Monday, December 27, 2010

old friends

I've seen a lot of people while back in the Bay Area. In that sense, it's been really good to be back for these last couple weeks. And now, I'm a day away from heading back to work in a galaxy far, far away, that possibly exists a long time ago as well. I'm not really sure about that last part. Air travel causes relativistic effects, right?

Every trip home for the last few years, and especially this one and the one back in March has had a checklist feel to it for seeing people, hitting up certain restaurants, and trying to run various errands typically related to work-related paperwork or banking business to deal with while I'm near a branch. In a way, it's good to be busy, but at the same time, I almost always return to work not feeling very rested. Of course, that may have something to do with the 20+ hours of flying time and about 10 hours of layover time I will have between the time I takeoff from SFO and the time I land in POG. I know the obvious solution I will hear from many (and have already heard), which takes variations on the form of "quit your job and come back to California". No, not with the unfinished business to, well, finish.

Despite all this, I saw someone from college yesterday I had not seen since graduation and it was great. Great to know people are doing well, in particular this person has seen some ups and downs in the last six years, but is in a much better place now. As cliche as it may sound, I'm happy to see that my friend is happy and doing well and moving forward with life.

In general, I've seen several people I have not seen since college graduation or even longer ago from high school days. In the sense that it means anything, these are my 'people'. This is where I am from after all and this is the closest thing to a real home I have, but it's still not home. Yet.

north power station?

Warning: this post is incredibly esoteric. With that stated, I was just skipping around some movies on my laptop and was taking another gander at selected scenes from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Near the end, when they are trying to destroy the Death Star, Lando Calrissian says to Wedige Antilles, "go for the power regulator on the north tower." Wait a second. North? They are in the center of the Death Star. There is no north. Or south or east or west. It's the middle of a miniature planetoid. How does that have any meaning to them unless they have already assigned a reference system to the Death Star? I demand answers!

Friday, December 24, 2010

ronin christmas

One of my favorite movies, perhaps because it leaves itself with an element of mystery in the end, is Ronin. Plus, it has excellent car-chase sequences that feature not only superbly great driving and power sliding but also no ridiculous car explosions.

There is a great sentiment expressed in a line (or two lines if you will) between two of the primary characters:
Vincent (Jean Reno): What do you want for Christmas?
Sam (Robert De Niro): My two front teeth.

Sounds about right.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

no appointment necessary

What a scam. Despite what the US Department of State website says and their somewhat helpful people on the 877 phone system say, you do NOT need to make an appointment if you go to the Passport Agency in person. It's all lies. In fact, the line that people without an appointment were directed into to get a number was shorter than the line for people with an appointment.

Friday, December 17, 2010

not exactly a vacation week

That aforementioned thing in my previous post had to do with work. I had business-related matters to take care of in Texas, so this really hasn't been much of a week off. And now, it's ending with me having no passport and lots of uncertainty on where it is and generally lots of stress and tension from this situation. I've been chasing down FedEx and the embassy trying to get someone to go the extra mile for me and it has not really panned out very well so far. The eternal optimist in me still has hope, but the realist in me will always go with the old standby that "hope is not a plan." Thus, the plan is centered around an appointment at the Passport Agency office in San Francisco scheduled for next Tuesday, a rather inconvenient time. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

done with that thing about the thing

Well, that's done with. You know, that thing I'm here in this place for. While not strictly over, at least this part is done for now. I'm flying back to California tomorrow, landing at SFO in the morning, hanging out with a college friend in the afternoon and probably chilling with the bro somewhere to watch the Thursday night 49ers game.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

storage space

Ah ha! So that's where I had been keeping that great duffel bag. It's making the trek back to cloudy California now along with what reasonably fits into an extra checked bag.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Still good, but one day I'll fly Virgin America to see which domestic carrier is tops.

Friday, December 10, 2010

getting stuff done

It's good to have a functioning battery in my MacBook again. It actually enables a laptop to be used atop of one's lap. At least the AppleCare plan has partially paid for itself now. In other news, I've been making the rounds, getting stuff done, whatever that means.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

one more flight

One more flight. Landing at 13:15 (more or less) in SFO.

POG airport security, or not

I've just realized, and apaprently never paid attention prior to this, that there is absolutely nos security screening done at the Port Gentil airport. Of course, there is screening in Libreville, but Port Gentil is a bit more, um, relaxed of an operation. Also, for whatever reason, even on a domestic flight from Port Gentil to Libreville, they do a passport check upon landing. I suspect the two are not entirely unrelated.

leaving now

Getting on my first flight in two hours.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

coming home Wednesday

I'll be back in the Bay Area on Wednesday the 8th. I'll be around for almost 3 weeks, but will be taking a side trip out to Texas for some stuff from around the 12-16th. Cell is still the same 505 number.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

last minute bookings

For about the last 2 years, I have taken to making my travel bookings very late in the planning process. I used to plan my trips quite meticulously, knowing my travel dates well in advance and looking for the cheapest airfare for at least a couple weeks.

Now, it's much more, not quite spontaneous, but certainly more haphazard. I think the transition occurred when I started working in Hungary for a couple different reasons. It's a mix of trip locale, people I'm going with or seeing, cost, and my own work responsibilities. That last one is pretty key. I'm going home soon, but I've twice postponed the trip by a couple days. More responsibility here makes it harder to just pack up and go. Plus, and I'm not saying this takes a lot of time, but actually booking tickets on a slow network connection means making time and free time is hard to scrounge up. But hey, it's done. I'll be back soon enough.

Friday, December 03, 2010

coming home soon

I'll be State-side sometime next week. Travel plans are not finalized, but details should be coming soon. It'll be good, really good to be back.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Ste. Barbe holiday tomorrow

It's a holiday tomorrow, apparently Ste. Barbe's Day, the saint that watches out for the safety of oil and gas industry workers. It is a public holiday so people will get off from work tomorrow unless critical for operations. That's just super. Now, this is the best part: It wasn't decided until today that tomorrow would be a public holiday. Maybe I was spoiled in the States, but I'm sort of used to holidays being known and predictable and everyone knows which ones represent days off form work, or at least extra pay if they work. In fact, I'm pretty sure we know our holidays several weeks in advance, possibly even months in advance. Months! Crazy, I know.

They pulled the same stunt on the last major holiday when it was not declared until about 4 days before the actual day off. Good governance is not easy to achieve.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

water utility strike

Starting last week, the employees at the local water utility went on strike. Since then, water shut-offs have been rotating through the city. We went two days at the base last week with no running water. The toilets were not so fresh during that time. Home has been hit and miss, mostly miss, as in missing running water. It's been off for at least some of day on 5 of the last 7 days and I haven't heard anything that leads me to believe the water issues have been resolved. Fun times had by all. You can all speculate on the significance and convenience of running water on your own time. Meanwhile, I'm going to use the toilet here at work before I go home in case it's not running there.

Friday, November 19, 2010

and then it was mid/late-November

Yeah, I'm going to cheat in the next couple days and put up at least a couple back-dated posts so maybe look out for those if you're interested. Or not since my increasingly infrequent (if that makes sense) posting has probably caused the six readers I had to wither away to more interesting venues.

back in POG

And now I'm back in Port Gentil. That was a good little trip in one sense, but with the extra day added on, I'm further behind the plan for what needs to get done at work before I return to the States next month. Oh well, time to straighten up and fly right.

One amusing travel note. I didn't look at the boarding pass when I first received it in Libreville for my return to Port Gentil because I was in a hurry. The flight from Paris left late and cut my layover from 75 minutes to about 40 minutes which needed to include clearing customs, medical card check, checking in (different airline), and security. However, when I was finally in the waiting area, I glanced at my boarding pass and apparently, my name is now William Lopez. Hmmmm, someone probably had some trouble getting their ticket after me. The problem seems to have stemmed from our secretary booking my own ticket with a name that isn't quite right. She evidently used my middle name as my last name and then my first and last name (with no space between them) became my first name. I had the same problem in Paris while checking in with Air France and unsuccessfully tried to get them to fix it. No one cared that my ticket and passport did not properly match in CDG and no one even looked in Libreville. So much for security.

Names get messed up a lot here because what is considered to be a pretty basic first name (given name) and last name (family name) convention in the States does not exist here. Children from the same parents can have different "last" names and the first name/last name concept is also somewhat malleable.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

ATR 42 and the Metro

Well, that was a fun-filled day-and-a-half. I'm now sitting in a hotel which was not the planned hotel and my feet are very tired.

Let's go back to the beginning. Yesterday's flight from Port Gentil to Libreville was a 30-minute puddle jump on a less than half-full ATR 42. We boarded from the rear which I thought was odd, but once I was inside it was clear. The cargo area is in between the passenger cabin and the cockpit so the only door to that area from the outside is a cargo door. I've always been slightly amused by the Port Gentil airport. From the parking lot, with the right angle, you can see through usually open doors past the ticketing area, waiting area and outside to the tarmac. A straight line of sight from my car to the plane in this ultra-secure facility. Janet Napolitano must be having a fit that children can board a plane without being forced to undress.

Libreville to Paris (CDG) was on a standard 777-300ER. Nothing special, but at least I finally saw Inception. Solid film, probably would have been better on a big screen, or simply a bigger screen. And of course I slept because I needed to "wear a smart-looking suit and ace them (the client)". (Can you name the film that quote is from? It's one of my favorites).

The meeting itself went as expected. Some good news in terms of time available, but nothing too surprising was said. We have changed plans to finish tomorrow due to a non-attendee today. Thus, my flight back to Port Gentil is getting pushed to Friday.

It has been after the meeting that was so entertaining. My hotel reservation was not done properly. And my hotel is full. Well, they offered me a room for 380 Euros a night. I passed and made some phone calls to get our Travel Department to make a booking somewhere else. Well, they thought it was good to get a booking in Clamart. For reference, I was nowhere near Clamart at the time. I was supposed to be staying at a hotel about halfway between La Defense and the city center. Onto the Metro I go! Back towards the city center, then a transfer to the southbound 13 line to the very end. And then, this is where my classic stubbornness kicked in. I could have taken a cab or even a bus. But hey, it can't be that far away so I'll walk! Sigh. I think I just walked about 4 miles carrying my backpack and wearing my suit. Yeah, never quit, never surrender indeed. It'll make for a good story once my feet feel better.

Monday, November 15, 2010

going to paris

Tomorrow, I leave for Paris. If the schedule holds together, I will be back in Port Gentil by Thursday night. Total time on the ground in Paris to be just under 30 hours. This reminds me of my ultra-fast trip through Germany when I first started working in Hungary. I jumped through five different airports in three days and did it all out of my backpack. I have a similar backpack-only plan in store for this trip.

I will be leaving tomorrow afternoon from Port Gentil for a 30-minute jump to Libreville. From there, a charming overnight flight to CDG that lands at 0600 the next day and then a cab ride into the heart of Paris to the client office (which is near the opera house). All-day meeting, one night in Paris, then an early departure back to CDG the next day to catch a 1045 flight back to sunny Gabon. Sadly Jack, no Marrakesh for me. The party here never stops.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


I sent 61 e-mails for work yesterday. That's terrible. I do not sit at my desk all day. There are large stretches of most days where I am in client meetings, working face-to-face with employees, and generally should not be such a person who needs to send 61 e-mails in a day. By any reasonable concept of what my day should consist of, sending 61 e-mails is not part of that concept. By an unreasonable reality of what some days are like, this happens. And it makes me sad.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

world series election

I continue to marvel how little I seem to care about many current events in the US. Hey, the Giants won the World Series. That's fantastic. My life is somehow not deeply impacted. Today is election day. While there are many compelling ballot measures in California and it seems we are headed for a serious political reversal which, given the current state of rhetoric, is likely going to be deeply sucky for America, I really cannot be bothered to care all that much. I think a lot of that apathy is the insulation I have from the challenges and problems that most people have, especially in the rather middling economic climate that the US (and much of the world) is in.

I am insulated because:
1) I do not live in the States at the moment.
2) I have a job which keeps me very busy.
These factors in combination with not watching American news and instead only getting it from the internet keeps me away from the endless political ads, talk show yammering, and the Ford Truck Month commercials.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


This seems so delightfully entertaining that I wonder if I should also try to opt-out of the body scanner the next time I fly in the U.S.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


What? You're saying I have to compromise? No optical drive? No ethernet plug? Limited upgrades possible in the future? Restricted platform? No keyboard? The computing device of my dreams has not yet been invented and/or the fundamental mind-reading technology that I asked for cannot ever exist? I'm shocked and appalled. Or possibly apathetic.

Compromise is inevitable. The eternal optimist part of me views compromise as a way of forcing you to decide what is truly important to your decision-making process. If you are purchasing some object, what features and specifications are desired, what is acceptable, what is unacceptable, what is the cost and how do you attach weight and significance to each of those variables? The always cynical pessimist part of me views compromise as a capitulation that you will not get what you want, but merely a (presumably) passable stop-gap until something better comes along. This is not entirely fair (of course) but merely an acknowledgment that what you want does not always exist. The pragmatist in me views compromise as the inevitable byproduct of form versus function, cost (in more than simple dollar terms) versus available resources, and uniqueness versus availability.

And is that why I am so ruthlessly judgmental about relationships, both of my own and those of others? Ideally, a nice lady-friend (yes, I like euphemisms) would be smarter than me yet without the arrogance I have about considering most people intellectual doormats, graceful and refined yet relaxed and casual in a folksy/charming sort of way, doesn't ever ask me to dance, independent and outgoing and yet able to just hang and relax, enthusiastic about life in general, optimistic with a twist of pragmatic cynicism, gives good back rubs, strong, tall with dark wavy hair, but simultaneously a touch of redhead in there and some light freckles yet not a propensity to sunburn (because that's just annoying), more patient than I have ever learned to be, and gets my absurd sense of humor and sarcasm without being offended. Easy, right? Like me, but way more awesome. And female.

Damn compromises.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

new computer?

Should I get a new computer? Better put, should I get a new computing device, regardless of the form factor it has? Let's be clear though: iPad is not a computing device. It is a media consumption device.

Despite my previous protestations that I was not interested in another MacBook, I admit to being intrigued by the latest MacBook Airs with their portability, improved real-world processing power, and the sexy allure of no moving parts. However, it's still a Mac which means it has all the Mac-ness intact of crappy Quicken and other software issues, keyboard commands I never master, closed system world, and the smug attitude of Steve Jobs.

I am also intrigued by the HP Slate. Well, maybe not by that specific device, but perhaps by the second or third generation when it figures itself out. However, I do want to get my hands on one to assess how significant such a small screen (8.9 in) would have on daily use. Additionally, can I get behind a touchscreen keyboard and/or a separate keyboard? Maybe, but I have little sausage fingers that need room to work. (Note: I don't have little sausage fingers. They are pleasingly ordinary.)

So, what I'm asking is, who can recommend something that is highly portable, has a long battery life, extensive processing power, can run Windows applications, and employ the good aspects of Mac user experience and security? Oh, I also don't want to spend a lot of money.

Actually, price is not a compelling factor. In the end, I'm tentatively leaning towards a Windows-based laptop and portability and reasonable power are the most relevant factors. Who makes laptops that don't suck?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Q3 earnings

Hey hey. Third quarter earnings came out yesterday. For anyone interested, Seeking Alpha has a transcript available. For those who are not so keen on reading, you should be able to download an .mp3 of the call from here in a few days.

I didn't have time to listen to the call as it happened and didn't go through the transcript yet. But hey, have at it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

sinopec in gabon

A bit more than a year ago, Sinopec bought Addax Petroleum. Addax has been a steadily active operator in Gabon. Only recently has Sinopec hoisted their sign on top of the Addax sign at the local office in Port Gentil and apparently brought in some Chinese management observers. Good luck with that 30% cost reduction.

Sinopec, aside from being an oil and gas operator, also has its own service company branches. This is not common amongst major oil and gas operators these days, though it was more common a long time ago all over and more recently, it was, and is still somewhat, common amongst Eastern European operators as a holdover of of the Soviet era. Back when everything was state-run in that part of the world, service functions were provided in-house. Sinopec, like the other major Chinese companies, is state-backed and those in-house service companies are probably very useful for operating in China. Those same service branches are harder to employ in a country like Gabon where government rules related to tendering requirements make it harder to self-employ them. Additionally, other oil and gas operators would be very reluctant to use the service-arm of a fellow operator that would probably share information with the parent company.

We had a meeting today about Sinopec and their plans. The specifics of the meeting are not very important, and of course I would never discuss them here anyway, but we ended up rambling a bit and got to talking about Sinopec's strategy and what the significance the trade deals China has with Gabon might mean in terms of special access for Sinopec and exemption from the normal rules. Just speculation. Anyway, I was spending the meeting thinking about how the objectives Sinopec has are fundamentally different than that of a normal operator. They are not there to make money first. They are here to secure resources for China. That difference is critically important to understanding the decisions Sinopec is likely to make here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

i am tired

It's only Tuesday? That's what I said today at the base. I should really sleep more.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

dylan ratigan is angry

Dylan Ratigan is angry. I remember him as the host on Fast Money, a show I will shamefully admit to having watched when I had my pseudo-TV when I lived in New Mexico. For those not in-the-know, Fast Money was one of the talking head CNBC shows that aired around the same time as Cramer's Mad Money. Fast Money was only less moronic with slightly better advice, but still just fluff disguised as wisdom. Anyway, Ratigan was the host of the show and he often seemed a bit embarrassed by the antics of the commentators on the panel. So it's nice to see him on his own show not sucking so badly.

In a mostly-unrelated note, if Ratigan ever had to be played by an actor in a movie, I would recommend Dominic West from The Wire. I just finished watching the first season (and I don't have any others) and it was awesome.

Friday, October 15, 2010

ron paul is questioning

This is hardly new, but I only recently stumbled upon it on these here intertubes. The original What If? speech by Ron Paul made on the House floor back in February of 2009 is good enough. However, the remixed version benefits from the power of music and the graphics are perhaps neutral. I really like the pace of the music, especially during the first minute.

I cannot fully endorse Paul as a politician for some of his views that I disagree with, but we need voices of dissent like his if our political system is to work correctly. Sadly, we seem to be on the verge of electing back into some power the very people who ran us aground, but have repackaged themselves as 'new' and 'different' and 'outsiders'. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

police stop (again)

Last night (as of the date on this post, not when it's actually showing up), I was stopped by the police. Meh. This was actually the third time I've been stopped by the police since they routinely run check points on main roads, often by the main road to the industrial port area. It's never gone exactly smoothly, though at least I've always had a passenger who knew some degree of French more than me.

Aside: If you want to know how my French is, ask yourself how good it would be if you spent nearly 12 hours a day of every day at work. It's a matter of time and personal commitment. I can make the time, but I'm not committed.

Anyway, last night's stop went a bit differently because I was not carrying my passport (which I never do) and because I'm a goof and have not bothered to get a certified copy. This was never an issue on the first two stops, but apparently, this was a good night for the police to run a check point right outside the police station. It was a bit odd that they even had an evening checkpoint running as I have never seen that before. Well, I made some calls and got someone to bring my passport to me, but the police had taken my other documents (driving permit, car papers) into the station and I needed to follow suit.

The good news was that I was not alone. Our driver guy came (to help get the passport) and was able to run some degree of interference. I was out in a few minutes after 12,000 CFA (about $24) changed hands. Good times had by all.

And it really was good times, at least in a relative sense. Shortly after I entered the station, four other expats were brought in (a mix of South African and UK I learned) for what was likely the same sort of runaround. Oddly enough, they weren't even driving. They had been passengers in a taxi that got pulled over. It was only a bit more than above-average in dodginess when some local guy was also brought in and yelled at by the police. They pushed him to his knees and did a bit of yelling while he fumbled around for his ID out of his pocket. And then he was gone. Seriously Mom, I'm ok.

I never did get a receipt. Go figure.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

this will be interesting

This is hardly new news, and I didn't discuss anything about the BP report on Macondo when it first came out, but the government (whatever that means) will be testing the cement (or at least the cement design if field samples no longer exist, since they probably all sank with the Deepwater Horizon rig) used on that now better-known-than-most cement job.

As for the BP report, which is available in video form, I found it very, um, interesting. The comments made about the cement job were of particular interest to me. Send me an e-mail for why I found it so interesting.

not binary day

If today as October 10, 2010, often displayed as 10.10.10 is this alleged binary day, then what is tomorrow? Tomorrow is 10.11.10 or perhaps 11.10.10 for the European-heavy readership I have. Again, another 'binary' date, but it's not 'binary day' or whatever else people want to celebrate today as. In reality, it's just another day and so is today. Just another day. They are all days, with dates determined by a largely arbitrary calendar system. We didn't want to tell you this until you were older, but the dates are meaningless. They aren't special and unique snowflakes. They are really the same day.

Now I want to watch Fight Club. But I can't so I have to keep watching Terminator Salvation on the television. In fairness, it's better than watching the 'no power, no water' programming we had on Thursday night.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

bribery probe

Hmmm, this looks interesting. Evidently, there's a bribery probe related to work in Yemen from a few years back. (It's a WSJ journal link so it'll go behind their pay wall pretty soon). This is one of those areas of the business where I am not involved (both functionally and geographically in this case), but there are similar operating challenges in this part of the world.

Friday, October 01, 2010

dash 8-300 and an elephant

I took a nice little trip to a client office yesterday. By nice little trip, I mean, I flew there since they are the one client in Gabon that does not run their primary office out of Port Gentil. Transport was client-provided on a surprisingly large aircraft, a Dash 8-300. In the town, which only exists because of the client's long-term presence in the region, I saw an elephant. Woo hoo. Sadly, no camera as I had loaned it to a colleague who used it the prior day to take some photos of some of our equipment.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

always a work in progress

I was having, let's call it, a very honest conversation with my manager yesterday. The details are not especially relevant but during the course of the conversation, I realized I was being needlessly adversarial and somewhat of my classic smart-alecky self. If you don't know the smart-alecky me, first imagine high school. Now imagine the guy who thinks he knows everything (and is admittedly closer than you at that being true), moderately witty when it suits him, sharp-tongued, knows how to push other peoples' buttons and get under their skin, and is an unrepentant asshole. Now, dial it down a notch or two and that was me at my finest hours. Ok, after you've built whatever picture that creates for you in your mind, we still must alter it a bit more. This time, imagine that person in a "professional" setting (and I use quotes since nothing here is truly professional) and is skirting the edge of acceptable behavior for the "office" by being conversationally aggressive, playing coy or sharp as it suits him, and dragging up the past (though it's really the present situation as well in play). Ok, who knows what you've pictured, but whatever.

The real point of all this is that when it was all said and done, I was rather disappointed with myself. I have a choice. I can bury the hatchet and move on, by putting past issues behind me and accepting present flaws, or I can expect some sort of justice and proper consequence to occur from the past, for lack of a better word, idiocy. I should learn to accept my own advice. Things are what they are, fairness is a concept, not a reality, and what I lack the power to change, I should learn to view differently.

cell phone driving ban

About time this gets real consideration. Look, you may all feel great talking on the phone while driving with the fancy pants hands-free systems you all have. But every study I have seen indicates it is no safer than holding a phone. You are still a mentally distracted driver. My own employer has had a no cell phone while driving policy from before I started.

On a semi-related note, I don't really peruse the San Jose Mercury website that often. Yes, I know about the gas explosion in San Bruno, but that's about all the local news I know about. That, and some less-than-stellar ex-CEOs are running for office.

Monday, September 13, 2010

beach availability

It's sort of a goofy thing, but much like how I was never into going to the touristy parts of San Francisco while growing up, I also never really went to the beach a whole lot either. I reckon I've been to the beach more times in the last year (gotta count the cruise along with Port Gentil) more times than the 10 years before that. Perhaps this is driven by the only somewhat gloomy fact that there's not a whole lot to do here other than go to the beach (and work of course), but it is a nice beach. Actually, it's a couple different beaches, so really, it's like there's more than one place to go.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

still no interest in property

This seems like the point in my life, and by proxy, the lives of many of my friends, where the acquisition of property would be taking place. While I acknowledge the 'specialness' of the Bay Area housing market, I find what Ritholtz says on the subject here and here pretty compelling. Of course, he's been saying it for months, really years about the depth and breadth that housing had to fall and/or plateau for before we would be back to normal pricing levels. And with unemployment remaining stubbornly high, we're really not going to see a big pick-up in housing demand any time soon, or at least not at current prices.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

my shuffle left

This another of those posts that I've been noodling with for a long time in my head and even a couple months in draft versions. I've passed on perfection, and possibly even coherence. I just need to get this out and off my mind.

When I was 18 years old, I registered to vote. I registered as a Republican. When I was 22 years old and moved to New Mexico, I registered as independent. I continued that independent trend when I registered in Texas three years later. Since then, I have seen nothing that would make me want to register with the current Republican party again.

Over the past several years, I have generally engaged in a political shuffle to the left. As I have grown older, more fiscally successful, I have not drifted right, but instead left. This is not to say I'd call myself a Democrat or a liberal, but merely that I have moved from somewhere right-of-center to somewhere less right-of-center. When I was younger, I thought I was a mild conservative and the Republican party seemed embraceable. By Californian standards, that might have even been true. Fiscal conservatism, personally somewhat conservative, socially moderate (or so I thought) and personal accountability seemed like a passable platform. Oh, how little I knew.

(An aside: Perhaps the political center has shifted more than anything else in the last 50 years. From this admittedly very selective offering of the 1956 Republican Party platform, one must wonder what happened.)

Then I left upper-middle to lower-upper class suburbia. And learned a lot. In a most basic sense, I learned that the world is ugly, oh so ugly, and in many ways and many places. It is not a fair place. It's not like I had never traveled outside the suburban bubble while growing up, but the realization never truly set in. Perhaps I never truly believed it was fair to begin with, but this was made all the clearer to me when I lived outside the Silicon Valley. And the world will never be fair. That's just how it is. People get what they get and we should be honest about that. What they deserve is something else entirely. The concept of fairness is just that, a concept, not a reality.

This concept of fairness troubles me. Well, not the concept, but the perception that some people have that the world is fair, that the system is fair, that our standing before the law is truly equal, that success is only a matter of hard work, and that people get what they deserve. No. They don't. To pretend they do is an insult. I think this is why I have also shuffled, not just away from the political right, but also away from libertarians. Yes, the world could certainly be a nice ideal way. However, it's not that way and to pursue policy under this false assumption is insulting at best, and deceitful and spiteful at worst. We have to accept reality as it is, not as we wish it were, before we can successfully work within it. Like my job, it doesn't matter if we have the best designs and equipment if we're not even at the correct location.

Furthermore, I am incredibly disenchanted with the current level of political discourse in the United States. This is especially true of the right-wing squawkers on platforms like Fox News. However, the left is hardly innocent of trolling and needless sound-biting, but the political right engages in more despicable tactics, lies, race-baiting, hate-speech than I thought people could stomach. But I have apparently vastly underestimated the political value in appealing to the ignorant and hateful of this world. This rolls right into the next point.

Anti-intellectualism is perhaps the biggest long-term threat to America's (and the entire world's) prosperity that we currently face. It is why we cannot have intelligent and reasoned debates on meaningful topics. War on terror? War on drugs? Evolution? Education and basic science research? Financial regulation? Energy policy? Taxation? Why bother when people are so apt to fall back to the often incorrect talking points and anecdotal evidence. It is distressing to see (social) conservatives actively promote this as well through the criticism of universities, scientific processes, and even big words. I'm torn between rage and despair when I think about this and realize that this is an intellectual battle that may never be winnable when the opposition acts like the concept of truth is entirely malleable.

Is this a rant? Perhaps. More than anything though, this is my long overdue goodbye to the political right.

Monday, September 06, 2010

the view from here

Working outside the U.S., in particular, during my time here, you become more aware that there are reasonably significant numbers of Muslims in many countries. In Africa, there's a general trend of countries that are further north will have larger percentages of Muslims. Case in point, Congo is probably about 5% Muslim, while Gabon is closer to 25% and Cameroon perhaps 30% or more. In speaking with a Cameroonian colleague, he said Gabon is a bit of an aberration since the Arab empires of yore never really made it this far south. It is countries like Cameroon, Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Mali, etc that are desert in the north and jungle or at least non-desert in the South that have a heavy Muslim/Christian split based on this geography. Here in Gabon, while perhaps an aberration, I have been told many Muslims here are immigrants from other African countries. I actually drive by a mosque on my standard route to work.

About a month ago, during a standard 'safety stand down', which is basically an Area level safety presentation, working during Ramadan was brought up. (This Area consists of Europe, most of Africa, and the Caspian region). Attention was drawn to try and do strenuous work before sunrise or after sunset and generally take the necessary precautions to avoid fatigue and injuries while people fast during the day. Nothing earth-shattering, but definitely not a point of discussion I would have ever heard during a U.S.-based safety stand down.

Speaking of the U.S., I'd be more concerned with Eid al-Fitr being misinterpreted and blown out of proportion by the right-wing fear-mongers. Wait, I don't need to worry if it will happen. I know it will happen.

Speaking of all this blather, I thought the WTC site was "sacred ground" and not for religious sites a mere block away. Oh wait, only the 'right' religions are allowed.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

natty gas

Hey, I know what we haven't done in a while: look at natural gas storage in the U.S. Coming into last winter with record high storage levels, the storage fell to below record levels, but still above 5-year averages, on the generally colder than average winter. This was despite continued weak industrial demand. However, coming into spring, storage levels rose back to record levels as weather moderated, drilling activity stabilized from the 2009 free-fall, and the economy remained weak. Now, once again, weather has played its hand with an unusually warm summer in much of the country and drawn down storage levels off the record highs of last year. Fun stuff.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

ritholtz on investment

As regular readers (all six of you) know, I make no bones about being a Barry Ritholtz fan and his most excellent blog/website The Big Picture (not to be confused with the Boston Globe's generally very good photo site).

If you want general investment and sound economic advice, read through his old articles from his time with (which has become a parody in my opinion as Jim Cramer is an entertainer first, and investor second), many of which are linked from here. In particular, the 'Know Thyself' column might be very apt along with a piece on psychology and turning points for understanding how we are often our own worst enemy.

Friday, September 03, 2010

question for the beer drinkers

I have a question for the beer drinkers among you. Ok, so I've been socializing and other such things and having a bit of beer in the process. My question: Is beer ever supposed to taste good? It's all quite blah to me.

Perhaps I'm drinking the wrong beers, but they're all pretty much marginal at best. The only beer I can recall actively liking, and not merely putting up with or grimacing through, was one of the two blondest beers from that six beer sampler my brother and I had while in New York back in January.

Monday, August 30, 2010

port gentil vs pointe-noire

I realize I've never written about Port Gentil (POG) as a city. This is mostly in relation to my time in Pointe-Noire (PNR). Port Gentil is a much smaller city, only about 80,000 people total compared to PNR's three-quarter of a million. On average, it's wealthier city, has better infrastructure, and even has working stoplights! It's far from perfect of course as everything other than our clients' demands, moves at a less-than-urgent pace, the city seems filled with half-completed construction, and the government acts like it has little better to do than, well, I'm not sure what it does here. Mostly, I try to not get involved. Except for customs. I need my stuff.

The small size of Port Gentil also limits what's available to do. I'd say there are less than five places I'd go out to at night and only about 15 restaurants I'd care to eat at on any regular basis. I constantly run into co-workers, clients, or people I recognize from other service companies at the store, at the club, and generally when I'm out and about. Keep in mind, out and about means either eating dinner or going to a bar/club afterward. The local Barnes & Noble has yet to install couches to sit in to allow for hanging around. Actually, it's yet to open. Or be planned. Hmmm.

what plane is that?

What plane is that that's taking off right now?

smith integration

The Smith integration (very briefly mentioned in the last post) is going to be interesting to observe as an insider. Speaking generally about large scale mergers, I'm starting to see the difficulty of getting sizable groups to merge. Make no mistake, this is a large merger, with a combined workforce of about 100,000 this is no mere purchase of a niche company. With the merger officially closed last Friday, they've been busy rolling out good stuff like FAQs, ethics policies, HSE policies, identity guidelines, business guidelines.

It's very apparent where certain types of cost savings can be realized. Obviously, support functions can be consolidated and there's some overlap of business lines, though that's rather limited. The real gains in the short-to-medium term is using SLB's global reach to take Smith businesses to new places and vice versa. Additionally, SLB has much to learn from Wilson's (a Smith business) best-in-class supply chain organization, which I can definitely attest to being a significant area of improvement which CEO Gould already admitted to when the merger was first announced. (I would link to that but my bandwidth is already rather limited at the moment). In the longer term, the real value is going to come from the technology gains yielded, mostly in the drilling division.

It's also apparent how expensive a merger is with the type of re-branding that needs to take place, re-training in critical business functions, integration of IT, personnel, legal, etc departments, and the inevitable human toll it takes as some people walk away and others get let go. Some of these will be phased in over years, possibly many many years. Case in point, when Dowell became part of Schlumberger (a very long time ago), it's only been in the last few years that the old orange equipment has been either phased out of service or painted blue.

It seems like the integration is off to a good start. This is being taken very seriously by upper management and dedicated teams are working to pull this all together. I'll do what I can. Like no longer slashing the tires of Smith vehicles and restraining my juvenille vandalism to our core competitors. Or, I'll be friendly and welcoming with Smith people I meet. That works too.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Well, I managed to successfully sneak off to the beach yesterday. I was only called three times in the course of about two hours while I was there. Not too shabby. The sand is soft and in some places squeaks when you walk on it. In others near the top of the water line, you can sink about 4 inches in when you walk though it.

Too bad it's almost always overcast here. Perhaps that will change when the dry season ends. There are clouds most afternoons that, anywhere else I have lived, portend coming rain. Here, it just stays cloudy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

colonial legacies

As a very brief follow-up to that article I linked to yesterday, I want to remark on what I see as the continued effects of French colonialism in Gabon and Congo (and presumably other former French colonies). It's hardly coincidental that the largest oil and gas companies operating in the area are French. Total has a significant presence along with several other French companies like Addax (sort of French) and Maurel & Prom. There's even a French military base near the airport here in Port Gentil.

Edit: Removed ridiculous final sentence.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

gabon's 50th anniversary

This coming Tuesday, August 17, 2010, Gabon will celebrate the 50th anniversary of it's independence from France. I will be noting the celebration with the realization that it has been declared a holiday Monday through Thursday and as such, customs will remain closed and continue to make me miserable. In reality, I'm sure people will generally be having a good time and carousing in the streets with parades and exhibitions and so forth and spreading good cheer. However, at least one guy seems to think it's a bit of a hollow celebration with the legacy of French colonialism never having gone away.


For those of you who do not subscribe to the usually interesting and often salient newsletter from John Mauldin, it also makes an appearance at my favorite mostly financial blog. This week's topic on the Gulf oil spill has some interesting tidbits in it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

rainy season will come

Rainy season is on the way. While it may not be here in full force for another couple months, there are increasingly frequent 'misty' nights. Perhaps most telling is the cleaning of drainage ditches all over the city. Alongside most of the bigger streets (and plenty of smaller ones) are ditches a couple feet deep, maybe even up to a full meter and about two feet wide. They are covered by one foot by two feet pieces of concrete that are about four inches thick and are shaped like very bold 'I's where the vertical line is nearly as wide as the horizontal lines. Basically, there are sections missing out of their long sides that allow for both water to flow into the ditch and to give a place where they can be grabbed to lift them out. In theory, they rest on a lip such that the top of the blocks are flush with the surrounding road. Sometimes, the ditches are covered by metal grating, but that seems much less common.

Starting a few weeks ago, road crews have been pulling off the concrete blocks and cleaning out the ditches. Every 50 or so feet along the side of the road is a big pile of mostly dirt (lots of dust blows around in the dry season), along with some plant matter, and human-made refuse. Last week, road crews came along and started to pick up the dirt piles so they're mostly gone now. Just an observation about city works and what I expect to be an interesting (for me) rainy season.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

that song i kept hearing

I can't believe how long it took my to find out what this song was called. I heard it so often in Hungary at clubs and even in Congo and here in Gabon but never knew this name until about a week ago. While hardly a priority matter, it gnawed at me and now I can sleep in slightly more peace. Stereo Love by Edward Maya, I have you now!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

fb spam

Has anyone else been getting suspiciously spammy looking friend requests from young women? Again?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

cinematic train wreck

Well, I just watched a Steven Seagal movie (as nothing he makes should ever be called a film), that was of course bad. However, there was no ordinary bad. This was slow-motion train wreck, epic disaster, terribly bad to such a level that I had an obligation to watch, to carry this torch of warning for all others to never dare watch Out for a Kill, which is itself a ridiculously ludicrous name for this thing. I think the 'best' User Review nicely summarizes the movie's, um, qualities quite succinctly.

Edit: Yes, watch total dreck on the telly is what I do on Saturday nights. It's a very exciting town.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

always been here

I think this bit of dialogue from The Shining sums up my feelings about working in Port Gentil:
Jack Torrance: You WERE the caretaker here, Mr. Grady.
Delbert Grady: No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I've always been here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

not to be repeated

July has been a trying month and let's say it is not to be repeated. I'm tired and sort of sickly, but I'm working on the latter. However, the former is an ongoing thing as work has been, well, complicated to say the least. My boss is coming back at the end of next week. Meh. For those interested in my ambivalence, I'll provide a more detailed explanation in a private e-mail. However, we've been mostly, let's say, victorious in our endeavors, but running close to the razor's edge more than we have any right doing. I'll be back in the blogging saddle next week to satisfy ADL's thirst for new material.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

an untold "joke"

Last week, we were having some trouble clearing cement from customs. I ended up talking to managers and supply chain people here in an attempt to get it cleared as soon as possible. I followed it up with an e-mail on what was expected based on the conversations I had. It was a somewhat aggressive e-mail, but this was important for us. Here’s the part of the e-mail at the end that I took out:

”I know this has been a pretty serious e-mail so I’ll end with a joke. Question: What happened to the cement company that ran out of cement? Answer: They went out of business and people lost their jobs. Oh wait, that’s not funny at all. Get my damn cement out of customs.”.

I assume it’s self-explanatory why that part of the message never made its way into the final e-mail. Customs clearance is the bane of my existence here. No, wait. It’s one of many banes of my existence.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

day trip (and a cessna)

Today, I went on a day trip to one of the onshore fields we’re working in. Transport from Port Gentil to the site was via a single-engine Cessna 208B that held two pilots and up to 12 passengers. It is not the smallest plane I have ever flown in. It’s still bigger than the helicopter I took in Congo, but that’s to be expected. Imagine flying over forest, some more forest, and then some lakes. Then there’s a landing strip and an “airport” which is really a single-room building where they weigh bags and people for the flights back in.

This is remote. Equipment predominantly comes in on barges since there are so many water-ways crisscrossing the country. This time of year, the barges cannot be fully loaded since the rivers are so low because it is the dry season. The barges make their way from Port Gentil to a lake near the air strip and from there get off-loaded onto trucks. Roads and well pads are cut into the landscape right up against the forest that is left standing. It’s somewhat surreal to stand on the edge of a location and look one direction to a rig and the other direction into untouched forest. It’s even more surreal to contemplate where this oil ends up going and the time, money, effort and energy expended to get it in the first place. I need to save that for another entry as it’s been all over my mind.

It was a good day trip. It’s always important to see our operations, see our guys in the field, what we’re working with, and get a in-person feeling for the operations. As always, lots was learned, but even more left unlearned. Every day, a little bit more.

The only bad thing about the trip was that a client representative took my pen. He borrowed it to write his e-mail address and then never gave the pen back to me. The thief! Keep in mind this is a Marriott pen that I first took in Houston. It’s been all over the world and now it’s forever lost into the depths of the Gabonese jungle.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

client meeting

We had a recent service quality review meeting for Q2 with one of our clients. The purpose of these meetings is to, well, review the quality of the services we have been providing. For various reasons, I presented for my segment even though I only recently arrived. I just came to say that I was the "calm center of an ever-revolving universe" during the presentation. Despite numerous interruptions, finger waggings, and um, strongly worded opinions, I quite possibly showed more maturity than I ever have before at work. I was calm, patient, waited for others to finish speaking(!), poised, and humble. I'm actually really happy with the way the meeting went. Certainly not perfect, but let's call it as well as could have been expeceted. I've learned to better take my lumps, and there's always much to learn, but this is progress for me. There's a lot to do now to minimize the, um, strongly worded opinions at the next meeting, but we can get better.

Monday, July 12, 2010

beach and world cup finals

Yesterday was a continuation of Saturday's sublime dinner by the water. I put in a piddly couple hours of work in the morning and then went with colleagues to the beach. The sand there was so soft. It even squeaked a little in some places. The water was actually not that warm, but still good to splash about for a bit. We ate, always with some more fish before returning back to town. Then, World Cup finals time. Our country manager has been hosting viewing parties for several of the games. He has a nice outdoor setup, gets some catered food and it's generally a great time.

The entire World Cup has been an interesting spectacle to watch from, not just outside the US, but also within Africa. There was a definite sense of African solidarity with people from all over the continent rooting for Ghana when they were the only African squad to make it to the elimination rounds. On average, people are simply more passionate about the sport here than in the States. For the record, vuvuzelas are even more annoying in person.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

fish by the water

Last night, I went with some co-workers I first met in Congo to a local eatery down by the water. It's hard to describe, but it was just a very relaxed and chill night to eat grilled fish, listen to the waves lap against the shore, watch the Germany/Uraguay game on the little television they had set up outside, and generally relax.

Monday, July 05, 2010

missed reunion - those years went by fast

One my friends commented about how being at the reunion made it seem like he hadn't really done anything in the past 10 years. Au contraire. I beg to differ quite strongly. First, I'm pretty sure he wasn't too serious, but if he was, have a hug, you've done a lot in 10 years. Just because some of our former classmates married their high school sweethearts and have a kid or two doesn't mean that's the standard to hold oneself up against. How many good times have you known in ten years? How many excellent people have you met in your studies, travel, work and how many of them to you still know.

We're all doing our own thing. Yeah, perhaps fame and incredible fortune, aren't in all our grasps. Maybe you didn't invent 'It' or 'Ginger' (which turned out to be the Segway, but come on, how upset was everyone when the world's so-called greatest invention turned out to be a scooter?) but you're here, right now, living your life. I'll tell you this right now. We all have met people who at first blush, we think they're doing great and we envy them. Maybe they are doing well and that's good for them and I don't want to take anything away from them or what they have done. But they look at you and they also think the same thing. They are wondering about the things you have done and wishing they could have those experiences. We all go through that. It's the same tic inside all of us that makes people envy what the other person has. But guess what, you cannot have everything. We get our lives, one shot at it and that's it. We make our choices and reap the consequences, sometimes good, sometimes not. Playing the 'what if' game will never bring fulfillment. Living life can.

3 months - driving, haircut

I have not driven a car (or similar vehicle) in 3+ months. I last drove when I was in the US and have not drivne since. I will soon be driving once again as my IDP finally showed up, but it has been a while. In theory, I should have been driving many weeks ago. I was set to go in Congo because my local license was finally ready about 1.5 months ago, but then I came to Gabon the first time. While here, I could not drive without an international driver's permit/license (which is really a ridiculous scam since it's just a translation of your existing license). Once here, I could do nothing because I had to get an IDP (as we cannot get a local license without a residence card which is not easily obtained) and needed my checkbook which was back in Congo so I had to wait to get back there and send in the paperwork. And then wait. Apparently, spending nearly $30 in postage enables an envelope (not even a package) to arrive from the US in two full weeks. Nice.

Up until last weekend, I had also not gotten a haircut since I left the States. It was starting to get a bit shaggy and unacceptable (or had been for quite some time). Now, I have faster, more efficient hair. Glorious.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

bbq today

Hey, I'm having BBQ today. The drilling guys really came through and are throwing a little party. Just coincidence that it's on the 4th (since none of them are Americans), but a party is a party.

Monday, June 28, 2010

missed reunion

I missed my high school reunion last weekend. That I had one is only mildly surprising as I found out about it through slightly indirect means, but that’s admittedly esoteric. That I missed it should be not at all surprising since I live at least three flights away now (Port Gentil - Libreville - Paris - SFO) and am not currently in a position to be away from work since we’re transitioning over here and it’s important I be generally awesome or something like that.

It would have been nice to go back and see people, although any trip back to the Bay Area would be generally great since I would be in the Bay Area, which the newscast calls “the best place on earth” and they seem like impartial folks. The reunion itself would have been fun. It also would not have been as interesting without this internet thing, facebook, various chat programs, e-mail, and all our other modern splendors. Let’s face it. You’re still in touch with most of the people you want to be in touch with. And you’re semi-in touch with everyone else through the magic of friends of friends on facebook. Who knew that people married high school sweethearts? Well, we all basically knew. The only people you’re not in touch with at all are those who dropped off the face of the earth because they wanted to get away, hated everyone (or maybe only me), or thought Jason Bourne was a good role model. Or they are the ones who you always had a crush on, but never said anything about and now regret not doing anything, but are too afraid to try and get in touch with them because it will ruin the impossibly good image of that person that you have built up in your mind. Um, yeah. It could be that, though it would likely make for an awkward encounter if you ever ran into said object of affection.

Anywho, we’re in touch. Aggravatingly in touch? No, since it’s easy to go semi-off grid like me and generally ignore friend requests into oblivion. But this in-touch-ness is rendering reunions less interesting and consequently seems like a possible reason why attendance was not that high. For our class (and possibly all the classes from my school), I would venture to guess post-graduation mobility is also quite high compared to some sort of national average. Furthermore, I know many people who are still in school, either pursuing PhDs or they worked a few years and are off to earn MBAs now. Sure it’s summer (in the northern hemisphere), but people are away from the Bay.

I’ll be back one day. Maybe another 10 years from now. Or sooner. But in 10 years it’ll be more interesting to see how far afield everyone has gone.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

flopping and officiating

The flopping and faking of injuries in soccer is a disgrace to the sport. It makes me cringe any time a player goes down clutching his angle, shin, knee, face (you know who you are Keita), etc and rolling around on the ground like someone in a stop, drop and roll instructional video. I played soccer for many years up into high school for school and club teams. We played hard, sometimes aggressively, and yes, people ran into each other, fouls were committed, and general contact occurred. But I never saw a teammate or opponent go down in apparent pain who was not actually hurt and did not need to be substituted for. (Cramps and getting the wind knocked out are other matters, but I’ve never seen anyone use those as a ploy for slowing down the game or drawing a free kick). This is why it pains me to see these professional athletes, some of whom have been made wealthy and famous by their sport, disgrace that same sport with such contemptible behavior. Put more simply, it is cheating.

Unfortunately, it will never end as long as there is no real consequence for the actions. I was pleased a few World Cups back when they started to dole out yellow cards for blatantly fake falls and play acting. However, many plays are still missed and much over-acting of actual fouls occurs in an attempt to induce a yellow or even red card instead of a simple free kick. Much like the need for some instant replay to improve the quality of the officiating, post-game reviews of penalties, both real and imagined is necessary. This review must come with consequences that includes suspension from international play, league play, and fines (as a function of player pay as players make highly variable pay). This is the only way it will have teeth and, if not stop, at least strongly curtail the flopping, because if I wanted to watch that, I’d be watching the fishing championship on the Outdoors channel. Regrettably, much like drug-testing in baseball, financial reform on Wall Street, and energy policy legislation, if it ever happens, it will be weak and ineffectual.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to improved officiating in soccer is FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has taken the stance of a luddite when it comes to using technology to improve the games. He has been critical of the use of replay or other means to assess when goals are scored because “the game must be played the same way no matter where you are in the world.” Excuse me? "Men, women, children, amateurs and professionals all play the same game all over the world.” No they don’t. If you think those kids playing on that dirt pitch over there is the same thing as professionals on a sod field with professional horticulturists looking after the grass, then you’re a moron at best, and a disingenuous liar at worst. Sometimes you play with just one linesman, sometimes none, sometimes two, who knows. But let’s not avoid the use of technology to improve the fairness of the sport at its highest level while hiding behind some “think of the children” mantra. Tennis has successfully brought technology into their officiating at high levels and it has not ruined the amateur and developmental levels of the sport. Soccer could do likewise, if only a bloated relic of the past wasn’t dragging it down.

Friday, June 25, 2010

group H

In World Cup Group H, it's interesting to see how the standings are going into the final games of the round-robin group stage. We could end up in a situation where Chile, Spain, and Switzerland are all 2-1 with Hondurus taking the 0-3 drubbing. Or, we could up with Spain at 3-0 with Hondurus, Spain, and Switzerland each at 1-2. Tie-breakers are great.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

housing still weak

I started a post back in December about how the housing market was still weak. To be clear, it is still weak. It is moderately local, but the overall US housing market is garbage. As always, my main man Ritholtz at The Big Picture cuts through the flim flam with his explanation of why there will be a second leg down in housing. Basically, unemployment is still high, real wages have staganted for a decade, inventory is high, and price-to-rent ratios are still high. Further context for a drop in new home sales and I recommend checking out the first few comments from this blurb on a debate on the state of the housing market.

For those of you in the Bay Area, you all know that market works in an alternate universe than everywhere else. However, a word for some of the married and/or soon-to-be-married young folks I know might be in the market for a domicile in the next 24 months is to be judicious. The market may rebound sooner (and has partially rebounded off the bottom), but keep an eye out for deals and taking advantage of what is fundamentally a buyers market. Have fun.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

briefly on safety

Industrial safety is a tricky thing. I won't deny that corporate abuses have taken place in the past and still take place in some (probably most) parts of the world today. However, even in places that have rigorous safety programs and are building a safety-conscious culture, injuries will still occur. I have learned that people will always find new and surprisingly inventive ways to hurt themselves. And while this has perhaps been said by someone before, I'll go with Scott Adams on this:
"There's nothing more dangerous than a resourceful idiot."

Monday, June 21, 2010

port gentil, gabon

Transferred to Port Gentil, Gabon. Already here. It's the next country north from Congo. That is all.

deepwater decisions

It should hardly come as a surprise that a great many e-mails circulate around the interwebs regarding the Deepwater Horizon and the circumstances leading up the explosion. I recently received something that I assume is public record and that would be the letter from Congressmen Waxman and Stupak to BP CEO Tony Hayward dated June 14, 2010. If you want a copy, let me know.

Before I get into the letter, along with many legitimate articles and investigation pieces, there is a great deal of false information running around. Some of it takes the form of sloppy reporting and some takes the form of nonsensical rumor-mongering. (To be clear, the claim that SLB paid for a private helicopter to fly personnel off of Deepwater Horizon is incorrect). Ah internet, you will always be strange and mystical things to people who do not know much. That misinformation can spread so pervasively is the reality of the world, but it is hardly a new phenomenon, just a much faster phenomenon now.

The letter from Congressmen Waxman and Stupak addresses five key points:
1) The decision to use a well design with few barriers to gas flow
2) The failure to use a sufficient number of “centralizers” to prevent channeling during the cement process
3) The failure to run a cement bond log to evaluate the effectiveness of the cement job
4) The failure to circulate potentially gas-bearing drilling muds out of the well
5) The failure to secure the wellhead with a lockdown sleeve before allowing pressure on the seal from below

As I have written before, I do not have special or “inside” knowledge of Deepwater Horizon and the events surround the explosion of the rig. I only have my own experience and I most definitely do not represent an official opinion. I am simply slightly better informed than the general public on the matter.

I want to deconstruct the five points in the letter. I am not trying to suggest that mistakes were not made or that best practices were followed. I merely want to provide an explanation of why some of the decisions may have been made and give some more context. It is clear from the general media and reporting that the decisions are generally being portrayed as beyond reckless and driven by financial considerations. Well, yes. This is a business. Almost all decisions are driven by financial considerations, and even seemingly ethical or ‘soft’ factors can be given a price. However, I don’t want to go down that path of what a human life is worth right now. I just want to note that businesses are in the business of staying in business. Yes? But that does not mean BP did not weigh considerations beyond the most basic ones being seen on the surface.

Point 1 on using a design with few barriers is a reference to run a single string of casing (which was actually in two different sizes but that’s not important) instead of a liner. The single string of casing is a reference to the metal pipe used in the well. Casing (or liners) are run into a newly drilled section of the hole and then usually cemented in place. The cement isolates the various formations (which contain oil, gas, water, etc) from each other and also keeps the casing/liner in place. A single-string refers to having casing in one continuous length that runs from the bottom of the well all the way to the sea floor. A liner would only run from the bottom of the well to somewhere inside the previous casing/liner. On a final section like this one, a tieback section of casing would later be run from the top of the liner to the sea floor and that would also be cemented in place. The liner and subsequent tieback would take significantly more time to run than a single string of casing mostly owing to the time it would take to set the liner, wait on cement, run the tieback, cement the tieback, and wait on cement again. However, a liner carries with it additional operational risks. There is an increased risk of placing little to no cement in the open-hole annulus at all. This is due to possible failures that can occur at the top of the liner where darts and plugs (used to wipe the inside of the pipe and separate fluids that are pumped) can get stuck in the liner top assembly. This is not necessarily a high risk, but I have seen some operators express enough concern that they do not run darts and plugs, but instead another method of pipe-wiping and fluid separation that is generally less effective and carries its own set of risks. What is the risk of a liner failure where (almost) all your cement ends up inside the liner instead of on the outside? Generally, it’s a disaster since there is no isolation of the annulus and now you cannot even circulate the well.

Point 2 discusses centralizers. As their name implies, the centralizers are used to keep the liner centered in the hole. Without them, the liner will tend to lay against the “low” side of the hole. Even in a vertical well this will still occur (and there is also no such thing as a perfectly vertical well). When the liner is against one side of the well (or even if it is sufficiently out-of-center without touching the side), there will be little to no fluid flow on that narrow side. The mud, spacers, and cement slurries will all take the path of least resistance which is on the wide side. Once again, this could result in inadequate cement coverage and a lack of isolation. This makes it seem like we should be running a lot of centralizers all the time, yes? (A lot of centralizers could be about 1-2 centralizers per joint of casing/liner where a joint is usually about 40-45 ft long.) No. Centralizers work because they act like springs on the side of the casing/liner pushing it off the walls of the open hole. When running the casing into the well, centralizers create a drag force and lots of centralizers means lots of drag force. This will make it more difficult to get the casing to the bottom of the well and increases the chance the pipe will get stuck before it is at the bottom. Based on what I have read, HAL proposed 21 centralizers which seems like it would be a bit less than 1 per joint of casing/liner in the open hole. This is probably very reasonable for a well that was planned to be vertical. BP chose to run six centralizers out of concern for time (which equals money) but also at least expressed a concern about getting stuck. (As an aside that is probably worth a post on its own, getting operators to run enough centralizers is one of the more difficult things to convince a client to do. It is an example of the nature of the relationship between the operators and service companies).

Point 3 discusses the evaluation, or lack thereof, of the cement job. Ok, I’ll admit to not knowing why they would not run some sort of log to at least determine top of cement, but preferably a proper evaluation of the job. At this point, cost considerations are probably the most prominent factor in the decision.

Point 4 is on the lack of circulation prior to cementing operations. Circulation is important to both evaluate the mud and ensure it is not coming back with gas in it and also to cool the well as cementing is done with prejob tests at specific temperatures that generally assume a particular amount of circulation. For a well that is experiencing losses that cannot be easily stopped, operators will sometimes not fully circulate the well with one hole volume or a “bottoms up” as it’s often called. This is because losses consume mud and circulating usually increase the rate of loss. If losses are severe enough, it can make it difficult to maintain sufficient mud volume (which needs to be constantly made up at the rig) to both circulate the well and keep adequate emergency reserve if well control problems do occur. As a consequence, cementing operations sometimes occur when the well has not been fully circulated. (Cementing a well that is experiencing losses carries with it many risks, but sometimes it remains the “best” option instead of spending more time trying to stop losses.)

Point 5 is on the lockdown sleeve and I am not really familiar with this device. I will instead cheat and speak generally about hardware and tools and how much stuff gets put into a well. The more complicated something is, the more likely it is to fail. What are the risks of a sleeve? Maybe it sets at the wrong time or place. Perhaps it creates an additional flow restriction which would make loss problems more difficult to deal with. I don’t know and I’m not going to get worked up over it.

I want to drive home that problems are rarely simple black and white choices. In this business, many factors go into decisions and selection processes. This is what we need to remember when examining why failures occur and how complex decisions get made.

Friday, June 18, 2010

oilfield and technology adoption

Technology in the oilfield is a curious thing. There is a broad range of technological sophistication within the industry. It ranges from a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality all the way to "we're going to use underground sensors and satellites to monitor what is happening a few miles beneath the ground in real-time from an office thousands of miles away and adjust the program on-the-fly." It is hardly surprising to have such a wide range since the work and intensity runs such a large gamut.

Some fields are simple for various reasons like they are some combination of being shallow, low-temperature, low-pressure, older (which usually implies better characterization and understanding and thus fewer unknowns), and within easy reach of people and equipment. Many places like that are also in field development, which typically means drilling lots of the same wells over and over again with little variation. This means high-frequency, repeatable tasks that usually results in relatively few problems as the objective is a type of factory-drilling that tries to produce wells the way a factory might make, well, whatever it is factories make.

Some fields are more complex, but still going through field development. (Really, all discoveries need to be developed to ever be commercial). Conditions that are the opposite of the ones I mentioned before can make drilling more difficult. (There are many more conditions that influence drilling, completion and production, but this is not about getting bogged down in a discussion of industry jargon). Nonetheless, these fields can still be developed, albeit with more sophisticated tools and techniques, more money, usually more time, and thus the expectation is of a better pay-off. More risk should generally not be undertaken without more potential reward. Even in complex field development, you can get repeatability of certain operations but variation within a field or difficult conditions make it riskier.

Exploration work is a potentially tricky and dangerous beast. Deepwater Horizon was not drilling in a mile of water because it was convenient. With NOCs controlling somewhere between 75-88% of proven oil reserves, the IOCs are increasingly drilling in more difficult operating environments. The technology required to operate in such environments often did not exist ten or even five years ago. Leading edge technology is expensive and my employer spent more than $800 million on research and engineering last year (will open .pdf). Admittedly, the figure is pretty silly without context, but it’s not free. Technology is also frequently difficult to sell within the industry. Many operators, especially the large ones, fancy themselves as early technology adopters, but the reality is quite different. Corporate culture and the very nature of individuals’ experience with past field development often makes getting people to change very difficult. Why use a new tool if the old one worked last time? Why use a new and little-tested system if the old one worked in the past? Conditions change, technology improves and we can do a better job. That is why, but the convincing is usually quite costly. The joke (which seems very dark after Deepwater Horizon) is that there is always enough money to do it wrong three times before spending the money to do it right.

Semi-related note: I was tempted to make a comparison to Apple products like the iPhone, but it would not be apt. The iPhone was a "game changer" (whatever that means) and many companies tried to emulate and/or surpass the iPhone with their own products and touch screens and whatever. (Personal opinion: A phone must be a phone first before it can be considered a useful tool.) The reason the analogy is weak is because technologically, while the iPhone did many unique things when it came out, much of it was riding on somewhat older technology. Apple's big focus was on form and user experience. Both of those are significantly less important in the oil and gas industry. (I am referring to the upstream oil and gas industry). The oil and gas industry very rarely sells to end use consumers. Instead, it is mostly sales from one company to another company. Thus, marketing and advertising, while not useless, is less critical. Additionally, cute and magical are not adjectives used to sell products in this business. Despite this, selling technology to corporate customers can be difficult, perhaps it has something to do with the lack of fan-boys in the corporate world.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

push polls and politics

A couple weeks ago, I saw a teaser headline for a Wall Street Journal piece with the delightful title of Are you Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Well, maybe I am. Of course, I clicked through and checked out the opinion piece.

Meh. That's right, meh. That was my reaction to the piece. Of course, it was followed with the thought that the piece was such a hack job. Check it out and make your own decision. My issues with the piece fall into two broad categories. First the nature of their polling and second the content of their polling.

The polling. Oh, why anyone would use Zogby, masters of the push poll, if they wanted to be taken seriously is beyond me. Zogby is to polling what Fox is to news. A disgrace. Furthermore, Zogby is notably (or notoriously?) inaccurate compared to other polling services. They have been thouroughly deconstructed more than once by FiveThirtyEight.

If you take umbrage with FiveThirtyEight as being left of center and principally penned by a known Obama supporter, then check out their track record for the 2008 presidential election. Yeah, you didn't predict it that well. Nate Silver runs a good site and I followed it heavily for the 2008 election for well-written and excellent analysis of polls, the nature of polling, and wading through the numerous garbage created by sloppy polls. People can have opinions and still be objective, a rarely seen trait in the political world these days.

If you still dig Zogby and don't mind their quetionable polling structure, then let's talk about the questions. If I call the first question number 0 and leave the rest with numbers 1 through 7, then I would take issue with most of the, ahem, "enlightened" answers to borrow their loaded term. Here are the true correct answers to the eight questions they asked starting with question 0: usually, not really, depends on who you are and what standard is being used (question is also deceptive as 30 years ago was a bad enough time that we thought Reagan would be a good choice for President), probably but depends on who owns it, it could be, quite often (based on what I have seen), for some people yes, and unknowable long-term consequences without them.

Economic theory is so delightfully gamed by politics to the point where the actual testing and implementation of many theories is muddied by outside factors and inconsistent application. Plus, the true long-term consequences of some ideas can never be adequately tested because policy usually shifts too soon to observe long-term effects.

Friday, June 11, 2010

quick movie comments

I saw Fast & Furious on French television a week or so ago. For those not in the know, it's the fourth and presumably final (but possibly penultimate!) movie in the Fast/Furious series. In French, it seemed non-sensical and generally ridiculous. A couple days later, I caught the second half of the movie in English. It was still non-sensical and ridiculous. If anything, comprehending the dialogue only served to increase the ridiculousness.

I also caught Alpha Dog earlier in the week. Decently acceptable fare. As much as I wanted it to end positively, I sort of knew it could only end one way since it's based on true events.

Monday, June 07, 2010

deepwater behavior

(I really haven't said what I want to fully say with this post, but I believe my message is still here.)

This is where I am going to come back to Occidental (Oxy) which I mentioned in my last post. As Anonymous commenter noted, they were the operator of the Piper Alpha, which was destroyed in an explosion and fire that claimed 167 lives in 1988 and is still the deadliest offshore oilfield accident to ever occur. You will generally not work in the industry for very long before you see some video or presentation related to the Piper Alpha and what it has meant to the safety culture of the industry.

Oxy still operates today. In fact, they have been quite successful and as I discussed the concept of super-majors yesterday, Oxy is now approaching the size of ConocoPhillips in terms of market capitalization. In terms of surviving, they have done a remarkable job of making it through the proverbial storm. I am not at all surprised that the company pulled through in part because of their key difference from BP that we discussed yesterday. They are not an integrated oil company and instead only operate in the upstream portion of the sector. There was certainly public outcry over the lives lost on Piper Alpha and there was some executive house-cleaning, but as a corporate entity, Oxy had far less to manage on the public front than BP does today. The changing media landscape has also meant increased scrutiny today that existed 22 years ago. Furthermore, as horrible as Piper Alpha was, it was a single event, with the platform going down in hours and not something that the general public had a chance to witness slowly unfold. All these factors worked to Oxy’s advantage while they are absolutely crushing BP right now.

One of the many things about the industry that is different today than in the Piper Alpha days is the approach to HSE (health, safety, and environment). The changes didn’t necessarily come quickly, but the approach today is significantly more proactive and process oriented. Basic safety is things like guard rails and warning signs. Another step up is process improvements. Beyond that is reporting of risks from employees. With each change, there is more structure and expectation for both management and employees in approaching safety. However, there is still a great safety gulf to close.

I am of the opinion that in terms of process, procedure, training, etc we have made significant progress in terms of safety in its current form. The last great gulf is the one that seems to be part of the failures that led to the loss of Deepwater Horizon. That gulf is behavioral. Process alone cannot change the way people think, act, and do. Process and procedure did not fail Deepwater Horizon. From what I have read, there is at least one, but probably more, instance where a decision was made that was directly contrary to the procedures that should have been followed. The system did not fail per se. People failed. This is a basic behavioral failure. For whatever reason or motivation, someone (or several someones) made a decision that on some level they almost certainly knew was wrong, but they did it anyway. While the stakes have clearly been shown to be incredibly high, this is something that almost everyone does at some point or another.

We make decisions that we know to be wrong. This is our human condition.

oilfield branding

For the so-called “super-majors” of the oil and gas industry, they are all really in two different businesses. There is the upstream side which focuses on exploration and drilling and extracting raw crude and gas from the ground. Then there is the downstream side which focuses on transport, refining and commercial retail sale of refined gasoline and other petroleum products. These two businesses are related in the sense that they both involve oil and gas and as such there are some overlapping technical and operational skill sets that can be employed. However, the two businesses are still rather separate. Their downstream units sell crude to any refinery that will accept it and their refinery business will purchase crude from any driller that extracts it from the ground.

There are six somewhat traditional super-majors: ExxonMobil, Shell, ChevronTexaco, Total, BP, and ConocoPhillips. However, it is arguable that if this being ranked be market capitalization, then ENI should also be included as they are almost as big as COP is now. While BP isn’t what they once were, but they’re not about to fall out of the super-six (barring some Michael Bay-esque hurricane of fire event this summer). COP has lagged for what seems like their ill-timed acquisitions, in particular their decision to acquire Burlington Natural Resources at the peak of the natural gas cycle in 2006. State-owned companies like Saudi Aramco are larger but they don’t qualify from a market perspective and neither do tradable but state-owned firms like PetroChina or Petrobras.

There are many companies in the oil and gas industry that only operate in one of the two business halves. Companies like Valero and Tesoro do not drill or contract rigs. They are just refiners and operators of gas stations. Companies like Occidental (Oxy) or BHP Billiton do not operate gas stations and to my knowledge are not involved in the refinery business. I could pick other drillers like any of the large natural-gas focused independents in the US like Chesapeake, EOG, Apache, Devon, XTO (now being bought by XOM), etc, but I want to work my way back to Oxy and BHP (in future posts).

For BP, they now have a branding problem. The most consumers can now do at this point is to not buy BP gas. However, they does very little to impact BP’s upstream division which is the side that was using Deepwater Horizon. While the cumulative effect will hurt BP and probably cause them to lose franchisees over time, the true business loss is not as significant as many might think. Initially, the protesting of BP stations will probably hurt the local franchise owners and managers who really make very little from the BP brand. Over time, it will reach the rest of BP, but that assumes a long and concerted effort on the part of generally lazy consumers.

BP can dig in their heels, stay together, and ride this out. Depending on public and governmental action, this could ultimately turn out to be an excellent buying opportunity of their stock if you can stomach the risk. Share prices are deeply depressed, but the core business is solid. The upteen-billion dollar question is how big will the bill be for the spill, clean-up, and years of lawsuits. Perhaps BP (and trial lawyers everywhere) should take solace in knowing that Exxon still has the Valdez case tied up in court. The dividend is still being paid despite presidential objections and it should be. (I am disappointed with Obama’s hypocrisy of calling out BP over paying the dividend while saying nothing when the banksters who destabilized our financial system and kited billions from taxpayers continued to pay dividends).

Another possible tact for BP is to separate their upstream and downstream businesses. In the process, they should give the downstream business some friendly-sounding name like ‘PowerPlanet’ or something equally ridiculous. That is the side that sells the gasoline and the 10-40W oil. The upstream business could get a new name as well, but they have a less severe problem because they do not sell to end-use consumers. They have far fewer customers to deal with who might purchase their crude.

This is one of the advantages for the service side of the industry. They don’t sell to end-use consumers. And some of the service companies work to maintain as little publicity as possible in the general public and to generally be not very well known. There is little value in public awareness of your brand if the public does not buy your product. As long as people in the industry know what you do, that is what counts since those people are your customers.

BP can survive, but I believe the choice (or ability) is going to be determined by after-the-fact legislation.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

deepwater media

News sensationalism is so commonplace it basically inures me (and I assume many others) from properly appreciating the magnitude of certain events anymore. Nonetheless, the oil gushing into the Gulf as a result of the Deepwater Horizon accident is an environmental disaster, despite what Congressman Don Young seems to think.

In a certain sense, his claim that this is natural may be somewhat correct. But only in a certain sense, and only somewhat. Have natural events led to the introduction of significant quantities of oil into the environment before? Yes, that’s essentially true. And that’s about as close to correct that Young is going to get this time. This is an unnatural disaster. It will get better, but it will take time and it will be costly. Again, it will also get better on its own, but that introduces the question of how long people are willing to wait. After the dinosaur die-off 65 million years ago, things got better too!

For BP, this is most costly because this is a continuing problem. The longer this stays at the top of the news hour and on the front page, the more costly it becomes. Public sentiment gets worse, congressional pressure increases, investigations become both more numerous and drawn out, and more oil-covered formerly adorable animals make their way into plush toy form. Their refinery explosion five years ago has nothing on this accident. A single time event enters the news and now leaves the news very quickly. Sensationalism does occur, but the trade-off is brevity. Maybe it’s an internet era thing, as our nibbling on news seemingly decreases attention spans.

BP only wishes they could be out of the spotlight and tending to the spill containment on their own. Their strategies really wouldn’t change much if no one was watching since the technical aspects of the problem would not change. If anything, at this point, less scrutiny on the containment efforts might help. This is not to say there should not be much more scrutiny on how the accident occurred and what changes will be made to future operations, but only noting that applying too much pressure is not usually a recipe for success. So many ideas have been suggested and the vast majority of them are not practical, too time consuming, nonsensical, or just plain stupid that it has been a needless distraction from more practical suggestions. For now, BP hopes for a less scrutinized existence and in time they will recover (assuming no corporate death penalty). Just look where the Star Wars kid is today.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

service side liability

It has been interesting to see many news articles and editorials speculate on the potential liabilities of the service companies associated with the Deepwater Horizon. In particular, most of the articles discuss Transocean (rig), Cameron (blow-out preventer, aka: BOP), and Halliburton (cement). If you want an explanation on what each service company does and is responsible for, check out the infographics on the WSJ article I discussed in my last post. If that’s not enough, leave a question in the comments, though I’ll say that I think about one-third to one-half of my regular readership already received a pretty lengthy e-mail on the subject of cementing.

What has been most interesting is how many of the early articles seemed to be on a quest for blame beyond BP. There was much speculation about potential liability and responsibility of the service companies with little actual fact to back it up. Frankly, the relationship between service companies and oil and gas operators is somewhat strange and tortuous, but the liability is usually quite clear. Again, this is not meant to convey particular knowledge of the contract situation between BP and its service providers, but meant to explain what is common in the industry. Operators bear liability most of the time because they also reap the most rewards. Let’s put it this way. If a project/job/whatever goes well, the most a service company can expect to make is what was agreed upon in the contract. The least they should expect to make is nothing if they were late, didn’t deliver all items, had some service delivery failure, etc. The upside is limited and so is the downside. For the operators, their upside is much higher, meaning whatever they can extract from the ground. However, the cost of that upside, is that their potential downside is much greater.