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Journal WaywardGeek's Journal: Zvi OrBach, and Romania in 1999 1

As I've just thrown out a bit of a nasty comment about Zvi OrBach, so I'd like to explain a bit more here. First, Zvi considers himself a man of high ethical standards. I'm no moral relativist, but Zvi is from the Middle East, where I suspect lying to the patent office and Romanian employees is considered wise, rather than unethical. At AMI, I dealt mostly with very ethical Christians and Mormons, and I figured it'd be hard to be screwed by the likes of these people. However, I discovered that a company with weak leadership is capable of acting like the worst individual that could be made from the worst aspects of all of it's leaders. One John Stone provided much of those worst aspects, but others provided irrational fear, NIH, kingdom building, genuine stupidity, etc. The individual made from these traits is not someone you can actually deal with.

I loved the trip to Romania Zvi sent me on in 1999. I often wish I could go back there for a while. I'm sure Romanians on this list could properly describe Romania, but I'd like to say how it was for an American geek. First, I was not allowed to carry any significant amount of cash, and there was no such thing as credit cards. Instead, I had a person assigned to make sure I was well taken care of all the time. This is probably a very good thing. The first day, my guide and friend stepped between me and a poor child on the street who was reading a newspaper while walking past me. My guide explained that it was likely that the kid had a knife behind it to cut the laptop shoulder strap while another kid stole it. The poverty on the streets in Bucharest was quite sad, but the city was in many ways like all international cities, vibrant with activities, great food, and culture. We drove to a city which I believe is IaÅYi, though Zvi called it Yas or something similar, so I remained confused as to where I actually was.

IaÅYi for me was a place of great contradictions. The beauty of some architecture was breathtaking, old and magnificent, while much of where people actually lived was dull and uninspired, built under communist rule. I stayed at a hotel considered very nice for the area, and have no complaints. The bed was very small, more like a cot, but it was fine. One night a very beautiful tall slender girl knocked at my door, and opened her over-coat, revealing barely legal clothing underneath. She said "Speak, and I there", and pointed to the floor. Now, I am a huge geek, and I was married, but you'd think I'd figure out what she meant. I thought she was saying she had lost her dress under the couch, but there was nothing there. It took about five minute for her to get me to understand what she was suggesting, and then I was quite embarrased and turned her down as nicely as I could, which frankly was hard for me to do. I think fear was what kept me honest to my wife that night, fear of catching some disease, fear that my room was being taped and I'd be black-mailed, fear that she would somehow wind up taking my laptop (the only valuable thing I had).

The software team was a group of around 10 employees, mostly in their 20's, who had degrees from the University. They worked in one room, on stools, with the worst PC hardware available on the market. Zvi had a Jewish buddy living here, who was running the whole thing, and one thing Zvi may not have realised is that he paid for Dell computers or equivalent, but the team got much cheaper hardware. His buddy pocketed the difference. A major problem was that the network barely worked at all, because the wiring was sub-standard. Their eithernet cables were super thin, and many just didn't work. I'd never seen eithernet cables like that, but someone was making money by skimping a penney per foot, and the software team was hard pressed to collaborate at all. It was litterally a sweat shop, where the heat from the machines and our bodies made the room quite uncomfortable.

But, the team love to write code, some of them were pretty good, and the others seemed to learn quickly. There was an experienced coder named George who's code was outstanding. I hope he was allowed to run the team and train the rest. There was a very nice and very smart girl I believe I called "Cat", who always wore a suit jacket. It turned out she was 8 months pregnant, but didn't want me to know, and she hid her condition under her coat, and gave birth something like 2 weeks after I left. We needed access to Synplicity FPGA software, which I helped develop in my previous job. Everyone already had copies on their machines, and I wondered how they could all be running softare worth seveal times the machines. It turned out that every piece of software in the place was pirated, mostly code broken by Russians. They had Cadence layout tools, and Synopsys Design Compiler, and virtually anything they wished. They had a million dollars worth of software running on $200 computers.

The highest paid employee got $200/month, but a Big Mac cost something like $4. Instead of American fast food, we ate at local resturants with outdoor seating and amazing food for $0.50. The chicken soup was so thick and delicious it could warm your whole body and leave you wanting to return just for the food. Beer by some unit greater than a pint was cheaper than Coke, and not bad. They had a local wine for $3/bottle that I loved so much, I brought some back to California, to discover that the wine acutally tasted pretty bad in California. The difference must have been the food pairing, and ambience, or maybe even a shift in attitude. To go to the bathroom at the resturant, you had to pay a nickle to an old lady who guarded it.

The University was a combination of beautiful and ugly buildings, probably because of when they were built. In one of the older beautiful ones, the bathroom was more elegant than a bathroom should be, with carved marble everywhere. However, the plumbing leaked a continous stream from multiple places to a drain in the middle of the floor. Everything was in a sad state of dis-repair. In courtyards that should have had fountains and students studying, there were broken down cars and mud. The same was true of the people. The programmers I worked with were healthy, and from what I could tell, happy, intelligent and mostly pretty nice looking. They were geeks with a good sense of humor. One of them was a guy with long hair who I thought of as a bit of a hippy, but I think he was the best adjusted of the lot. He alone told me he had no desire to ever leave Romania. He loved his home and told me of hiking and fishing in the mountains, and how he enjoyed his family. I think the poverty weighed heavily on the rest, though they were doing well compared to most in the city. On the streets, we'd see Gypsies who looked like they were starving, and the place had pitiful wild dogs, who breed to the extend that they can find enough food to survive. I think the Gypsies were suffering a similar fate, and I think the Romanians and I tried to not look at them. It was too hard, and there was nothing we could do.

Zvi wanted to get visas so he could have a couple Romanian programmers working at his house in San Jose all the time. Basically he wanted super cheap labor, that would be paid $200/month or less, living in Silicon Valley. I went to the American Consulate with my guide, waited through a long line and suddenly was in America, with Americans speaking proper American English, and trying to hold to very American values. We talked with the lady who had the power to grant such a visa, presenting myself as evidence that this was a real American company, not some Romanian sham. My guide brought her flowers, and clearly indicated that he just wanted to pay the expected bribe. Even I could figure out what he meant. The lady seemed insulted, as I would expect Americans to be, and turned us down flat. When Zvi found out, he was angry, and tried every means to increase the bribe, etc. I've never seen him so angry. He was outraged. Was his money not good enough for Americans? Zvi and the Romanians seemed to agree that the lady suffered from many evil qualities I wont go into. They were deeply insulted that she would not accept a generous bribe. It was racist. It was ugly Americans who thought they were better than Romanians. You wouldn't believe how long they could go on about the injustice of it all.

Zvi's buddy, the Jewish man running the operation, was friendly and deeply religious. He invited me to his home, a small condo, and I met his charming family. Everyone was so nice, the Jewish boss, the Romanian programmers, everyone. However, the Romanians hated Jews with a passion that was clear bigotry. Jews had over time exploited them, they felt, as Zvi's buddy was doing at present. The Jewish boss certainly didn't feel bad about exploiting the local labor. The one thing they agreed on was that they hated Hungarians and Gypsies. Everyone was willing to lie to and steal from everyone else, and this did not seem immoral to them, so far as I could tell. Everyone hated every other identifiable group, and blamed them for their problems.

My guide and friend was certainly no exception. Before leaving, he proposed to start his own programmer sweat shop, and he'd only charge me $2,000/month per person. By the way, Zvi's buddy had ten programmers, but he had them working for multiple clients without the clients knowing about it, so he was overcharging. I'm sure my guide thought he could pay a programmer $200/month and get $4,000 from clients. This, I suspect, is why Romania remained so poor... it was impossible to find an honest person to do business with. After ending my consulting relationship with eASIC, I would have gladly helped set up a business paying programmers $400/month for programmers rented out for $800/month. My friend the guide could have made probably $300/month per programmer, and would have been relatively wealthy compared to others in his city. I would have felt great about increasing the income of the workers, helping them to raise families, and would have gotten a screaming good deal in terms of software development costs. But how could I trust my friend and guide? He was scheming to steal away his boss's business, and clearly thought I had no idea how little he would have to pay his programmers. I know that I would be taken advantage of in every possible way. Code I paid to be developed would be secretly sold to the highest bidder, or more likely all bidders. The programmers themselves would keep copies and use it for any benefit they could find. I honestly hope things have gone well for all of these people. They are charming and intelligent. If I knew of some way to work with them, I would. I don't feel that Zvi, his Jewish buddy in Romania, or any of the Romanians are unethical. They're just different, in a way that naturally happens to people who have been through hell. When times get hard, I would hope that people would come together to try and help each other. I think it does in some places and some cultures, but at some point the cheaters and lairs start doing better than the rest, and if the hard times persist, more people become cheaters and lairs until no one can remember why anyone would want to be honest. It's a self-perpetuating state, where a culture of cheaters and lairs becomes unable to pull itself out of poverty.

The last time I went out at night with the programmers (they were expected to go out with me to dinner every night), we were in a couple of cars that came to a railroad crossing just as a train pulled to a stop maybe 50 feet away. The train was close enough to trigger the lights warning drivers not to cross, but there were no gates to come down an block our way. It was a single track, and the train was clearly stopped, and in no hurry to get moving again. We were at the front of the line. There was zero danger in crossing and continuing to the restaurant. Never the less, these kind people who clearly would steal me blind given a chance, sat there, refusing to move. Cars lined up behind us for maybe 50 yards, and another line formed on the other side of the tracks, going the other direction. Not one person honked or complained. When I said we should just cross, everyone in the car seemed to get upset, as though I had just recommended incest or something. It's like they believed I had no ability to determine right from wrong. You just don't break laws in Romania like crossing tracks when the lights are flashing. Whatever... I guess I didn't stay long enough to begin to understand the culture.

I asked my friend and guide if I could take him and his fiancée to the best restaurant in town, to thank him for everything he had done for me. He agreed, and wound up at a place that charged huge prices - probably $10 per person for dinner. It was a Tex-Mex American restaurant. It was packed with poorer retired Americans who were in Romania for a cheap vacation. The food was nothing special. However, everything was clean. The waitresses were pretty and friendly, and nicely dressed. The bathroom was spotless. The Romanian couple with me seemed to feel this place was wonderful. I would have rather spent fifty cents for some of that great Romanian food.

Romania, at least the part around IaÅYi, is beautiful, with rich culture, art, and architecture. The mountains remind me of the Black Hills of South Dakota (which if you haven't seen, by all means, get going!). The people are genuinely kind and well educated. I love the place. I agree with the long-haired programmer. If I were Romanian, I wouldn't ever leave. It's one of the best places on Earth. I hope the last decade has brought luck and prosperity to those people. They need it.

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Zvi OrBach, and Romania in 1999

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"The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception a neccessity." - Oscar Wilde