks to commonplace, dated, inaccurate, or sensationalists reports in the American news media - precludes him from writing a more accurate and fair blog about technology investing in Russia.  Matt completely misses the point and does a disservice to anyone who reads his report.

Be that as it may ... nay, damn be that as it may, and damn the myths that cloud our world view.  Each one of us should be in pursuit of a better understanding of the world around us, as each one of us is responsible for making this world a better place.