Monday, April 30, 2012

natural gas rising?

And, just like that, natural gas is on the rise again. Will it be sustained? Well, that's the exciting part!

Sunday, April 29, 2012


This is going to be just whatever comes to mind in the next few minutes that I can type out and pretend it forms some sort of coherent thought. You're welcome to continue reading, but I'm mostly writing to try and clear some room in my brain. The logic being that if I get something written down, then I can delete it from my mind and will have my room for other things. Perfect, yes? Anyway, I had a bit of a stomach flu problem yesterday and didn't get to enjoy much of the Family Day event from yesterday. The Family Day yesterday was a chance for employees to bring their spouses and children to the base for a dinner, children's talent show, and a generally suitable amount of drinking and dancing. And while some partied hard till quite late, I went to my room very early and tried to figure out what I ate that made me feel so miserable. I have no clear suspects but at least two others were also feeling a bit unsettled in the gastrointestinal region so a food-borne culprit seems most likely. And it was not something from the dinner as I was already ill by lunch time. All is well today so the investigation will not likely go any further. Back to the Family Day. Yes, it was seemingly very typical for what I understand a party here to be like. The same expected food dishes, socializing, dancing, drinking. It's undoubtedly one of many things about this place that I will never fully convey. It's just part of being here. So different and yet so normal.

What does that mean? So different and yet so normal? It is best summed up as my total lack of surprise. There's very little people could do that I would find shocking or surprising. Different, yes. Shocking, no, not really. Everywhere around the world people are different, but more or less the same. Once you cut through the outer layers of social customs and norms, the core needs we have are more or less the same. Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs? Maybe, but that's more structure than what comes to mind. Perhaps just the bottom three levels then or maybe not even that much. Regardless, it's part of my whole people are people philosophy. I often wish people could go through a course like much of the in-house training at work. Not for the technical material, but for the cultural experience of being in a 19-person class with people from 16 different countries working all over the world. People are people.

But what about robots? Are robots people? No. The answer is no. This is very obvious, why would you even ask such a question?

I do feel moderately relieved today. It's month end and the usual grind that goes with that is more or less over. Now the cycle repeats as always. Yeah yeah yeah. We're going to plan better and get templates made and have everything in place so it's less annoying next month. All lies! We need that crushing urgency of the last-minute to be productive. Procrastination is inspiration. Also, we just finished three moderately major jobs that had been delayed for a bit so that also feels good to know that they are "in the bag" and we're able to relax for about three hours then start preparing for the next set of jobs. But don't worry, we'll be better prepared and there won't be any procrastination next time!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: because turkmenistan

Because Turkmenistan. It has replaced "It's a free country" as my go-to line to describe this place and why things are the way they are. Why did someone's visa application get rejected? Why does it take a month to clear anything from customs? Why are social networking sites blocked on the internet? (My connection is through the satellite at work.) Why does the President have a green Bugatti Veyron? Why did I have 15 shots of vodka last Friday? Why is this being posted on Thursday despite being called "tuesdays in turkmenistan"? The answer to all of these is simple. Because Turkmenistan.

While this will not become a series like this Because China blog, it seems a very fitting way to describe the peculiarity of the place. There are a couple new people in the camp including a fellow American and in my attempt to help them cope with some of the absurdities, this has become one my frequent responses to questions that attempt to delve too deeply into the mysterious wonder that is Turkmenistan. It's sort of my way of saying to not worry about it and just accept the system here. Keep in mind that I'm not saying we cannot change anything here, but we do need to pick and choose what we can reasonably expect to change and try to improve. Admittedly, sometimes it is a way of saying "I don't know and I cannot be bothered to find out". Such instances are not as common as you might think. I do genuinely want to understand why certain social constructs exist here, but have not had the time to pursue a deep sociological study of the people and cultural history. Also, I don't speak Turkmen or Russian.

If you're wondering why this entry is so short. Because Turkmenistan. And month end.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

natural gas still falling

In the midst of this earnings report week, let’s take another look at the travails of the U.S. natural gas market. The incredibly mild winter across much of the country has driven storage to record highs for this time of year. We entered the winter season with about as much gas in storage as the two previous winters in 09-10 and 10-11. However, we’re now leaving the winter draw down period with storage levels nearly 50% higher than any previous level for this time of year. I even made a handy chart where you can see this for yourself. I even made a handy chart where you can see this for yourself. It is quite clear that the peak storage level has been very similar the last three years, but the draw down this winter was much smaller than normal. This has been a major factor in driving down the spot prices for natural gas in the last six months. (Spot prices are not the same as the residential prices you pay unless your residence is a natural gas power plant.) This also correlates quite nicely (in a certain definition of the word) with the decline in the drilling rig count over the past four months.

When I last looked at this issue two-and-a-half months ago I thought prices were near a bottom then but not about to rebound. I was half-wrong. Spot prices have come down another 25% since then, obviously nowhere near a bottom, though it was more or less correct that they were not rebounding either. The outlook is still a bit grim for natural gas as a direct investment vehicle. I’m still not sure we’ve reached the bottom and there’s still no compelling reason for prices to turnaround. Perhaps an incredibly hot, and thus high-electricity demand summer will create more demand than normal for natural gas to run power plants during the summer months. However, additional capacity is just too readily available at the moment. What could have a clear and strong impact on prices is regulation. If hydraulic fracturing came under serious governmental restrictions, that might curtail some drilling and production activity and ultimately decrease available supply.

Today, Halliburton actually reported rather strong earnings in the face of the challenges in the North American drilling market. That stands in stark contrast to the profit warning that Baker-Hughes issued a few weeks ago. I can’t pretend to be surprised. HAL has always been a very aggressive company, even that one time they made that computer in that spaceship, and they have something of a “home field” advantage in North America. Meanwhile, Baker is seemingly still adjusting to their acquisition of BJS and trying to get everything to click properly. Or, well, it could be several other things that they’ve had difficulty with and it’s not much use speculating what is driving their internal decision making process. Let’s see what my employer and 70% domicile provider says on Friday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: did i tell you this before?

I see many very different people in many very different contexts who know vastly different things about me and have vastly different relationships with me. Perhaps it's two primarily different contexts or sort of three. Nonetheless, the moderate uniqueness of what I do relative to where I am from leads to many questions back home about my job and work and industry. I have a set of spiels of most of the common topics. What I do (which is my worst commonly used spiel), what SLB does, how a well gets drilled, why we do certain things to certain wells, what Turkmenistan is like, etc. Correspondingly, my own life and pre-Turkmenistan set of locations is relatively unique here so I also field a lot of questions about what California is like, where else I worked, what did I do on my days off, where should I visit in the U.S., etc. Again, the common questions get a stock sort of spiel. As a sort of side note, I evidently have a reputation at work for talking a lot during lunch and dinner, though not with my mouth full. I also laugh a lot during most meals. A lot a lot. ALOT? The reason being that outside of the specific confines of the office, I consider the canteen (and rec room) to be a sort of free zone where I will discuss all manner of subjects. It often takes an absurdist turn and I routinely say, "Within these walls, it's a free country" and then go back to being pleasantly absurd.

The result is that I see many people and answer many questions and I end up feeling like I am repeating myself. That's probably because I am repeating myself. The same spiels over and over with perhaps some variety thrown in, but the core information does not change. That's fine and all, but I lose track of which anecdote I have told to which person. Have I told this specific person this specific story/insight/absolute truth? For sure I've spoken with that person before and for sure I've told that story before, but in combination together? This is where it gets hazy. Did I tell you this before?

If you ever find me to be repeating the same story, it's OK to just stop me. I'm not keeping a list of all the different people I know and all the knowledge I have attempted to impart upon them. That would be silly since that's obviously the Easter Bunny's job.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

the frogs are back

The weather here is turning warm once again. It was over 30 degC several days last week. This has brought the frogs out of hiding. I can only assume that they live underground (as opposed to in the sky) during the winter since they are never seen during the colder months. The pool here is a like an over-sized frog trap since while they can jump in, the slab-sided walls prevent them from getting out. The facilities people are also in the midst of draining the pool to clean it for summer use. Interestingly enough, the pool was not drained during the winter, though I suppose it was not necessary to do so. Instead, while it froze over several times, the bulk of the water was always liquid and that perhaps helped insulate the lines which were underneath from freezing. Also, it's safer to have a full pool then an empty one in case someone falls in by accident. Regardless, they are finally draining it now since it has accumulated a winter's worth of dust storm debris that needs to be cleaned form the bottom. A couple days ago, when the shallow end only had a few inches left, I counted 14 frogs swimming about. Yesterday, there were only two. I want to believe someone fished the frogs out and put them in the plant areas, but it's possible that the birds find them delicious. They might also be dead in the deeper end, but I've yet to actually see a dead frog in the pool so I feel pretty good about them not drowning. This morning, the count is back up to seven so they seem to be really drawn to the increasingly empty pool. It should be empty by tomorrow so perhaps we'll know once and for all what secrets can be found in the deep end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

delicious dates

Several weeks back, I wrote about the tree planting that was done. When the day was over, I snagged an extra pack of some delicious dates that had been out as a snack. I wanted to bring them back to the U.S. to share, but they suffer the double-whammy of being a fruit and a product of Iran. Regardless of their origin, I am finding them to be a very tasty snack, albeit a slightly messy one since they are so sticky. I have had dates before, but it's just not something that was a common part of my diet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: switching modes

Each time I come back here, I do a bit of a mental switch. It's not just the time zone difference, which is now back to the nice 12-hour difference with DST in the U.S., though this change takes a couple days to fully settle. It has more to do with the very different life I have here and how separate I keep work from everything else. I keep different silos for work and friends and family and while all those areas have some interaction, they don't overlap all that much. When I'm here, I am squarely in the work silo. It is a realm of e-mails and spreadsheets and talking to people about things and stuff and other areas where I have an unfathomably difficult time explaining what I do. More importantly, it is kept out of my personal life. This blog, my Twitter account, personal e-mail, etc are not shared with people here. Facebook is an exception, but the thing about my Facebook account is that I also keep it separate from everything else. I only post the most mundane of comments on my travels and haven't shared a photo in over two years.

The other day, I was joking that nothing I have told anyone about my life back in the U.S. is strictly corroborated. Do I have the family members I claim to have? Did I go do the things with my friends I talked about? There's no reason I would lie, but there's also nothing that would disprove that all my stories are not elaborate tales of fiction. And while I'm not prone to telling hyperbolic stories about what I do on my days off, I also often say that great line from Seinfeld when George says, "My whole life is a sham." It's not so much a sham as it is a potential (but not actual) lie. I work here, I live here, but I'm not what I would ever call fully here.

Friday, April 06, 2012

back in the "Bat"

And I'm back in Balkanabat or, as it would be called in a hip-hop song, the Bat, but pronounced like Baht the Thai currency and not like baseball bat.

I have also distributed most of the goods I brought like a Turkmen Santa Claus. My suitcase weighed 17 kilos, but only two changes of clothes and a small toiletries bag belonged to me. Unless you think I wear gold threaded clothes, you can imagine that most of the weight was other peoples' stuff. Evidently, spark plugs can look like bullets on an X-ray machine. All three times my check-in bag passed through one with me accompanying it, I was asked to open my bag and they wanted to see the spark plugs each time. Three times? Yes.
1. After landing in Ashgabat, you clear immigration, then get your bags, then clear customs. At customs, they X-ray your bags. This is also one of the places I am looked at then looked at my passport again, then told I look Turkmen.
2. When flying from Ashgabat to Balkanabat, there is an X-ray (for the bags and a metal detector for people) just to enter the airport.
3. After entering the airport, to get to the check-in counter you again pass through an X-ray and metal detector set.

All three times, the spark plugs sparked their curiosity. What sparks my curiosity is why they did not check at all the last time I came. I arrived here 11 weeks ago and went through the same three X-rays and not once did anyone ask to see the spark plugs I brought back then.

The lack of consistency in screening is hardly surprising. I also travel with batteries (AA and AAA, not car batteries) and coins in my carry-on and those get flagged inconsistently. Passing through Frankfurt this time, my batteries they wanted a closer look at my bag to see the batteries (which were packed to line up in a nice neat row (and probably also looked like bullets) and the coins. I carry my coins in old plastic film canisters so they don't rattle around in my bag. Also, I use a different canister for different currencies so I don't end up with a handful of coins that I need to sort through while trying to pay for something. It has just occurred to me that I need to keep these canisters forever now because they are the perfect size and would be hard to replace since almost all photography has gone digital.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

i have the power (of USB)

Lufthansa has gone back to their summer flight schedule. This brings two welcome changes. The first is it means four flights a week between Frankfurt and Ashgabat instead of three. More options means more flexibility on what days I fly. Compared to last summer's schedule, they have changed which days of the week they fly on. Going from Frankfurt to Ashgabat, they now fly on Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Last summer, they flew on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. (This is why I left a day earlier than I had expected because the Thursday flight is now gone.) The new schedule has a strange stagger to it because instead of 101101, it is now 0110011 wherein days they fly are "1" and days they do not fly are "0". It makes me wonder what they do with the flight crew on the Wednesday flight. Unless they catch a ride back on the turnaround trip the next morning (which they cannot operate since they are not rested), then they have to wait clear until Sunday morning for the next Lufthansa flight. Of course, if they catch a ride back on the turnaround trip, then where does the crew for that Sunday return come from? (Return trips from Ashgabat to Frankfurt lag a day because the flight into Turkmenistan comes in just before midnight, then they turn the plane around and depart a couple hours later after midnight and now a new day.) This is one of those things that falls squarely in the realm of "not my problem" but is exactly the kind of curiosity that I think about while in the shower.

The second welcome change affects the other leg of my journey. Lufthansa is once again flying one of their A380s on their daily San Francisco to Frankfurt flight. It's not that there is anything inherently wrong with the 747-400s they use during the winter schedule, but some of the older planes have not had an interior retrofit and lack individual monitors and instead only have the overhead monitors that the entire cabin must watch. And this is how I came to watch Cars 2, also known as the shame of Pixar. The real benefit of the A380, aside from the assurance of an individual monitor is the USB outlet along the bottom of the armrest. Tucked out of sight and probably totally unknown to most travelers is a USB outlet beneath each armrest. It means hitting your destination with a fully charged phone or iWhatever and not having to scrounge around for an outlet in the Frankfurt airport to recharge while waiting between flights. For me, I was able to watch the copy of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that I had ripped from my DVD onto my computer and then put on my phone, without having to worry about having enough battery life. I bring my own movies now because I have flown enough to have seen almost all the movies available and that includes breaking down and watching New Year's Eve at the behest of a colleague. (Spoiler: It was terrible. Also, Vader is Luke's father.)

Perhaps because it is not yet peak season and they just switched from the winter to summer schedule which means a bump in available seats from 416 seats on the 747-400 to 526 seats on the A380, but the plane was not even close to full. It was only about 70% full and possibly even less, but I never went upstairs to rub elbows with the first and business class folks and check how many were aboard. The benefit was that I was able to put my backpack under the seat next to me instead of in front of my own seat. I try to never put my backpack in the overhead compartment since I like to get stuff from it quite often and modern day seat back compartments where they stash the magazine and safety instructions don't have much room to hold anything. Also, I have a weird distrust of people that my bag will be tampered with while I am asleep if I put it in the overhead bin. Now, what has never made much sense to me is that during those pre-flight safety briefings, they say all bags need to be in overhead bins or under the seat in front of you and there is usually a comment about heavy ideas going on the floor under the seat. Heavy items are normally big items and big items do not fit under the seat. I know because my backpack barely fits under the seat in front of me and it's because of the pocket for life vests under the seat. The A380 has a fixed hard pocket so it does not move and it extends a couple inches down and several inches back from the front of the seat. This means that while there is room for your feet under the seat in front of you because they are on the floor, there is not much room for a bag which needs height and depth and will almost always run into the life vest pouch. Yes, this is a weird and esoteric rant, but again, this is the kind of thing I notice and wonder how it can be improved. I should take a shower and ponder this some more.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: lounging about

Time to ship out once again. Coincidentally enough, it has also been almost exactly one year since I left Gabon. I do not miss it. Not at all. But Congo was nice. I'll see everyone in seven or eight or nine or maybe ten weeks. Turkmenistan is a mysterious place after all.

For the first time ever, I am sitting in an airport lounge, the exclusive haven of frequent flyer club members. I was able to accumulate enough miles under United's MileagePlus program to earn Premier Gold status. It helps that every round trip to and from Turkmenistan is over 16K miles. It is perhaps a bit amusing that almost all those miles occurred on non-United flights but instead were flown with their Lufthansa, a Star Alliance partners. The Premier Gold status also grants me a secondary benefit of being a Star Alliance Gold member so I can take advantage of Lufthansa lounges in Frankfurt as well. It helps that United actually hubs in San Francisco so I might actually take advantage of whatever rewards are available. Amusingly enough, I was able to reach Gold Medallion status with Delta as a result of some carry-over miles from when I was in Hungary and travel I did while in Gabon (since Air France is a Delta partner on SkyTeam. There's even a Wikipedia entry on the different airline alliance programs. And yes, they all have silly names like Medallion and Premier and Elite and Dividend for the status levels in their programs. What makes it amusing is that I have yet to fly with Delta (or their partners) since reaching Gold Medallion status and since it is an annual thing, that privilege has now lapsed.

Back to the lounge, which you have no doubt pictured as the center of unbridled decadence and excess. Shockingly, there are no swimming pools of caviar or old ladies carrying around tiny dogs or even monocles. It's just a bunch of regular looking people though they are slightly better dressed than the average traveler. Of course, we no longer live in an era where people wear dresses and suits when they fly. The only times I have ever flown while wearing a suit have been purely strategic since I was going for short business trips and traveled with only a backpack so of course the suit had to be worn. It's amazing how far a different shirt will go towards making it look like you're not otherwise wearing the same clothes over and over.

The lounge is just a lounge. Some complimentary snacks and drinks are available. There are chairs and tables and desks. Most people are reading. It's just more comfortable than a normal terminal waiting area with comfier seats and more abundant power outlets. Arguably, the view is slightly worse though that's rather specific to the location. It is much quieter which is nice for the blogging but does also mean I get to do less of my favorite airport activity of people watching. Everyone here seems incredibly boring. There's none of the great human drama that can unfold when you are surrounded by the hubbub of people scurrying about trying to make their family vacation or business trip or whatever other reasons people travel. Sitting in this lounge, I will not be witness to that epic meltdown I once saw in Denver when a family missed their flight and the couple started arguing about whose fault it was. No excited youth sports team going to whatever (inter)national competition. No eager-eyed college-aged students or recent graduates trekking about. Instead, I'm surround by a bunch of staid middle-aged travel veterans and business travelers. It's like looking at my future self and realizing I'm incredibly boring. Wonderful.