Thursday, June 30, 2011

weddings as happy days as the culmination of a series of choices

I have been very pleased to have been able to attend a couple weddings of friends of mine both recently and about 6 months ago. Furthermore, my schedule should hold up well enough for me to attend another one in August. This is in stark contrast to much of last year when I missed three weddings while I was mired in Africa. These next couple years look to be the ones where many more friends will get married. Weddings are fun and pleasantly low stress for non-participants. Actual participants have a fair bit of work to do but for everyone else it’s a party and everyone likes a party except for maybe this guy. Offbeat generational film references aside, everyone is presumably there by choice and gathered to celebrate something that is, simply put, positive.

If you’re concerned this is heading towards something that belongs on Lifetime, fret not, as we will venture back to the titular topic of choices. There is a feeling I want to convey about seeing so many friends in long-term relationships and either married or rapidly moving that direction. It is the classic 'what if' feeling of wondering how my life might have gone differently with a different set of choices. I don't want to project a sense of envy or jealousy onto my friends as they are my friends so of course I want them to be happy and have good lives but there is no doubt that I look and see something different than what I have. The counterpoint is that for all I know, people look at my life and think I am living some life of adventure, travel and have become an international playboy/spy (maybe?) and wonder what they are missing out on. The answer is airline miles. That is what you are missing out on. I can assure the CIA that I am not a spy (yet and thus theoretically employable) and assure my friends that I am not living the high life of decadent luxury and meaningless sex. I am living a life. I am living the end result of a series of choices I have made including choices of both action and inaction. In that same vein, we don't get to live out every possible scenario of our lives that presents itself. Well, at least not in the particular dimension that you are aware of. We make choices and the different branches of opportunity are winnowed down. However, over time, new and different branches appear.

(Other than airline miles, you are missing out on the travel and the culture and what is generally a very exciting life that I think I do an amazing job of making it sound quite boring. While I may think 'what if' at times I also think that the apartment/condo/house and couple-hood and suburbia or gentrified urban living is so mundane. This isn't embedded reporter status in Afghanistan, but it's no Pleasantville either.)

Back on our starting topic, relationships are the result of choices. People do not apathize their way into a long-term relationship and expect to be happy about it. (You say that apathize isn't a word? It is now!) And long-term ones require many active choices that I have elected to not make for quite some time and that speaks to my own priorities, regardless of whether or not I have even been fully aware of them. My friends did not just wake up one day and find themselves in five-year relationships. (If anyone did, you should probably see a doctor.) For every one of my friends who is already married or soon-to-be married or not-soon-to-be married-but-already-dating-the-last-person-you-will-ever-date, I extend my congratulations. A long series of choices has resulted in something positive that you must now keep making good choices about to keep. Meanwhile, I will make my choices over here. I think there is a BBQ in the grotto tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

two weeks in -

As always, time keeps slipping by very quickly. I was rather contemplative last week after the news of a former classmate’s passing. It’s given me much inspiration to write, though not specifically on that topic as that is both a downer and something for people to process in their own way. It has been more of a catalyst for general thought and everything I can churn through the five-course zombie dinner that is my brain. (Hey, my brain is high grade. It’s no fast food value meal and the zombies should appreciate that.)

I have made a couple small conclusions, perhaps quite banal to you, but they are about items that impact me. Compared to Gabon, power is either more reliable here or our back-up generator is much better and seamless. To contrast this, you have to understand that there were some days in Gabon where the power would go out, the generator would not work, and then stay out long enough to drain laptop batteries. Hey, at least it gets you out and about checking the yard. (To be frank, the days when the water didn't work were the worst. Hygiene is not given the same level of importance as in the U.S. and coupled with no running water the results are an olfactory assault.) To balance this, the network is both distinctly slower than it was in Gabon and less reliable. It seems to go down for brief moments several times a day and once or twice a week for an extended (more than 30 minutes) period of time.

The food is adequate. It's not bad, is far more convenient than having to shop and prepare on my own, and is reasonably (but not abundantly) varied. I have been eating a lot of curry which helps flavor-up everything else. Two complaints are both petty and not real grievances. First, all meat is halal which means no delicious, magical bacon. (Also no ham or pork chops in case it wasn't clear that those are all from the same animal. As an example of the network speed, that page took about 1 minute to load, and then the clip at 240p took another minute to fully buffer.) My second non-complaint is that I am not used to eating on a schedule while at work. I have no doubt it might be beneficial to eat at more structured times than what I have done in the past, but I would rather just eat when I'm hungry. Hence, I always take a piece of fruit with me after every meal.

The rain last week brought out some frogs. I had noticed a couple earlier in the week, but they really made a showing after the rain. It reminded me of the frogs they had in when I lived in Texas, but these were much smaller. You might be wondering how we can have frogs in the middle of a desert. I am a little curious about how they got here, but they are not exactly tropical tree frogs. Plus, within the walls of the base, specifically in the camp portion, they water the plans quite heavily and it is surprisingly green within our walls. Looking out beyond them is a bit bleak, but inside the camp, it is quite pleasant. The frogs are also drawn to the pool, but once inside they cannot get out on their own. I assume someone is helping them out of the pool as I do not see the pool bottom littered with frogs unable to appreciate the irony of their need for moisture.

I am still feeling out operations. It's always the same goal, but execution varies so much amongst locations. Here, it is some hybrid of other locations I have seen so nothing seems too radically different than what I have seen before. Or, I have become used to expecting surprises and perhaps very little would be radically different. It's always the classic issue of working within the constraints of available resources. What I might take for granted in one place could be nigh impossible to do here. Likewise, we have some resources here I would not have expected, but they enable us to makeup for not having other things. We also just closed the fiscal month (which ends on the 25th) so that flurry of trying to piece together a month that I was not fully present for was fun. There's lots to do and learn so time to get back to work.

(Note: I deliberately fudge a bit with timestamps on these posts. I am not actually writing this in the middle of the work day.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

government whimsy

Apparently, part of the reason I was waiting on my visa for so long was that it was rejected the first time they applied. (Technically, it was a letter of invitation, not a visa. I received my visa in the Ashgabat airport after landing.) What is not clear is if I was specifically rejected or if someone else on the letter was rejected. See, there were three other employees on the same invitation letter so it wasn't clear who got rejected or why they were rejected.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

send offs

Before I left for Turkmenistan, I was back in the Bay Area for an extended period of time. I haven’t spent that much time in California since I started working. It might have even been about as much time as all the other previous trips back combined. Regardless, it was a time that was both long and short. It was ultimately longer than I had expected to stay and long in a strict chronological sense. However, it had a endless feeling of shortness with the expectation that I might leave quite abruptly. With this dynamic, it was frustrating to be unable to make meaningful medium-term plans and be perpetually expecting some news about my visa.

Despite the frustration, my extended time at home was quite meaningful and enjoyable. It gave me a chance to reconnect with family and friends and everything had a more ‘adult’ air. Of course, I am still in many ways an overgrown man-child as noted when I was out to dinner with my brother and others one evening and upon entering the restaurant I remarked, “Oh, this is an grown-up restaurant.” By that, I meant it had the food and atmosphere of a place you would not likely find children or teenagers, or at least not ones who thought it would be a good place to revisit. I can, upon need, “age it up” but I am a largely casual person. Additionally, work has always been mostly casual as the business cares much more about results than any variation of looks and appearance. Perhaps the one great exception is that if there are problems with a piece of a equipment then it damn well better look like it has been well maintained. Regardless, work is hardly pulling me into the world of three-piece suits and bowler hats.

Back to the enjoyable aspect of my time at home. Not only did I reconnect with people, now that I have my coming work rotation, there is the sense that I will not become such a stranger anymore. There was also a mildly running joke amongst my friends that Turkmenistan is so far-flung, that I might not come back. I can assure you that I have a return ticket that I intend to use. It is also not too terribly far away with its paltry 12 hour time zone difference. It was good to see so many people and see “home” or at least the closest facsimile to where one of my own might one day be.

I appreciate the time everyone made for me, and have previously made for me all the other times I have darted in and out of the Bay Area like the vagabond I have become. It is high time I acknowledge that people are busy and have lives and jobs and families to tend to in contrast to me being on vacation whenever I have been in town. Thanks everyone for your time. I’ll be back in August. And I have been taking pictures, maybe.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

a passing

This post was supposed to be something else, but circumstances dictate a change. It is now about a friend, or to be perfectly honest, a friend of a friend who is not returning. A high school classmate has died. An inbox full of two days of facebook group messages has informed me of the passing of Gianni Manganelli.

In high school, we were not friends per sé, but had occasion to hang out through someone who was a very good mutual friend with both of us. Gianni was quirky in the good way people use that word. However, I have not seen Gianni since high school and I do not know what kind of man he grew up to be. His eulogies will be left to others who were much closer to him as anything else I could say would only demonstrate how little I knew the present-day him.

We meet so many people, stay in touch with only some, and deeply connect with and care for just a precious few. If we're not careful, we lose touch with a lot of good people. I think I have some long overdue e-mails to write.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

one week in - initial thoughts

Unsurprisingly, my first week in Turkmenistan has quickly passed. I spent about a day-and-a-half in the capital city of Ashgabat before continuing on to Balkanabat.

As a city, Ashgabat is more modern looking than I would have expected. (Check out the night photo on the Wikipedia page.) It's mostly flat with mountains to the south and it holds about 14% of the country's five million person population. It's quite clear that money flows into this city, almost all of which must come from the oil and gas industry. There are many 10 to 12-story apartment building made white granite exteriors that are clearly only a few years old. They seem to line major streets which can have 3-4 lanes going each direction. Additionally, there are a couple obviously expat-focused hotels as well as many government looking structures that demonstrate healthy levels of construction financing. There is also a great deal of construction going on in the city with several more apartment buildings and stadiums, and shopping areas being constructed. At the same time, there are older, clearly Soviet-era apartments, closer to 8 to 10-stories tall that have a look of disrepair to them. And always some form of shanty area exists in any big city.

However, I spent little time in Ashgabat and have settled into the base/camp in Balkanabat. The surrounding terrain here is desolate. On Friday, while driving out to a client camp area an hour to the south, it felt like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. Flat, bare desert in all directions with occasional fields of pumpjacks amidst the alkali lakes. Outside the limited confines of the city, there's very little here. The city, apparently 60K strong, is here for the oil and gas and not much else. In fact, the city used to be named Nebit Dag which means Oil Mountain in Turkmen.

At work, it's a base and a camp together. From my room, I have a one minute walk to the office, maybe 1.5 minutes if I saunter. The facilities, while perhaps lacking the 7-star rating that the President of Turkmenistan has bestowed upon the newest hotel in Ashgabat, are pleasant enough. After all, an office is an office is an office. My actual accommodation room is a room is a room is a room. And a bathroom. It's not that I have low standards, but what is there to say about a room with a bed, dresser, TV cabinet (with TV), desk, and small fridge with an attached private bathroom. It's like a hotel except I actually unpacked and put my stuff in the dresser. The food in the canteen is good, but I have shied away from the fresh vegetables after my first meal there. Friday was not a good day and the drive out and back to the client office did not help. I can only hope the client did not think I was flushed out of adolescent excitement to meet them. I believe the remaining stomach viruses I had from my time in Africa engaged in fierce combat with the local microbial kings and I am not sure who won. Additionally, some further rumblings yesterday have made me cautious about the cooked beans now.

Work seems good. I will be classically reticent with business specifics but the team here seems very capable and the big challenges are mostly driven by logistics and getting clients to modernize their practices.

Monday, June 20, 2011

on clearing customs

There is a level of apprehension that occurs whenever I need to clear customs for the first time in a new country. It's the uncertainty that sets in about your paperwork and whether it will be accepted or if there is something wrong or you need to fill out a form or make a payment or something. And anywhere where this apprehension is likely to set in is also not going to be an English-proficient place.

When I arrived in Hungary, which is in the Schengen area, I had already cleared customs in Germany. (Well, I think it was somewhere in Germany, but it might have been Amsterdam). Either way, it's modern Europe which means no issues with US passports, does not require a visa, and is run professionally.

Congo was my first truly surreal experience. It was an overnight flight from Paris to Pointe-Noire and I landed at 05:00 local time. I stepped off the plane, which is filled with a mix of locals and oilfield employees, and enter the hot, humid environment that is Congo. With passport and letter of invitation (LOI) in hand, all I could do was stand in the slowly moving line. (A visa is obtained upon arrival, so an LOI is what gets you in). Nearby in a pocket was a vaccination book because I was told I needed proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter the country. I actually don't remember the details of interacting with the customs agent. Undoubtedly, I handed him my passport and LOI, and possibly answered a couple questions. If it had not gone smoothly, I would probably remember more. Then I had to show my vaccination book to a doctor before I could enter the baggage claim area. Then baggage claim, a veritable zoo of people and drivers holding various company signs (yes, inside the declaration area). And then they wanted to see my bags as I exited. Very well, they had their go and poke at my clothes. Undoubtedly, it was very exciting as they did what could best be described as an unenthusiastic check. Apparently, I was not smuggling a bag full of somethings. And I was in.

Gabon was very different, mostly because my mode of transport there was a bit different. From commercial jetliner into Congo to charter flight for Gabon, the whole thing had a different feel. Also, I was not entering as large a city or airport so the process had much less official feel. I was going directly from Pointe-Noire to Port Gentil, Gabon via a company charter flight and traveling on less than 24 hours notice. Clearing customs involved an LOI that was was waiting for me when I landed. I had to fill out a landing card with my previous address, my work address and my residence address. These are things you get in the habit of writing down and keeping copies with you when traveling around. This is frequently requested information in much of the world. I presented my newly minted LOI and card and was clear. Sort of. I then, for reasons I never understood, sat in the airport another hour as I think they were still trying to pull all my paperwork together. After that, the driver came back and took me directly to the immigration office in town and we sat there for about two hours (and yes, I fell asleep there waiting) while they processed a single-entry 30 day visa. And I was in. Sort of. But at least in the first time.

And what of Turkmenistan you might ask. Well, that's a good question. Given what I had read, and what information had been supplied to me, I was more apprehensive about this entry than anywhere else. Yes, Congo was very strange, but perhaps I was so eager and naive I didn't know to be concerned. For Turkmenistan, work had provided me with a very explicit multi-step process of what to do and say to clear customs. Yes, I was concerned I would screw that up. Evidently, I did not screw it up. The process, while not fast (and prompts me to think how they would handle a full plane) was steady. People already with visas on one side, LOIs on the other. I was in the latter category once again and stood in line, showed the agent my LOI and passport, moved to the other window to pay $297 (for a six month visa), and went back to the first window to collect me newly minted visa. (To note, in Congo and Gabon, I never received a visa at the airport. I only cleared customs in the airport, then turned in my passport to get a visa later on.) Then, with my fresh visa, I went to the actual customs agent and declared nothing, said I worked for my employer, and went along to collect my bags. Bags were x-rayed upon exit and I was in and here I am.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

media and "fracking"

My last non-announcement post promised a prelude to a real post. This is the poorly attempted fulfillment of that post. So yes, despite having left for Turkmenistan nearly a week ago, this is not a post about Turkmenistan. Those will come. Maybe.

I came across this article about "fracking" (the word I loathe) and ground water pollution. I am not an industry shill and I want to believe that I value truth and rigorous science more than almost anything else. The central claim of the ground water contamination is that it is higher in wells close to wells than areas not near wells. It does not really bother me that the study used lacks baseline measurements for water pollution. It's not really realistic to have data before a perceived problem occurs because then why would anyone be out collection that data. While the article doesn't go into details about the study methodology, I would like to believe that they measured pollution levels everywhere reasonably possible (or in randomly selected wells) and then mapped that against distance from nearest well(s). It would also be useful to know about distance from water well to gas well at ground level and also about distance from water well to nearest part of well trajectory underground as many wells are now drilled with significant horizontal components. Regardless of the study methodology, I would not be surprised if this study was accurate and that future studies also returned similar results. By accurate, I mean the correlation between proximity to the well and water contamination and not what the article title states.

What I actually find bothersome is the title of the article, which the article does a very poor job of trying to support. The title says "Fracking for natural gas is polluting ground water, study concludes" but the second paragraph of the article states "evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction". I find this bothersome because shale gas extraction does not equal hydraulic fracturing. In fact, a later quote is "the Duke researchers said that the presence of methane likely was due to its escape from faulty drill casings." Again, that does not seem to implicate the fracturing process. To be perfectly frank, it is also not simply the casing that is at fault. In fact, it is most likely not the casing that is the direct problem. So many things to try and explain.

I want to revisit a comment I made about the study methodology about the distance from a water well to the gas well at surface and under the ground. With many wells having a large horizontal section in them, directionality is important. Imagine a scenario where there is a gas well that goes down for 3 km and then turns to be horizontal for about 1 km. Or, imagine an upside-down bendy straw and Daniel Day Lewis screaming “I drink your milkshake!” (I am not intimately familiar with the well profiles in Pennsylvania but that’s not really the point). Now, imagine two water wells. They are both 1 km away from the gas well at surface, but one is directly above the horizontal section and the other is on the opposite side. The hypothesis I want to present is this: The two water wells, all other things being equal should have similar levels of contaminants. Even though they are very different distances from the actual production zone of the well, they are the same distance from the surface of the well, and more specifically the same distance from where the well intersects the water table which I contend is the most likely source of contaminants. My contention is that the actual fracturing process, which, through the use of pressure, sand, water, and chemicals, places a great deal of “stuff” into the reservoir section of the well which is along the horizontal portion of the well does not somehow alter the geology in a way that leads to “direct” contamination through percolation up through many layers of rock. This sort of study is very feasible. Many good conclusions could likely be reached with adequate data. And the data is all “gettable” with the right support and resources and if we believe energy supply/security, water safety, and public health are worthwhile issues, then the resources should exist.

I am willing to make a few more contentions about where pollution can come from. If you agree that proximity to the well’s surface location has the strongest correlation with water well pollution, then one should be able to also agree about the available options for contaminant sources. Contaminants then either come from the well location via spills at surface on the wellsite or they come from the well, but travel along the well trajectory back to the water table (which tends to be very shallow compared to the gas well depth). Surface spills are easy enough to understand. Chemicals are spilled at the surface and leach into the soil and into the water table or into a stream and end up in the water supply. Contaminants from the well might be a bit harder to grasp and can generally be said to come from one of two processes. The first is the actual drilling and construction of the well. Things like drilling fluids (aka: mud) are used when drilling the well and they inevitably must get through the water table. Also, cement slurries pass the same zones when casing sections are cemented in place. A question about contamination to pose is what specific contaminants are seen in the water wells and do they match up with products known are likely to be used during the well construction phases? The second process is during hydraulic fracturing and subsequent production from the well. Fracturing exerts significant stress on the well and this can damage the cement that surrounds the casing which can lead to communication (of the non-oral variety) between different sections of the well. Note that I did not say it should damage the casing itself. With the right grade of casing, the stress of hydraulic fracturing should not damage the casing. However, that stress gets transferred from the casing to the cement surrounding the casing and can create cracks in that cement. Force exerted on the casing causes the casing to expand slightly which means the cement also needs to expand slightly (sort of). This puts the cement in tension in one direction and cement is typically very weak in tension. The fracturing process also involves a number of proprietary and not-fit-for-human-consumption chemicals. Could these chemicals migrate through the cracks in the cement up to the water table and into water wells? It is a possibility that is worth investigating so we need to ask the same question that we did during the well construction process: what specific contaminants are seen in the water wells and do they match up with products known are likely to be used during hydraulic fracturing?

Now, we circle back to the original cause of my angst: that damn article title. It’s simply not right. The oil and gas industry would benefit greatly if it engaged in more pro-active education about what they are doing and why it can be considered important. You could call it lobbying, but that is a loaded word and not quite apt. If the industry wants to lead this issue and do what is in its best long-term interests, then it needs to demonstrate that there are either no problems with current industry practices or that the problems that do exist have solutions. By the way, there are always problems so the question is what solutions do we have? Tighter chemical handling practices at the wellsite? Sure, why wouldn’t we want to do this. Better and more environmentally drilling and cementing chemicals for water table zones? Definitely possible. Better cement for enduring stresses of hydraulic fracturing? It already exists. The industry can either lead this issue or have the terms dictated to them. The prompt for this post, an in accurate article title, is but one example that the industry is not showing leadership on this issue.

Monday, June 13, 2011

new posts just have to wait

Well, I have about a five half-written entries that will just have to wait until I get settled down in Turkmenistan. This likely means no new posts until the weekend.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

prelude to a real post: fracking as a word

I strongly dislike the term "fracking" that is used by the media and casually int he oil and gas industry to refer to "hydraulic fracturing". A common short form within the industry is to simply say and write "frac" with the word pronounced as if it ended with a "k" when there is of course no "k" in the word fracturing. However, a word pronounced (and inevitably spelled) like "fracking" is what often ends up in print. I understand why they can't just type "fracing" because then people would pronounce it as it rhymed with racing. Also, "fraccing" would be just as silly. Nonetheless, since no one ever writes "frack", the use of "fracking" leads to much distress for me. Why is "hydraulic fracturing" almost never written out or even just "fracturing"? I have no idea and it is quite bothersome since I find "fracking" as a word so objectionable, perhaps because of the "k" or simply because it is aesthetically displeasing or it might be because it is a stupid word. In the end, words come into being through use and it seems like "fracking" has made it's way into the lexicon.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

tickets for TUM booked

I have a travel booking for Turkmenistan (TUM). I just got an e-mail from work with my booking. Date of departure: June 13. And I have a date of return! Rotation is going to to be nice.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

visa, LOI are ready

My work visa and letter of invitation (LOI) for Turkmenistan are finally ready. And, I have tentative travel dates. No travel booking quite yet, but I finally have a date of likely departure. Soon.

and that's why you don't drive in the first lane

I almost clipped a deer on my way home along I-280 this morning. Yes, I was actually up in the morning, but only because it was after midnight. Technicalities rock. And so do high performance minivans.