30 September 2010

Lost in Translation

Americans and Russians have distinct and different communication patterns.  As such, Russians can perceive Americans as overly giddy and somewhat shallow while Americans can perceive Russians as forward, abrupt, and prickly.

When providing feedback, the American pattern is:
  • Start with the positives
  • Compliment the other party
  • Very slightly point out the negative or - better yet - make a suggestion for improvement
The Russian communication pattern is something like:
  • State the negatives
  • Explain the problems that the negatives can create
  • Hint at the positives

To illustrate the point, let's assume that Diego is wearing a wrinkled shirt that is becoming to him.  Diego's dialog with Dan the American and Dmitry the Russian would go something like this:
Diego:  What do you think of my shirt?
Dan:  The color is really nice; it complements your complexion.  Maybe it could use a bit of ironing, but it looks great! 
Diego:  What do you think of my shirt?
Dmitry:  The shirt is wrinkled.  It looks like you slept in it.  The color is not bad.
There are benefits to getting the naked truth as there are benefits in gently pitching bad feedback.  Neither culture has a monopoly on the right communication patter at all times ... but things can and do get lost in translation.

24 September 2010

Russian School is Cool

Like any proud parent, I believe in my daughters' cognitive capabilities.  And like dedicated parents everywhere, my wife and I want to ensure that our daughters get the best education possible.

My eldest daughter, now in first grade, got exceptionally good schooling in California.  She attended kindergarten in The Harker School, an expensive private school that is exceptionally good at educating and nurturing their students while developing their characters.  My daughter finished kindergarten loving her school environment while being able to read and do math at the second-grade level.

Except They Use Cyrillic Alphabet In Россия

We (mainly my wife and my mother-in-law) surveyed local schools.  We looked at various options, like an English-only education.  We came to the conclusion that local public schools offered the best education alternative.  We were not satisfied with the education standards of any private school that we visited and found that certain public counterparts were, in fact, superior.

That being said, Moscow public school infrastructure is terribly neglected.  Desks are worn out, floors need to be resurfaced, some walls are in need of paint, so forth and so on.  If schools were to be judged by infrastructure alone, US public schools would be far more superior to their Russian counterparts.

Unfortunately for Americans, this is not the case.  From what I have observed thus far, Russian public schools are superior educational institutions than most American school with a fraction of the budget.  The infrastructure in my daughter's school is not the only thing in need of investment; the official salary of teachers in the same school is $300 a month.  I should remind you that Moscow is one of the world's most expensive cities.  Yet, the learning environment is good despite low budgets.

In the US, we like to throw money at problems.  If schools and students are underperforming, we blame the problem on lack of computers, qualified teachers (because salaries are too low), and so on.  Yet, despite all efforts, we fail to ask two simple questions as a society:
  • Can we create non-financial work incentives to attract the best people for educating the children, hence investing in the country's future?
  • Do we have the right expectations of our children about their behavior and performance in school?
In Russia, people regard teachers with respect and hold them in high esteem.  A teacher, despite her low salary, has a respectable position and enjoys high prestige.  In the US, we reserve our respect for the highest wage earners like Wall Street predators, ball players, and pop culture purveyors.  Through societal chauvinisms and norms, we tend to push the most talented people into high-wage positions because, as the logic goes, we believe in market forces, market forces reward the most productive individuals appropriately, and therefore market place rewards must get our respect.  Well, this logic is broken as the abismal and deteriorating performance of our public schools have demonstrated this over the past generation.  It is time to think about value of teachers and their contribution to society differently; basically, we need a cultural shift in the US.

Part of that cultural shift is our expectation of our children in school.  Being busy parents who are too exhausted to appropriately focus on our children, we outsource our responsibility to schools.  We do not push our children to learn, we do not nurture them nearly enough at home, and we have awfully low expectations of them.  With low expectations, children respond in kind.  In return, we blame the schools to whom we have outsourced our parental responsibilities for our children's shortcomings.  

To this point, it is worth reading Robert Samuelson's 6 September Op Ed piece in Washington Times.  I have quoted some the more salient points from his piece:
"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy ... The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Yes, students have to do the work, and parents have to make sure that students stay motivated to do the work.

Looking back at my daughter's excellent private school education in California, one of the school's strengths was to ensure that parents stay on task and continue to motivate their children.  The same characteristic is true of my daughter's current school in Moscow.

America, part of our national problem is us Americans:  We have low expectations for excellence from ourselves while having high expectations on getting the "American dream" the easy way.  It is time to wake up.

20 September 2010

Russian Bureaucracy Slower Than Slow Boat

And more unpredictable than the stormy seas on which the slow boat sails, I must add.

My household goods, shipped out from the Bay Area in California on 21 May 2010, finally made their way into my new household in Moscow, Russia on 17 September 2010.  The items, for the most part, made it intact.  But, it did take them nearly four months to make the door-to-door journey.  One would think that the cargo boat moving my stuff was about as fast as the catatonic boat marooned in statue form in the middle of Moscow River.

As it happens, the boat was as fast it was advertised to be.  The movers told me to wait up to 8 weeks.  My goods arrived to the appointed port on 7 July.  But, while my items where en route, the Russian government decided to change tariff laws suddenly and unpredictably.

As it happens, and Russians do confirm, Russian bureaucracy is as predictable in its inaction as it is unpredictable in action.  Mass confusion accompanied the enactment of the tariff law on 1 July.  Everyone was caught off guard, including customs officials who received my goods in the first place.  The advice was to "wait and see" whether the bureaucracy would come to its wits.

After 2 months of waiting, it was decided that it would not.  And, it took another 3 weeks of paperwork, negotiations, payments, and hard work by my colleagues to release my goods and deliver them to my place.

I am frequently amazed by the riches of Russia:  The creativity and work ethic of its people, the country's (now aging) industrial base, and the land's vast natural resources.  Clearly, a question has been why, with so much potential, Russia is not bigger economically than it is, and why are its people not richer than they are.  If the bureaucratic snafus that I witnessed are indicative, we may just have an insight into what gnaws away at Russia's prospects.

Slower than a slow boat, more unpredictable than stormy seas ...


Update:  Here is a Russian anecdote about their bureaucrats; unfortunately, there is too much truth in this anecdote to qualify it as a joke.
Frustrated, a Russian goes to his local bureaucrat's office for the third day in a row after being told the first two days to "come back tomorrow."  The bureaucrat, surprised by the Russian's return, exclaims:  Why don't you listen?  I keep telling you to come back tomorrow, but you keep coming back today.

15 September 2010

Russia in 2010 and 2100

The largest economy in the world in 2010, depending on who is measuring, is either the US or the EU.  It is seen as an inevitable fact that China with its 1.3 billion headcount and its rapid growth pace will be the world’s largest economy at some point in this century, and certainly by 2100.  

Having a local view of Moscow, and to some degree of Russia, I see enormous potential for this country.  Given its intellectual wealth, strong innovation ethics, and the country’s raw resources, there is no reason why this country could not have been the world’s third (after US and EU) largest economy in 2010 were it not for the setback of the 1917 revolution.  

Despite Russia’s present-day quirkiness – namely lack of transparency, a ruling class that is more self-interested than out for the good of Russia, and poorly distributed resources – the country is transforming for the better.  Corruption will abate significantly if the transparency issue is fixed.  This will lead to a more competent government, better distributed resources, and faster progress and economic growth. 

There is hope, and indeed the possibility, that Russia will emerge as a top five world economy this century in a club that may look like either one of these alternatives:

Whether the European Union will stay intact has major implications for the shape of the world in 2100.  Recent EU economic strife, expressed by the inflexibility of the Euro in Greece, Spain, and Portugal and dependence on aging German savers to fuel the spending habits of younger citizens in the southern part of the Union, has put strain on the European fabric.  If internal discord dismantles the EU, world poles of power will be China versus a union of convenience between the US, Japan, India, and Russia.  These four nations will be joined mainly to nervously monitoring the ambitions and actions of the Chinese, and curb them where possible.

However, if the EU stays intact, as it is the US’s interest, the poles of power will be China versus the West (US and EU) with occasional partnership with Russia and India.  Indeed, Russia and India may become more tightly integrated with the West, but doing so will come with considerable internal debate over the identities of these two nations who seem themselves as singular, sovereign, and not Western.  

In any case, here are some numbers that speak to Russia’s potential in the coming century.  Note Russia’s abundant human capital and natural resources, its resource and per capita infrastructure advantages over China, and its growth potential advantages over Japan and Germany.

Data Source:  The Word Fact Book

12 September 2010

More Hot Water

The hot water phenomenon repeated itself.  Hot water was pouring through every wateroutlet in the house, even the toilet flush.  I checked the shower valve position and was now (scientifically) convinced that the drunkard utility man was insane.
Scientifically Certified

After experimenting with the one and only water valve that seems to have anything to do with the external water supply, I came to the following realizations:

  • The one and only water valve only controls the flow of hot water into the apartment;
  • There is some sort of post-hot-water-valve linkage between hot and cold water pipes that mixes waters of different temperatures within the apartment;
  • When the hot water supply is very hot, it overwhelms the system and makes all water (hot and erstwhile cold) very hot.
  • If I reduce the hot water pressure into the apartment through the one and only valve, the cold water pressure prevails to the point that only lukewarm water comes out of the cold water taps.
And as such, I have learned to live with being in constant hot water.  This experience reinforces a lesson I learned with servicing my own high-speed internet connection in my previous apartment*.  Namely, one has to be a handy and crafty vigilante (at least) in utility matters in Russia.

V is for Vigilante


* In my previous apartment, I noticed that my high-speed internet modem kept resetting.  I got nowhere with my ISP after repeated calls (pretty much like the US).  I came to the conclusion that one potential reason for the constat resets (hence an unusable internet link) was a noisy line.  Being that my signal came through the old-fashion coaxial cable, I traced the line back to the utility closet.  There, I found splitter after splitter after splitter, with my connection sitting at the end point, hence getting the weakest signal.  Practicing vigilantism, I reconnected myself further upstream, thereby tapping into a stronger connection.  Problem solved - and I got my first lesson in becoming a Russian.