Flight School: Transparency Not -- A Little Rant

The thing that drives me crazy about this place is that there are no maps. Every week it seems that I have a class in some new place I have never heard of, and there's no map to find out where it is.

Posit that I am already crazy - an efficiency- and explicitness-obsessed American - and that I signed up for this training at least in part to challenge my own obsessions...to see if I could survive a three-month immersion in a culture of obscurity and whispers.

Mostly I'm rising to the challenge, but today is one of the bad days. So yes, why can't they provide a map of this place? Ironically, the training glories in visualizations. There are schematics of the Soyuz capsule and the space station, across four planes. Each system and subsystem is described with (fuzzy) photographs and precise diagrams and flow charts. One of the lessons focuses on the exact locations of the three kinds of electrical outlets throughout the space station, each one with its own number.

Yet for the training itself there are no maps and no schedule beyond the spreadsheet I get in the mail each Friday for the following week. Yesterday I found out that next Monday is a holiday. Well, of course, I could have asked...but I didn't think to. And at least I found out yesterday, not this coming Friday.

So... now that I have expended and exhaled a little frustration, Why is Russia like this? And why does it bother me so?

Well, it's like this because that was the culture. In one sense, information is power. In another, it's not worth much because people with few choices are not in the habit of making plans or weighing alternatives; they just wait for the future to unfold, day by day. People who don't move around much don't need maps...and maps provide an entrée for strangers that might be dangerous. Best to let newcomers learn from the old hands...That way, one can keep an eye on the newcomers; they're the ones who keep asking questions. And everyone follows the existing paths, because no one can see clearly enough to forge new ones.

In the old days, in fact, maps were pretty much forbidden and most older Russians can't read maps. Young ones, however, glory in them, and in real-time traffic maps on cell phones in particular. So perhaps there's hope.

Likewise, there are sites popping up that foster information transparency. Take Tutu.ru, a travel portal that started as a simple "why doesn't anyone post reliable light-rail schedules anywhere?" do-it-yourself website. (In Russia trains go tu-tu, just as they go choo-choo in English!). Five years later, the site is profitable and growing quickly; it attracts 50,000 visitors a day. It publishes demographics to attract advertisers, and sells airline tickets through partners.

Banki.ru does the same for banks; it offers consumers information about banks, bank rates, how to manage money...everything the millions of Russian newcomers to the world of consumer finance could want to know. Millions of people are slowly becoming better informed...and changing their expectations about being informed. Now if they could only start expecting and getting the same clarity about the activities of their government... Stop and smell the snow?

But that hasn't happened in Star City yet. Every week, I spend hours trudging around that I could spend more productively if I just knew in advance what I was in for...and I could buy cheaper airline tickets if I could just get a clear handle on my schedule a few weeks out. Russians don't yet value time - their own or other people's. Even with cell phones, people often don't bother to call if they're late... A few weeks ago I got to one of the entry gates early and found a crowd of happily chatting women waiting. "The guard'll be here in a moment," they assured me. After five minutes, I asked, "When is it supposed to open?" "Oh, not for another ten minutes. But the other gate is already open.." I raced off to the other gate, saving perhaps five minutes net in the end. Who's the nutty one? Well, had I known earlier about the other gate...

As for why it troubles me: I hate waste. It offends me, whether it's my own or someone else's system that is inefficient. I can spend a whole half-hour in the pool trying to optimize whether I should carry my PC around - so that if a session ends early as one did today - I can sit in the arm chair in the alcove on the second floor of building 2 and use the time productively. The "cost" of this is a bit of a backache from lugging the PC, along with three heavy books of board documentation for the simulation this afternoon, and the slight danger that I will slip on the ice and total my PC. The benefit is saving half an hour's roundtrip between campus and dorm.

Today the trade-off worked well. The first session did end early and so I had 90 minutes to sit here in the alcove with my PC and write this blog...and efficiently transform my angst into a blog post.


Even the good bits are random. Today at breakfast I found three chocolate bars next to my plate. The tables are pre-set and we each have our place. No one else had any chocolate at all. Such things show up from time to time, but usually they're in a bowl at the center of the table. Anyway, I took all three....I think they were meant for me.