30 March 2011

A Long Winter

It snowed in Moscow today.  I mean, it really snowed; it was dumping out there.  The ground was too warm for the snow to accumulate, but a nice, slick sheen of ice was everywhere afterwards, reminding everyone that Moscow indeed has a long winter.

A Long Winter by Stephen Datz

This winter, Moscow's first snow was on 13 October 2010.  If today's snow proves to be the last of the season (a doubtful speculation), then the winter shall have been 168 days long.

In case you need to be reminded of it, the year only has 365 days.  This only leaves 197 days for the remaining 3 seasons.

28 March 2011

Russian Site Aims to Expose State Corruption - NYTimes.com

Russian Site Aims to Expose State Corruption - NYTimes.com

I wrote about Aleksei Navalny on 8 March. Sunday's New York Times has a featured article on the gentleman.

Here is a more ominous passage from the article:
The chief executive of Transneft, Nikolai Tokarev, a veteran of the Soviet K.G.B., has suggested that Mr. Navalny is a shill for the Central Intelligence Agency, ordered to smear the reputations of important Russian companies. 
Nothing has followed from these charges so far. Mr. Navalny, though, became so unnerved that he gave his wife a list of phone numbers to call if he disappeared — other lawyers, journalists and opposition politicians. 
“They could arrest me at any moment,” Mr. Navalny explained

Earth Hour 2011 | Earth Hour 2010 before and after images | Moscow, Russia

Earth Hour 2011 | Earth Hour 2010 before and after images | Moscow, Russia

The article is not terribly interesting, but the slider feature is not bad. More importantly, the picture will give you a decent view of one of the numerous nice views of the Moscow night.

The big building in the picture of one of the Seven Sisters.

20 March 2011

It is Spring, Happy New Year

It is 4:21 pm on 20 March 2011.  It is now officially spring.

It is also Norouz, or the Persian new year.  Happy new year.

The Persian New Year is not just for Persians; it is celebrated by peoples in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Albania, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia (the one next to Armenia), Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kosovo, Kurdish territories, and of course in Iran.

One of the celebratory emblems of Norouz is the Haftsin spread.  Haftsin includes seven elements, all of which start with the Persian letter s (س).  These elements symbolize rejuvenation, affluence, love, health, patience, sunrise, and medicine (I cannot figure out the last one - but it is health-related I suppose).

For those who are tracking, this spring marks the Persian year of 1389 (۱۳۸۹).  Happy Norouz to all.

19 March 2011

Sex(y) Sells

Being in downtown Moscow is being in a thriving European city.  Downtown is pedestrian friendly and replete with small shops, boutiques, and restaurants.

Within two city blocks of my house, you will find dozens of restaurants, convenient stores, bars, specialty goods stores, and boutiques selling high-end gifts and clothing.  In the past year that I have lived in my neighborhood, I have noticed that there is high turnover.  These shops and restaurants go out of business quickly; and just as quickly, they are replaced by another with a different business model (hats off to capitalistic experimentation).

There has been one constant, however.  While shoe stores, coat boutiques, restaurants, and parfumeries all have come and gone, the women's sexy underwear store - appropriately named Agent Provocateur -  has been going resolutely steady.

Covers the Rent, If Not Much of Anything Else

From what I observe from outward appearance, Russian women are a sexy bunch.  From what is apparent from commerce patterns, that sexiness runs through and through.

14 March 2011

It Must Be Love

A female staff member in the office recently had a freak workout accident on the treadmill.  The result was visible bruises and scars on her face, arm, and hand.

Two days later, as she was riding on the metro on her way to work, a babushka consoled her by saying "if he beats you, then he loves you."

I have heard that in pre-revolutionary times, it was commonplace for good Russian husbands to "discipline" their wives and show their "love" (wife beating was probably far more common in the US around the same time).  But, I wonder, if there is something deeper at play in the Russian psyche.

Russians are a remarkably patient and resilient people.  They put up with all sorts of abuse in all sorts of places - the kind that would break an American's spirit in any social quarter and lead to a new revolution and the dissolution of the country.  Yet, Russians manage to keep it together; they keep their chins up, and trot ahead as their country plods forward with uncertainty while being abused by gangs of robber barrons.

From Russia, With Love

It must be love.

10 March 2011

Lack of Transparency: The Endangered Journalist

Russia is purported to be one of the deadliest countries for journalists.  This is a problem, least for the journalists who practice their profession inside this country.  The greatest problem is for Russians.

Former Russian Journalist, Now Safer in the North Pole

A free press is an essential pillar of a functioning democracy.  By reporting information, journalists arm citizens with the knowledge needed to guide the affairs of state through collective action (also known as voting, referenda , lobbying, etc.).  Journalists create transparency.  With transparency, individuals can make the best decision for themselves.  Through democratic action (and proper protection of minority rights), individuals create a stronger state - one that serves them and hopefully future generations for better outcomes than otherwise would be possible.

The problem with intimidating journalists that happen to report on the wrong topic (such as a new highway construction) is that it creates  a stinking funk of something that needs to be hidden.  If all was as it was supposed to be, no one would get beaten or killed. In other words, either a law or a long-standing social contract was being violated - and that violation needed to stay out of sight.

Laws may be unfair (I disagree with many US and California laws), but that unfairness should be open to public examination and subject to a process of public debate and change - if needed and as needed.  The lack of respect for the legal institution creates a two-tiered society, where one class is above the law and operates with impunity and the other who is subjected to the legal code on an ad hoc basis mainly for subjugation.  In the long term, this two-class system undermines the state and makes life worse for everyone.  Conversely, respect for law and the democratic process enhances the standing of the state and makes it a better and more favorable for everyone involved.

Russia is an incredible country with an enormous potential.  It it home to some of the best educated people on the planet with a deep culture of creativity and innovation.  It also is one of the richest country - if not the richest - on Earth, when measured by natural resources.

Broken Journalism, Broken Information Pipe

By allowing journalists to operate freely, Russian citizens can get a better picture of where their country is and where it is heading.  Armed with that information, Russians can make the best decision for themselves as to how they should forge their state in the twenty-first century and beyond.  Without the service of the journalists and the information they provide, the average Russian is subject to being robbed of his future, both literally and figuratively.

08 March 2011

And Next On The Death List

Alexei Navalny is a popular Russian blogger.  He cleverly exposes government corruption through court action or instigating investigations where there are foul smells of governmental malfeasance.

For instance, he has exposed multiple instances of petty Russian officials' penchant to purchase very expensive luxury cars (like an armored Audi A8L) where a more modest and reliable vehicle (like a Ford Fusion) would have been more than plenty.

Hero, Maybe Martyr

Unfortunately, Russia has a disposition to kill its investigative journalists for relatively trivial exposés.  Mr. Navalny is not a journalist; he is a public activist.  But his mission puts him the crosshairs of harm's way.

His best defense may be his popularity and the fact that he could be more dangerous dead than alive.  The question then becomes what to do with a living Mr. Navalny:  Let him continue his crusade or buy him off?

07 March 2011

Signs of Life

Just from my observations on the street, its scope and structure suggests that corruption is a cancer that has reached into every corner of Russia's government, including its highest seats.  But, there has been little hard evidence implicating the highest seats.

New Tzar's New Versailles

That was until RuLeaks.net published a set of photos of a gargantuan palace being built, allegedly for Mr. Putin's personal use.  The palace's price tag is estimated to be $1 billion, of course funded by the public purse and built on public land.  The property is 750,000 square meters or 8,000,000 square feet in size (but you should have hardly noticed it because Russia is such a large country).

Rest Well With Conscience At Ease

This allegation raised a tiny stir; however, most (highly educated) folks that I spoke with regarding this matter shrugged it off and said things like "but what can I do?" or "in Russia, we expect leaders to be hungry."

Comment on RULeaks.net

But there is a small sign of life for civic pride in Russia.  That tiny stir was enough to get officials to publicly comment that the intention of using the palace for Mr. Putin's personal use was "journalistic fiction" and summarily dispose of the evidence by selling it for $350 million to one of the more reclusive Russian billionaires.

05 March 2011

Economic Indicators

Having lived in Northern California for a good chunk of time, I have noticed a pattern:  Local traffic conditions are inversely correlated to local economical health.

IH 280:  Good Economic Times, Bad Traffic

Take the stretch of Highway 101 between its intersection with Highway 237 in Sunnyvale and Highway 92 in San Mateo, or the infamous intersections of Highway 85 and Interstate Highway 280:  The better the employment picture is in Northern California, the more miserable commuters are in these road segments.

2008 Economic Meltdown and IH 280:  Where Did Everyone Go?

During the heydays of the tech bubble from 1997-2000, commuting on these road segments was a miserable chore.  Then the bubble burst in late 2000 and traffic conditions improved.  With some unevenness but a relatively steady growth, traffic conditions continued to worsen from 2003 through 2008. Then, overnight, with the meltdown fo the global financial markets, traffic melted away from the same roads.

I may have a similar proxy for Moscow's economic health:  The metro.  I arrived to Moscow in November 2009, a time to which every Muscovite referred to as "The Crisis."  Moscow was reeling from the double whammy of the global economic meltdown and falling oil prices.  At that time, the metro had enough seats even for dogs.

Moscow Metro Dog Rides Happily In Early 2010

Times have changed.  The Middle East in on fire and oil prices have spiked over $100 a barrel.  Traffic congestion on the metro has also increased significantly.

High Oil Prices

= Equals = 

Tough Moscow Metro Ridership

Thank you Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for adding joy to my morning commute.  But, as the top oil exporter in the world, Russia thanks you for spiking the oil price.

Troublesome In Lockerbie, Berlin, Benghazi, and Moscow

Wandering Weekends

Today is Saturday.  Unlike the US, where Saturdays are part of the sacrosanct weekend, today is a working day in Russia.

Not every Saturday is a working day in Russia; in fact, most are reserved to be glorious days off work.  But this Saturday is a special day.

You see, March 8 is a huge holiday in Russia; dubbed as "International Women's Day" or IWD.  IWD started out as a Socialist event in the early Twentieth Century and is more rigorously celebrated in the places that you would suspect:  Former Eastern Block and Soviet Union countries, Cambodia, China, etc.  However, these days, IWD is no longer a political event; it is really a sexist event where poor men are muscled, exhorted, compelled, coerced, browbeaten, and blackjacked to show their love and appreciation for women.  In other words, it is sort of of like a man's wedding anniversary + Mothers Day + Valentine's Day all wrapped in one.

Umm ... Happy Woman's Day?

As it happens, March 8 is on a Tuesday this year, and this begins to explain why today, Saturday, is a working day.

Imagine, for a moment, that Fourth of July were to occur on a Tuesday or a Thursday.  As inconvenient as this may be, the preceding Monday or the following Friday would be work days.  In the US, however, many people would take a vacation day on that Monday or Friday to have a four-day weekend.

In Russia, things work a bit differently.  Because three-day weekends are deemed as goodness, it is seen as a perfectly practical practice to declare Saturday a working day in order to declare Monday a weekend day.  And so, people get to have their three day holiday; in this case it is a two weekend days of Sunday and Monday plus a sexist celebration of some sort in the form of a national holiday.

Definitely, It's Worth Mucking Up the Calendar for This 

P. S.  Working on Saturdays is pretty much like working on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  The day is rather short, and hardly anything gets done.

P. P. S.  Happy International Women's Day indeed - and thanks for the opportunity to poke a little fun.

02 March 2011


Yesterday, being 1 March and all, I kept hearing how the spring season had just begun.  Trouble was that the thermometer was reading -18 C (0 F).  This feels pretty much like winter to me; but, welcome to "spring," Moscow style.

1 March in Moscow:  This is NOT spring.

The precise commencement of spring has been a debate topic between my wife and me for over a decade.  She, being Russian, contends that 1 March marks the beginning of spring.  I wax astronomical and  explain that the vernal equinox, occurring on 20/21 March annually (assuming that you are on the Gregorian calendar), marks the true beginning of the spring season.

Equinox happens twice a year and is identified by Earth's equator being on the same plane as the ellipse that defines Earth's orbit around the sun.  Vernal equinox happens when your portion of Earth is tilting towards the sun.  If you happen to be in the northern hemisphere, March 20/21 is your date; if you are a southerner, September 22/23 is your vernal equinox.  The automnal equinox occurs when your part of Earth is tilting away from the sun: September 22/23 if you are a northerner or March 20/21 if you are a southerner.

Giving a shout out to my heritage, I find the modern Persian calendar is the most logical (solar) calendar that I have come in contact with thus far.  A new year begins with the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere.  Seasons are (more or less) neatly tucked away into three month compartments.  The first six months of the year all have 31 days.  Months 7 through 11 all have thirty days.  And the last month if the year has 30 or 29 days based on a year's designation as a leap year - or not.

This is More Like It

In any case, and speaking in astronomical terms, spring is about three weeks away; it is "almost" here.  If your mark of the new season is the buzzing bees and the budding of trees, and you are in Moscow, you will have to wait unti May.  Alas, we still have a ways to go.