Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for August, 2012

The Trans-Siberian part 1

Once upon a time, over eight years ago, I started blogging (on Xanga of all places) as a way to log my travels across Eastern Europe. Now my blogging has become more about my thoughts and ideas, the wanderings and wonderings of my mind rather than myself in entirety. The change of course has been driven by my lack of travels but my desire to keep blogging.

I am currently sitting in a train going across Siberia. I ran a workshop in Japan and I decided to come back to Germany overland for my summer holidays, though I did have to fly to Vladivostok and will fly from Moscow (simple lack of time). This is actually the third attempt I’ve made at taking the Trans-Siberian. The first was in 2007 but my visa fiasco prevented me from taking a long trip. The second was last summer but I changed jobs, limiting the amount of time I had for my summer holidays.

In resurrecting my travelog, I am also going to resurrect my episodic style as well. And without further ado…

English not spoken (or displayed) here…
In one way, in a highly globalized world where many people aspire to speak English, the de facto international language, it’s a welcome change to find a country where most people absolutely cannot speak it. In another way, makes things very difficult.

All the guide books say that the Russians are proud of their language, and that’s not surprising considering the fact that it’s their own, they’ve had no humility-instilling major defeats (e.g. Germany, Japan), and they once had a major world-class civilization. This country makes navigating through France feel like cake walk, although like France, people just ramble in their own language expecting tourists to understand fully. Coupled with the different script, lack of helpfulness in general (more on this later), and minimal tourism industry, this is one of the harder countries to travel through with English.

I’m sure there are remote parts of Africa, Central Asia, China, Middle East, and the Pacific islands that are harder to travel in English, but I haven’t come across many.

Time is not money
While I’m sure things have improved drastically since the fall of the Soviet Union, the stereotype of the slow moving bureaucratic system rings true. Everything just takes longer in this country. Getting through immigration took over an hour, trains from the airport ran every other hour, checking into the hotel required the receptionist to use two computers, store queues move at the speed of molasses, and even ATMs take longer to dispense money. It’s a stark contrast from Japan where the train companies will apologize if your train was delayed for one minute. Having said that, trains are surprisingly on time here. It could be that their value lies in not saving time but doing as promised, no matter how extreme the promise maybe.

Right? Left? Right left?
Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian railway, is filled with used Korean and Japanese cars, often with their original signs and labels. It was fun to see markings of small and big Japanese companies on the side of trucks and vans. The Russians probably are wondering what those funny letters mean…

Some of you have probably are thinking… don’t the Japanese drive on the other side of the road with the wheel on the right side? Yes. Cars in Vladivostok are a mishmash of right-wheeled and left-wheeled cars, although Russians drive on the right side of the road, well, mostly…

Intersection where the side of driving changes, the far side being right-sided (normal) and closer side being left-sided (opposite)

Japanese vending machines
Used Japanese vending machines make it to Russia as well, complete with their stock of Japanese drinks. Prices were significantly higher than drinks available at regular super markets.

Japanese Dydo vending machine

What is the time?
Like most cities, there are clocks in public spaces, but almost always they are wrong, sometimes by as much as 45 minutes. Is this the Russian sense of time?

Moscow time
While Russia spans nine timezones, the heart of Russia is Moscow. As a result all the train times are set to Moscow time, even the local trains. If one doesn’t realize this, one could show up at the train station seven hours too early in Vladivostok.

Sendoff Music
When the train leaves the station for the first time in Vladivostok, a very Russian, patriotic-sounding music blares through the station speakers. It could very well have been the Russian national anthem, and it felt like I was being shipped out to war and there should be hundreds of babushkas waiving flags as the train started moving, something straight out of the movies.

Even the train station doesn’t know, and it’s not very comforting

Station display with ? marks

When I first arrived at the train station, the display was filled with ?s. It turned out to be the platforms for the trains and they simply hadn’t decided yet which platforms to use, but seeing ?s is kind of scary. They do the same in France but instead of putting ?s, they simply keep it blank.

Other French influences
Actually I don’t know if the platform system is modeled after the French system, but you can see that there are some French influences by looking through their language. A map is karta (carte in French), ticket is bilyet (billet in French), and cashier is kassa (caisse in French). I’m sure there are many more but this doesn’t mean knowing French will make one’s life in Russia any easier.

Photo OK museum
Most museums either forbid you to take photographs or don’t tell you otherwise. This museum happily encouraged it.

Or does this mean “Smile, you’re on camera”?

The worker is god
We say that the customer is god in Japan and the service industry is designed accordingly. According to my friend, service is not even a word in Russia. It’s another relic from the Soviet days where choices barely existed and workers were considered doing more for the customer than the other way around. There hasn’t been a single occasion when someone from the store approached me to ask if I wanted anything or to even tried to sell me something. It’s a stark contrast from traveling in places like Morocco where every single person you come across is your “best friend,” has the “best quality” something at the “best price,” and won’t leave you alone.

The attitude goes beyond just the surliness of the service industry workers but in the design of stores, cities, and beyond. Stores are not used to overly displaying what they are selling outside the store. Public services are poorly labeled, if at all. Many bus stations are simply unmarked and it’s impossible to determine what busses come and go where. Train stations often have one small sign at the center of the platform, making it impossible for people at the ends of the train to find out where they are. This is a country where if you want something, you have to work hard at it, not just in spending money but more, and you have to know, because they aren’t eager to tell you.

One word: Apathy
The overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten so far in Russia is that of apathy. I haven’t sensed a single bit of enthusiasm except from those who are taking shots of vodka. Everyone seems to be going through their days doing just enough to get by, and it shows in the workmanship.

If you worked in a restaurant with six customers, would you put out this fork?

At the same time, there are some magnificent statues and buildings, so maybe it’s that the things I care about, tuned to western sensibilities, aren’t in sync with what Russians care about. If that’s the case, I am curious to find out what that is.

“Russia isn’t easy even for Russians.”
My friend wrote those words in an e-mail to me. I may be coming through to be rather negative and judgmental in this post, but I think the reality is that this is a difficult country. It’s been twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and I still sense that this country is trying to find out how it wants to be capitalist, and from what I read, the political systems continually fails them, making the Russians one of the most unsatisfied people in the world (not that Japan is doing that much better). It would be interesting to come back here in another twenty to thirty years and see how they have changed from now.


This isn’t all to mean I’m not enjoying my trip. It’s been a great experience seeing an entirely another culture that doesn’t quite compare with anything I’ve seen before. The Trans-siberian so far has been as epic as promised, with gradually changing landscapes of immense proportions along with the constant reminder that there is so much more nature out there than man. The train ride while not luxurious is comfortable. This is not a third-world country. The cities are safe, there are little to no beggars on the streets, the basic infrastructure works, people are healthy, the stores are well stocked, and most things have unbargainable prices which match Western prices.

Of course all this is based on few days in Vladivostok and few days on the train. When I get to Moscow, my opinion may change greatly. If they do, I will write again. For now I’m going to enjoy the view and the slowly passing time with little to-do except read, write, and watch movies and TED talks.

One more photo to end the post:

Sunset on the Trans-Siberian railway


What would your slow life be?

Many of you reading this post probably have fast-paced lives filled with deadlines, responsibilities, and rapidly changing objectives. Many of you, probably like me, find this lifestyle interesting and exciting, but every so often have hesitations about keeping up with said pace of life. Sometimes you wonder what it would be like, to live a slower simpler life. What would your slow life be?

I attended a private New England boarding school for high school, the kind portrayed in Dead Poet Society. This isn’t the inner city schools you see in Boston Public or the suburban schools in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This is the ritziest of the ritziest, where tuition matched that of many universities and a nine-hole golf course surrounded the school. Walking across campus you would come across students whose parents ran Fortune 400 companies as well as kids of celebrities and politicians. Acceptance to an Ivy league or top 20 university was expected, and J. Crew catalogues were the reading material of choice.

I may be painting an elitist haven, exactly the kind of place that gets criticized in this world of growing inequality, but despite being disconnected from reality, the level of education there was fantastic. The school brought fantastic teachers who truly enjoyed teaching and while many of the students were rich and spoiled, there were also lots of smart intelligent students that raised the overall standard of the education. As a result of Hotchkiss, I cruised through the first one to two years of university, and while I had more fun in college, I may actually have learned more in high school. I also made few close lifelong friends that I still see once every so often. I don’t know if it was worth the price my parents paid, but I’m glad I went through the experience.

In my slow life, I could imagine myself teaching at a school like this. I know some people who did Teach for America, a program for recent college graduates to teach at under-resourced schools, often in inner cities, and I definitely would not want the life of such a high school teacher. However, a school like Hotchkiss, where the students are well-behaved and intelligent, I could see myself enjoying it. Furthermore, since Hotchkiss is a private school, it has much more freedom in designing its own curriculum, and while I will probably be responsible for some standard math and science classes, I would also like to create my own course on technology, engineering, and design. After school I would coach Ultimate Frisbee and in some evenings, I may host students for a movie night.

So would I ever do something like this? Maybe someday in the distant future. The issue with a life like this is that the future is so visible. Year in and year out, students come and go, but life on campus is incredibly constant. Sure there are some scandals here and there, but overall, there is little to no ambiguity. I worry that if I did something like this, my life would suddenly fast forward for a few decades and I would be looking back at everything else I could have done.

For now, I would rather run as fast as I can, so everything else looks slower.


What’s in a brand?

When you admit that your product is perfectly replaceable with your competitor’s.

In one point of view, code sharing, the practice of operating a flight under multiple different carriers’ codes, makes sense. Airlines can expand their network without having to offer more flights and load share amongst each other, and passengers can access connection routes that were not available before.

On the other hand, the airlines no longer have control or responsibility over the passengers’ experience. Imagine going to a McDonald’s and being handed a Whopper from the Burger King next door, booking a vacation to Corsica and being taken to Majorca instead, or purchasing a Toyota Camry and finding a Honda Accord delivered to your doorsteps. So then why is booking a Lufthansa flight and being thrown on a United Airlines plane perfectly acceptable?

Maybe it’s not a terrible thing when the code sharing is amongst major airlines in one of the big three alliances. At least to join the alliance, there are some minimum quality requirements. However, when Air France, France’s flagship carrier, puts me on Flybe, a low-cost carrier with its obligatory hard-sell flight attendants barely making minimum wage pitching food and duty free, there is something broken.

The major airlines love to advertise the quality of their services, but what’s the point when you don’t even know if you’ll be flying with them?


Dreams and Plans

I caught this quote in another one of Sarah’s wonderful posts:

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.”

— Gloria Steinem

I love this metaphor because it works in so many dimensions.

Planning without execution takes you nowhere, like dreaming without chasing.

What’s important is not the plan or the dream, but the first step, and the journey beyond.

To follow a plan exactly is as idiotic as not having a plan. To blindly chase a dream can be just as dangerous as not having a dream.

There is nothing wrong with a vague plan or a vague dream. It’s just a starting point, not the path.

Plan big, dream accordingly.


Cocktail party conversation on design

“What do you do for a living?”

“I teach design.”

“Oh, what kind of design? Web design? Automotive design?”

“Not quite.”

“What do you design then?”

“Well? What comes to mind when you think of the word design?”

“I don’t know, cars? clothes?”

“Objects right? We often think of design in conjunction with some finished artifact like car design, graphic design, or fashion design, a noun modified by another noun. I actually work more in design as a verb, the process of designing something or coming up with something new.”


“So take, say, this pen for an example. There was definitely the designer who decided how it should look, the grip, the material, and there was a design engineer who made sure that I can click it thousand times and it won’t break. But who came up with the idea of a pen anyway?”

“A designer?”

“Exactly. Before there was a pen, someone had to come up with the idea of a pen right? I mean writing has existed for a long time, and the first things we used were crude like feathers, but successive generation of designers kept improving the tools of writing. Some designer noticed that the ink on traditional pens kept drying up and came up with this ingenious ball point pen mechanism. Another designer noticed that it’s frustrating to use two hands to take off the cap and came up with the click-click mechanism.”

“So you’re in innovation?”

“That’s the word that is often associated my community these days.”

“But how do you teach that? To come up with that lightbulb?”

“I can’t say there is one process. It’s crazy to think that one process of innovation can keep innovating over and over right? I focus more on the mindset and the approach, and try to drill that in through successive exercises and real world simulations.”


“I like to compare design more to sports than science, and when you try to get better at sports, you don’t just drill theory over and over like we do with most academic subjects.”

“You learn by playing.”

“Exactly. By trying it many times, finding out what works and what does’t, and building up your skills and intuition.”


“Thank you. I feel like I’ve been talking your head off though. What do you do?”

This is based off of many cocktail party conversations I had when I lived in Paris. I became pretty good at explaining what I do, which hasn’t always been easy. Now I need to practice the same with my current job in Frankfurt: Concept Developer.


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