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Friday, November 30, 2018

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen): Nairobi, Kenya

I had expected Africa to be hot, but Nairobi was not, due to the altitude, which was right at a mile high, and perfect for cultivating coffee. 

The air was cool under the trees, and there was a soft, light breeze. I was in Kenya for two weeks on as a volunteer consultant for an economic development program to develop marketing materials and to develop a system for communication among smallholders in order to achieve economies of scale and to improve the markets. It was a fascinating project and there was a sincere desire to make things better for people in rural areas. It was not easy, though. 

The Danish author, Isak Dinesen (real name, Karen Blixen) lived in Kenya for 17 years as she tried to make a go of her coffee plantation. It was a turbulent time in terms of politics and also in terms of her emotional life, all of which she captures in Out of Africa, which was written long after she had moved back to Denmark.
 Blixen published under the name, Isak Dinesen, for English-speaking audiences. I have no idea why.  I think that no one cares about the name the author uses; they care about the writing. Karen Blixen lived in Nairobi, Africa, in a suburb now named “Karengata” which means Karen’s home. The suburb is an exclusive one, now, and all the homes have walls and security services. There are lush gardens, green lawns, and large, shade-imparting trees.

Karen’s house is a one-storey rock building, a farmhouse with multi-paned windows, a steep red tile roof, and long winding paths that crisscross the grounds. The suburb, Karengata, is near the lovely Ngong hills that she visited frequently during her years in Kenya (1917 to 1931).

I visited one cool, cloudy afternoon, and the greens had a super-saturated hue, and one felt the magic of possibilities. During Karen’s years in Africa, Karen established deep bonds of trust with the Masaii people and their culture. She came to deeply appreciate the changes in the politics, and the conflicts over land, influence, and control of resources. Her experience, however, was difficult, and at the end of the day, she failed to make her farm economically viable.

One thing that interests me about the process of writing the novel is that was written in 1937, years after Karen had moved back to Denmark. Like Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), Out of Africa was written years after the events happened and in a different location, which means that work is freighted with an unforgettable emotional element.

Blixen's (Dinesen's) work is shrouded in nostalgia, regrets, and memories of a glorious, youthful time of intense experiences and feelings. In addition to trying to make her family’s farm a success, Karen went lion-hunting and explored the African veldt in a small plane flown by her pilot friend, a man she could never have, but whom she dearly loved.

The novel is drenched in a hot, bright Africa sun, the Rift Valley area with its thorn trees, grass lands, massive shallow lakes that radiate a shimmering pink hue as thousands of flamingos stand knee-deep in the waters brimming with fish.

Out of Africa was one of fellow author Carson McCullers’s favorite books, and there is a photograph in Carson McCullers’s house that features Karen Blixen and also Marilyn Monroe. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Alexander Pushkin’s home in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The famous poet of heroism lived in a house that was actually a palace. Of the Russian aristocracy, Pushkin was also descended from an African King, General Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, of a tribal kingdom near present-day Cameroun. Pushkin was proud of his heritage, and often refered to himself as "afrikanitz" (African).

The day I visited "Pushkin House," was in late June, still in the season of "White Nights" where the sun touches the horizon, just to eerily glow light again on the other horizon. It rained almost every day, and in the photograph on the walkway to the house, I am carrying a borrowed umbrella. It was before 9-11, the ruble had just crashed, and you could see signs of economic suffering everywhere.  Elderly people on pensions were reduced to begging, retired professors were selling their books for cash, and there was talk of violence and the Russian mafia. In fact, I saw a man groaning under the bridge across the Neva River near my dormitory at the Herzen University, where I was studying for a few weeks.

I was delighted to have the chance to visit Pushkin's house, whose poetry I admired. It was not necessarily easy to visit.  First, I felt a bit uncomfortable because there was a great deal of resentment toward foreigners or outsiders, who were viewed to have contributed to the collapse of the economy. To my surprise, however, I was constantly mistaken for a Russian. I was learning Russian and could understand at times up to 50 or 60 percent of what was being said (but sometimes that dropped to around 10 percent).

We took a car to the palace, paid our fee, and entered. To visit the museum, you had to take off your shoes and put on slippers in order to not destroy the wood floors or the exquisite carpets. Everything was built in the style of Louis XIV through Louis XVI – lots of bright white walls, gilt frames, gold leaf, mythological figures, dolphins, etc. Many paintings in the style of Poussin. 

I could better imagine Pushkin’s values and sense of heroic loss and the desire to write epics and thereby construct history when I saw his house. I could imagine Pushkin drafting “The Bronze Horseman” in his home library, which had so many shelves it resembled the library of a university or monastery. 

The wood parquet floor was roughly the same color as his mahogany escritoire, which had intricately worked bronze pulls and terminations. 

In addition to writing poems, Pushkin also wrote short prose. His short story, "The Shot," also addresses issues of heroism, sacrifice, and firm adherence to a higher sense of duty. In it, the prince Ypsilanti, attempts to institute reforms for the improvement of life for his people.

Pushkin lived the philosophy of political resistance, personal honor, heroism, and valor that he expressed in his poems. He died at age 38 in a duel. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso, Chile.

I had the opportunity to visit Pablo Neruda's house during a trip to Chile a few years ago on a day trip from Santiago to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. Valparaiso is an important port city and the site of a number of naval battles. 

Despite its vulnerability to devastating earthquakes, the last in 2010 and a particularly damaging one in 1906, Valparaiso has well-preserved stunning buildings and squares influenced by the German, Austrian, and French architecture. Valparaiso is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which translates into a great deal of local pride and general neatness.

Pablo Neruda's house, "La Sebastiana," is located on a steep road on a hillside. You can see the Pacific Ocean from his rooftop balcony. I could imagine his writing Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924) and Residencia en la tierra (1931) with a fountain pen in his hand, clean, white sheets of paper in his notebook under his arm, and a stiff ocean breeze on his face.

In the summer, I can imagine his using his handkerchief to blot the sticky saltiness of the air on his arms. You feel your quadriceps tremble as you ascend the almost vertical steps, your throat fill with joy.

Pablo Neruda's poem, "A 'La Sebastiana'" lies on a desk, wonderfully inspirational. Here's the first stanza (I took slight liberties with the word choices, and for that, I refer to Lawrence Venuti's ideas about literary translations :)). 

To "La Sebastiana" 

I built the house.

I made it first of air.
Then, I raised a flag into the air
and I left it hanging
from the firmament, from the star, from
the brightness and the darkness.

Here's a LINK to the rest of Neruda's poem.

And, in line with what Neruda envisioned as a perfect house for writing, the house and the neighborhood are cheerful, intimate, but not invasive. I noticed that the colors were bright, and each house seemed to be painted a different bright, cheerful hue. The rooms seemed small, which is not how I would design a house, but perhaps the options are limited when the hillside is so steep.

Valparaiso is still a critical port city. It is proud of its Navy, which undoubtedly was charged with maintaining the waters safe for commerce. If one thinks that this is a trivial duty, all one has to do is to look at Somalia, a failed state, and the fact that its waters are teaming with ersatz, improvised flotillas of pirate bandits who will attack and kidnap absolutely everything and anything.

As I look at the narrow pathways up and down the steep hills, I reflect that Valparaiso was also the epicenter of conflicts as well as earthquakes. Bolivia used to own a part of the coast now claimed by Chile, and Spain fought to keep Chile as a part of its possessions.  Later, with various economic adjustments and political conflicts, Valparaiso found itself in a strategic position. 

After visiting Neruda's house, I went with my small group to the Plaza Sotomayor, where we toured some of the historical buildings and took photos of the stunning sculptures and monuments. It gave me a sense of the context of Neruda's writing, and also of some of the influences on his view of nature, history, and heroism. I view Neruda as a philosophically heroic figure; perhaps not so much for his political stance (ephemeral -- do we even remember what that was?) but for his gift of poetry and the ability to illuminate human spirit.

Looking out across the Pacific Ocean, one feels a sense of vastness and a sense of the infinite -- feelings so well evoked by Neruda's writing. One also feels a renewed sense of stewardship toward nature and harmonious coexistence with the oceans and all forms of life on earth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ilya Repin’s house outside St. Petersburg, Russia

I had the chance to visit Ilya Repin's home several years ago while I was attending a 2-week workshop on language and writing at Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia. Repin's house is outside St. Petersburg in the middle of a beautiful forest. I visited in June, and the weather was pleasant, the cool, summer light made the atmosphere crystal clear. The colors seemed super-saturated, and I could not think of a more engaging environment for painting.

Ilya Repin was not a writer, but an artist, but it was extremely interesting to see the lovely home where he painted. It was in a wooded little area, and it had lots of windows and rooms, plus several inventions to make it easier for the cook to send him his meals without interrupting him. The house was comfortable and the rooms not too large, but definitely large enough for painting and having a studio.

His eyesight failed and he developed arthritic hands (similar to Matisse, I think). He had special accommodations made for that as well. One of Repin’s most famous paintings, “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks” (1891) was painted in his home. Now hanging in the Russia Museum in Saint Petersburg (which I happened to visit as well), it depicts Cossacks engaged in the delightful task of composing a profanity-laced letter to the Sultan after they had defeated the Ottoman Empire troops in battle.

The Cossacks are laughing uproariously as they collectively pen the appropriate response to their mortal enemies. It’s a gorgeously composed canvas in the realistic / Romantic style of the late 19th century.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I found myself in the city museum of the town of Gandze, Azerbaijan, where I happened upon an exhibit describing Ilya Repin’s visit in 1888 where he sketched people and objects to correctly capture the people, artifacts, and culture of the Ottoman Empire.

Even more astonishing was a scabbard and long sword exactly matching the scabbard and sword which take center stage in Repin’s famous painting.

There is no doubt that I think of all three places: The Russian Museum, Ilya Repin’s house, and the Gandze, Azerbaijan City Museum’s Repin exhibit.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Carson McCullers’s Home in Columbus, Georgia

It was early in March and the weather alternated between chilly and wet, and bright green blossoming spring. I walked down the old sidewalks in the neighborhood where Carson McCullers lived, and I could feel a certain vibration – was it the feeling of the underdog?  The town is on a river that had just flooded, and like all towns on rivers, the heart and soul of the flowed in the waters.

Columbus, Georgia and the Chattahoochee River (photo Susan Smith Nash) 
Carson McCullers lived only a few miles from the Chattahoochee River, which involved driving on old brick streets, where lawns are manicured and green, and the shrubs and bushes grow rapidly, to bud out, flower and fade equally rapidly. It feels like a place of genius, and that it certain has been.

Carson McCullers’s home in Columbus, Georgia is now a living museum and a place for researchers working on Carson McCullers to stay in residence. It is connected to the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians (where Nick Norwood is its director) at Columbus State University. There they can immerse themselves in her life, times, and literary productions while living in a town that was, during Carson’s childhood, highly socially stratified and segregated industrial textile mill town.

Columbus, Georgia - Converted mills.  (photo - susan smith nash) 
Once inside the home, I was struck by the fact that people did not include hallways in the floorplan and they had to walk through the different rooms. That may explain some of the odd floor plans I’ve seen in older homes. Further, they do not have closets. It’s necessary to have armoires or large cedar chests and chests of drawers. So, you walk in and out of each other’s rooms without any sort of separation or buffer.

Carson McCullers's home and now museum in Columbus, Georgia (photo: susan smith nash) 
So, in such a home where there are no halls, you will always be a part of another person's room. As I looked at Carson's books, her work spaces, and her living quarters, I felt the sickness and the exultation. I felt the body desperately ravaged by rheumatic fever, and then by stroke after stroke, but more, I felt the body that felt itself connected to all of society’s harmed, broken, vulnerable, and desperately fragile, all of whom had in common the fact they loved, and they loved deeply, usually unrequited, unknown, or simply the wrong person. She has a special ability to describe the loneliness and isolation of the human condition, and the special human qualities of society’s misfits, outcasts, sick, young, old, and more.

Photo of Carson McCullers in her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia (photo: susan smith nash) 
Love was the condition that pushed the individual directly from room to room, place to place, feeling connections, but perhaps not able to express it, and certainly not able to articulate the pain and anguish when that love was not returned. It was a bright spring day and outside the azaleas were already blooming, the trees oxygenating the air with their showy green foliage. In this close, narrow house, I felt the harsh ironies of love when one does not love oneself. Carson McCullers was small, pixie-cut, brave, but fame was too much for her. She fell in love with a soldier at Fort Benning. They married. They loved each other, competed with each other, and ultimately had to separate. People blame her drinking, but that was probably only a symptom. Carson needed the competition as a conversation to continue to write, to have the courage to write about taboo subjects: The racial issues of the Deep South, the loves of the developmentally delayed, the deaf-mute, the same and “other-sex” confusion, all are painted in through scenes in which people react to each other, sacrifice themselves for each other, and then realize that their sacrifices ultimately meant nothing.

I saw the sofa where she composed many of her works, and I was moved by the fact that she continued to write, even after experiencing severe pain from her condition. Common wisdom holds that Carson McCullers was a desperate alcoholic, but others maintain that it was not really so much alcoholism as heart and vascular issues stemming from rheumatic fever and the series of strokes she suffered. At a certain point the sense of grief in the home was too much for me. I shivered lightly and looked out the front window and contemplated the neatly trimmed yards. The home is on a quiet residential street in a very nice part of town.

The lots are large and there are wide sidewalks where people walk their dogs. It reminded me of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and my grandmother’s house. Where did “The Ballad of the Sad Café” take place?  Near here? Near the river where Coca-Cola was supposedly formulated, and where people either worked as laborers in the textile mills or as gentry who spent time sipping mint juleps and capturing life in dreamy watercolors to hang in galleries with impossibly high ceilings and the musical tones of hushed, low Deep South antebellum accents. 

The Chattahoochee River at Columbus, Georgia (photo by susan smith nash) 
Life Edge: Interview with Nick Norwood, Director of the Carson McCullers Center

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Energy Industry 4.0: Extreme Transformation Opens Extreme Opportunities

Industry 4.0 has arrived in the energy industry. Just how does the extreme digitalization, monitoring, and assessment of seemingly everything  affect the people who now tend to all aspects of the business?  What will project managers, financial professionals, data scientists, geologists, engineers, geophysicists, and other energy professionals do? What are some of the knowledge bases they will need? What are the skill sets, and where should they gain experience? 

The energy industry will strategically update content and objectives to reflect current business practices, environments, tools, and needs. It will need to conduct continuous needs assessments for Energy Industry 4.0.

Part of this group of skills will involve re-envisioning everything, which requires having the courage to do so.  We need to look at the evolution of incumbent products, as well as the emerging “upstart” disrupters.  It is important to re-envision the macro view as well as the micro views.

Make the invisible visible: reveal the underlying reality:  One of the key benefits of artificial intelligence and machine learning is pattern recognition, which is not a static thing, but constantly evolving and “learning” as more information is added.

It is important to keep in mind that in addition to technological advances, there will be displacements and unintended consequences. Part of the challenge involves social responsibility in order to consider how human capital should be developed to retrain people whose professions become disrupted. Social responsibility also takes into consideration the natural environment, habitats, and lowering the negative impact of human activity.

Managing the Digital Economy:  How is managing the digital economy different than an organization where everyone is onsite? The workforce is distributed, now more than ever, and learning how to use productivity tools in a collaborative environment. Keeping the projects on task are more critical than ever.
  •     Large, decentralized organizations
  •     Collaboration and independent work in the Gig economy
  •     Project Management strategies and platforms
  •     Looking at all applications in “off-label” ways

Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning: AI and ML apply to all phases of the industry, and the challenge is not “if” or “when” but how much is relevant, and how do we clean up data without introducing our own biases? In addition, privacy and cybersecurity issues must be kept in mind.     
  • Strategic Planning
  • Risk Mitigation / Risk Seeking
  •     Predictive analytics
  •     Deep Neural Networks / Pattern recognition
Big Data Archiving and Continuous Data Gathering: The ability to store and retrieve staggering amounts of data creates opportunities that were simply not possible before. As unstructured data such as old scans of reports is converted into easily analyzable structured data, even more opportunities emerge. It is now possible, for example, to do a deep dive into old well logs, well reports, and more and look for overlooked zones or under-produced ones.
  •     Internet of Things, Industrial Internet of Things
  •     Cloud Computing
Virtual Supply Chains in Energy: Logistics have become very important in times of multiple long laterals in large  shale plays. The same can be said for the coordination required in offshore exploration and production operations. Challenges include security, being able to transfer money efficiently, and
  • Block Chain technologies for supply chain
  • Special challenges with different types of energy (oil and gas, wind, solar, geothermal)
FinTech:  Finance technologies are just emerging, and they will dramatically change how organizations can manage cash, obtain capital, and distribute information. Although cryptocurrencies and digital currencies may be looked upon as a bit unsavory, banks are already utilizing the technology to make their record-keeping more secure, and to facilitate transfers, especially across borders.
  • Digital Currency
  • RoboAdvisors
  • New sources of capital, investment
  • Start-ups and commercialization
Digital Ecosystems: You may be familiar with the way that Craigslist has essentially fragmented and instead of being a “one-stop shopping” platform for advertising, the different topics and products have evolved into their own niche applications. One good example is AirBnB – now, the products are arranged by category (rentals) rather than being geographically grouped (as in the case of Craigslist). The evolutionary cycles are accelerating, and now one has to look at platforms as apps with a clearly finite life cycles, unless they metamorphose into something else.
  •     Platform Life Cycles
  •     Crowd Sourcing / Social networks
Digital Infrastructure: Each quantum leap of bandwidth and computational ability is accompanied by a quantum leap in the capabilities of the applications and the devices themselves. How does one take advantage of the power? And, how does one anticipate changes?
  •     Current state and how to optimize networks
  •     WiFi and G5: What does it mean? What are the hidden costs?
  •     Future directions, and where we are going.
Social Enterprise
    Innovative new technologies that have as a goal to measurably improve the physical environment as well as the social structure, with more opportunities for voices to be heard, and to strive toward the goal of eliminating social and economic inequality, and truly giving everyone a chance to have a productive, meaningful life with a strong social support system.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Visiting the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, and the Ceramics of the Moche Culture

One of the things that I really wanted to do in Lima was to visit the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru and to see it artifacts dating back more than 2000 years. I was able to take a taxi from the hotel and it was safe although expensive. And when I arrived I went into the gated mansion that was converted and made into a museum and a lovely patio area with gardens and a delightful restaurant.

The entryway has a smooth flagstone surface, and the tall wall to the east is covered with climbing plants that are blooming with fuschia, dark red, and fiery orange blossoms. They look like azaleas but I suspect that they are not. Seated on a carved wooden bench with a back with evenly spaced posts is a man in a long-sleeved white shirt and jeans. His head is bowed and at first I think he is a bit dejected until I realize he is checking his cell phone. Scattered about are potted plants with succulents, including very robust jade plants and aloe vera.

Inside the Larco: 
I paid about three dollars to enter and was given a token with the number because I was not allowed to bring in my backpack. I could however take pictures, and that was a relief. So the museum was arranged in chronological order and it started with the history of people and civilizations in the area that is now Lima, Peru.

It was interesting to see the theory that everyone came from the Bering Strait to be still reinforced and perpetuated. Eventually, we may find that there are some other migration pathway or that people that is to say human beings originated in Latin America as well as in Africa and Asia Asia.

The earliest civilizations were very expert in leading and basket making and ceramics. Some of the ceramics were enormous and the pots were large enough to accommodate water storage. Even the most utilitarian of pots had whimsical or elegant shapes performs. I love that about them! It was surprising to see what a lovely finish the ceramics had and I don’t know if they used a glaze or if it was just some firing process but it was very impressive.

Then, there were many different exhibits that had to do with the headdresses and costumes of the different people in society ranging from the lowliest two the highest ranking priests and kings. It was interesting to see the different headdresses and the jewelry. The gods and the decorative elements were described and explained in the placards that were near each exhibit. It was very informative and clearly described not just the artifacts but also the milieu and the contexts. I think it would be fascinating to travel in time and to see what it would be like to live in that culture even if it’s only for an hour or so.

Actually, an hour or so of time travel would be most likely all I could stand because there’s no way that I would be able to understand what they were saying and there’s no way that I would be able to communicate that I’m not some evil creature sent from the underworld to taint their future. After going through the large exhibit that ended up with many different kinds of goals and silver and worked brass and ended with the descriptions of some of the ceremonies, and decided to walk around and explore the grounds. So I took pictures of some of the very beautiful flowering trees and thought I would check out the restaurant. I was distracted however by a sign that said this way to the erotic Museum.

I had to smile because the ceramics that the Indians made 2000 years ago were from the Moche and stay are well known for their ability to create smooth and an amazingly expressive ceramics. In the main museum there are many ceramics that had peoples has depicted and also useful vessels in the shape of animals such as armadillos and jaguars. I know from my reading about the artifacts of ancient Peru that the Moche ceramics had explored a number of different themes and topics.

Perhaps the one theme that everybody remembers is the theme of the human body. I don’t know why the Moche thought it was a good idea to create ceramics with the human body in various poses of copulation, but it certainly is memorable! They called the ceramics erotic, but they were really not erotic. Instead, they were funny and extremely explicit and thought-provoking. It surprised me to see the different acts and things that people were doing and I don’t know if the artists who fashioned the graphic poses did it because they sold well or if it was part of some kind of fertility ritual or if they had to because the king or queen wanted them to! It’s impossible for me to say.

But, there were a few times when I was looking at the out-sized male member that I almost laughed aloud and and I definitely blushed. It was interesting to see how many featured animals copulating and then also there was a very special one of the women giving birth I was surprised they did not sell illustrated books of the erotic and I use their term, erotic, but I would say explicit or graphic ceramics. I’m sure they would sell a lot! And I don’t know if they sold replicas of the most memorable ones to tourists who wanted a souvenir of the Moche culture and of the Larco Museum. 

I went to the gift store after and poked around to see what they sold. There was actually very little and it was quite expensive. So after spending a long time enjoying the exhibits, I asked about getting a taxi and he said it was definitely safer to do it through the museum.  They even offered to call a taxi. They had posted a list of taxi fares to different locations and they were a third of what I paid the hotel limo to get me to the museum. I understand when there are rather informal pricing product policies especially when there’s so much of an income gap and social inequality.

Overall Peru has at least some areas that seem to be booming.  The activities and facilities to attract tourists are from what I can see so far first rate, well-designed, attractive, and they are safe.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Juan José Arreola’s House in Ciudad Guzmán, Jalisco, Mexico: Visit on the 100-Year Anniversary of the Author's Birth

Juan José Arreola’s house sits perched on a hill with a stunning view of the city, the valley, and the Colima volcano. When you pass through the gates, you are in a walled garden, and a house that has many levels. It has been converted into a gallery and cultural center. When I visited, there was an exhibition of “papel picado” (pierced paper) the perforated paper flags that are hung across streets during holidays and fiesta. Most were celebrating Dia de los Muertos.

Juan Jose Arreola's home in Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco, Mexico
There are interesting pine trees and jacarandas, along with other flowering trees. Supposedly, Juan José rode around town on his bicycle, his wild hair flowing. He made an impression in the 1950s with his innovative fictions, which combined a kind of Borgesian surrealism with whimsy and irony. He is considered a quintessential Mexican writer who incorporated many of the traditions, values, and language of his home, Jalisco. Because of the Guerra de los Cristeros, Arreola had to drop out of school after the 4th grade, at age 8. After that, he taught himself everything he knew, which included acting, writing, and working with book construction.

Susan Smith Nash at Juan Jose Arreola's house in Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco, Mexico at the 100th Anniversary of the author's birth
Arreola was known for his prodigious memory for poetry and drama, which must have helped him develop his ear for language, and also to incorporate the world around him. Further, having such a deficit of formal education might account for Arreola’s flamboyant dress and behavior – it would provide armor in a very hierarchical and snobbish literary world.

At the same time, Arreola did appear on the scene at precisely the right time, when artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were championing the authentically Mexican. In being an autodidact, he reminds me of Charles Dickens. I had the good fortune to visit Arreola’s home on precisely the 100th anniversary of his birth, just when a reading / presentation was wrapping up.

View of Arreola's house from the back patio
My friend and I were both given a gift of his book of whimsical short stories, Confabulario. I’ve read a few of them. I find them absolutely delightful. “Rhinoceros” shimmers with a delightful schadenfreude as the divorced wife of a choleric and abusive judge (the “rhinoceros”) is tamed by a quick-witted (but selfish) new wife; he lives an enforced and circumspect life… only wonders why he allowed himself to be converted into a docile, slightly malnourished vegan.

For all who have had to deal with a brute, it has a Dantesque symmetry as the judge experiences his own “contrapasso.” There is tremendous wisdom in Arreola’s “beast fables” – here’s a quote from “Girafa” which perfectly captures the ironies of the human spirit, and the resulting divisions, splits, and double-edged blessings and gifts:

With such wasted technique, which makes it really challenging to both gallop about and to love, the giraffe represents better than anyone the delirious ravings of the spirit; it looks in the heights for what others find on the surface of the earth. (a loose translation of a paragraph from "Girafa") 

Another of my favorites is a discussion in a movie theatre about whether or not the devil got a good deal when he bought the soul of what the commentator in the story considers to be something of a ne’er do well spendthrift. It reminds me a bit of O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” – kidnappers kidnap a child who is so annoying that by the end, they are paying the parents to take him back.

I breathe deeply and enjoy the woody, slightly spicy aroma of the woods and flowers. I realize we’re between the “sky islands” of mountainous pine forests, and then the chaparral scrub in the valley floor toward the Colima volcano. The volcano is active, the earth is capable of passion and violence, and, as in the Guerra de los Cristeros, is probably inevitable, but unpredictable in its impact. 

View from Juan Jose Arreola's House in Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco: The Colima Volcano

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Probing Look at Bolivia's Energy Investment Opportunities

If global analogues such as the Permian Basin or West Africa are any indication, Bolivia’s certified reserves will undoubtedly increase dramatically with a better understanding of the geology and with the application of new technologies.

Bold New Exploration in Frontiers; Revitalization in Mature Fields
I recently had the opportunity to participate in the First International Forum for Gas, Petrochemicals, and Green Fuels, August 28 – 31, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

Bolivia Hydrocarbon Minister Luis Alberto Sanchez in press conference about reserves
It was an international event organized by the Ministry of Hydrocarbons of Bolivia and also the national oil company, YPFB, as well as the Chamber of Oil and Gas.

Foro Internacional del Gas, Petroquimica, y Combustibles Verdes / 28 - 31 Ago 2018 / Bolivia
A few months earlier, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) hosted its first ever Geosciences Technology Workshop in Bolivia. It took place June 6 – 8 in Santa Cruz. Some of the presentations are available here:

AAPG GTW June 2018
The August International Forum featured opportunities for investment in exploration and production of natural gas, infrastructure and marketing of gas, petrochemical production, and biofuels.

I was impressed by the opportunities to drill for new gas reserves in the southern part of Bolivia, to improve production in the mature fields, and to invest in gas pipelines.  I was also impressed with the biofuel (biodiesel and sugar cane-derived ethanol). LifeEdge inteview:

LifeEdge Interview, Chatting about Bolivia
The recent rise in the price of oil makes investment more attractive.  Here’s an article:

Transportation Hub in the Heart of Bolivia
Bolivia’s goal is to become a natural gas hub for all of South America. This is a very interesting plan, which takes advantage of the twin blessings of Bolivia: mineral resources and central location.

By having pipelines crisscrossing the country, it’s possible to have natural gas travel from fields in Bolivia to major markets, which include Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru.  It’s also possible to facilitate the transport of gas from fields in Argentina to Peru, or from Peru to Brazil, etc.

Logistically, becoming a gas pipeline hub makes sense.

There are a few challenges, however:
1.  Pipelines need to stay full of gas.  Is there sufficient supply? Are there enough pipelines? Enough gas?  Enough pressure? There is for now, but the future will require more.

2.  Political stability is vital. Bolivia has a huge advantage in this area. For example, Ecuador is now experiencing problems in its petroleum-producing provinces.  Peru has become more stable than in the past, but there are still some outliers of violence. In Colombia, insurgents murdered three young professional petroleum geologists in September who were working in the Antioquia province. That said, there are some remaining issues with Chile (see article).

3.  Economic stability is critical.  If there is hyperinflation, there are always problems with day to day operations, as well obtaining spare parts, due to liquidity issues.

4.  Nationalization factor:  A plan to decrease the royalties (or taxes) paid to the government act as a tremendous incentive. If the government has (or states that it has plans to) nationalize foreign operations or companies, capital (as well as expertise) tends to flee the country.

5.  Transparency factor:  Governments that maintain transparency in the way that they attract investment, award contracts and concessions, are very likely to maintain stable investments.

6.  Wall of tariffs:  The world’s great empires tended to grow into empires through trade. Yet, paradoxically, when they feel threatened, they tend to engage in protectionism. Walls and trade barriers can be digital as well as physical and can apply to just about everything.

7.  Streamlining bureaucracy: Bolivia, like Peru, has done a great deal to streamline the process of doing business in Bolivia by reducing the number of permits needed.  It’s a good idea. After all, if you need 50 permits in Country X, while Country Y requires 5, where do you think people will likely do business? Time is money. Delays are painful, and, where there are tedious documents to be filled out and submitted through a bottleneck, there are often “facilitators.” So, requiring too many permit may trigger corruption.

8.  Natural gas can be used as feedstock for urea and other fertilizers. Special transportation is planned for urea, which will have a positive influence on the extensive agricultural sector near Santa Cruz.

9.  Natural gas can be feedstock for petrochemicals; specifically for low-density polyethylene (used for plastic bottles and bags) and also for polystyrene; used in cars, etc.

10.  Using sugar cane as feedstock for ethanol.  Being able to sell to more than one buyer creates a tremendous opportunity for small producers to diversify and also to justify much-needed capital improvements.

A Bright Future, Given Solid Governmental Partnering
The outlook for Bolivia looks very bright on many fronts.  In fact, one can already see progress as the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra continues to experience tremendous growth, not only in natural gas, but also in the manufacturing and agricultural industries made efficient by the availability of energy.

AAPG Young Professionals paper presentation at YPFB - Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Susan Nash at YPFB, Santa Cruz, at AAPG YP meeting

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Machine Learning and Python: Interview with Patrick Ng

The United States is now the world's largest producer of oil and gas, and machine learning played a large role in the transformation, which has occurred because of new techniques and technologies.

Welcome to an interview with Patrick Ng, geoscientist and pioneer of innovative ways to use analytics and specifically machine learning, to find new oil and gas reserves and to produce them more efficiently and sustainably.

LIFE EDGE with Patrick Ng Chat 2018 Q&A Notes

Background - I am a geophysicist by training, and experienced A to Z in  geosciences. 1) As - AVO amplitude versus offset to reduce risk, azimuthal features to map natural fractures, 2) transform seismic to rock properties, and 3) prestack depth imaging / model building to map subsalt reservoirs leading to 3 giant discoveries total over 2.5 billion boe in the Gulf of Mexico, and 4) the Z is drilling wells and learning from the drill bit all the way to total depth (Z).

And I learn through the drill bit that we drill anything but an average well, or rather a range of IP initial productions. The risk lies in the spread, and I make it a business managing risk at Real Core Energy.

Q1: how about examples of using Python in industry?

The hackathon focus was production forecast of a well. Given the flow rate data (courtesy of Halliburton, sponsor) and Python Notebook as template, and bootcamp to bring everyone up to speed. The exercise is to try use geoscience in machine learning, and play with the number of layers and neurons in neural network, and improve the forecast accuracy.

Q2: why Python?

Python is like the foundation, that my teenage daughter uses for make up. Depending on the event, she will put on other colors and things (not sure what to call those… so I won’t).  And the real power of Python comes from a set of libraries. For example:

1) Numpy, numeric Python for vectorized numerical computation
2) Pandas for handling lots of columns and rows
3) SK learn for machine learning algorithms, ready plug-n-play.

Think of.Python example, say write a few lines of codes, in a loop do something to each element in an array one at a time.

Numpy can collapse that into a single line, operates on an entire time series as a vector all at one go.

Often we may have a thousand wells, each with its production profiles. Think of wells as columns across the top with number of barrels per day, week or month hanging down. Pandas can operate on the entire collection of series of data all at once, like getting the mean, median, statistics with one line on an entire group of data. We also get the top 25%, next 50% and bottom 25% percentiles. Quickly we get a feel for how well the producing assets perform.

Q3: why is Python so popular with  machine learning?

It has to do with the availability of powerful libraries like Keras and Tensorflow well suited for neural network and deep learning. While SK Learn has been around for some time, Tensorflow was released by Google to open source consortium in November 2017.

Lets take deep learning as example. Microsoft had success using 158 layers in a deep neural network. Using keras, we specify one layer at a time, and we’d have 158 lines of codes.

But with Tensorflow, we can do that in one line albeit a long line, by listing the number of neurons in all 158 layers all at once. Again fewer lines of codes. But if we want to customize, and tune each layer, then we can do so with Python in a more granular way.

So we go from Python (the foundation), to Numpy, Pandas, Keras and Tensorflow, each provides the tools to do more, faster with fewer line of codes. In a nutshell, Python opens up a whole new way for geoscientists to explore data, do rapid experiments and gain new insights.

Q4: can machine learning make the industry more safe and clean?

Here are two examples. First predictive maintenance, we can better anticipate and schedule downtime for routine maintenance and repairs of equipments. Just as we do annual check up for our AC in Houston and keep them running top shape. That will prevent potential leaks and minimize surprises, so keep us safe.

On cleaner environment, one possibility is that we drill fewer wells and produce the same volume, if we can better predict the outcome with machine learning. Doing so, we reduce the footprint and impact on the environment.

(One more thought came after the Chat, is refracking. If we can use machine learning to better identify refracking candidate wells, we shall improve recovery factor and may also drill fewer new wells. Again reduce footprint and lessen impact on the environment.)

Q5: is there benefit of reprocessing data and machine learning together?

Yes. It has been standard business practice that every few years, with improved algorithm, we reprocess data, get higher resolution and a more detailed look. Like going from 4K to 8K HDTV, instead of 80 to 100 feet resolution in seismic, we may get that down to 40 ft. With higher resolution data, we’d retrain machine learning and get better results. Both go hand in hand.

That brings up a good point. In the world of geoscience, if we change the model, we also get different resulting imaged data. Unlike typical data used to feed machine learning algorithm, say what I bought from Amazon or movies streamed from Netflix, what I read and watched became record. That won’t change. But when imaging seismic, the model and resulting data are tightly coupled. Change one, we change the other.

So learning with machine beats machine learning alone.

Before 1995, the thinking in Gulf of Mexico was that salt bodies would become detached because of buoyancy (density of salt is lighter than that of surrounding rocks). So over time in geologic scale (millions of years, not weeks), salt moved up from great depth and ended up what looks like cup cakes (picture inside the lava lamp). But with the Crazy Horse (now called Thunder Horse) discovery, we learn there is salt mountain that goes forty five thousand feet deep below the seafloor. No cup cakes.

Python is a tool that can geoscientists explore and test their ideas with data. Better understanding of the geology and producing more. Last but not lease, is that Python while really powerful for numerically intense applications, it can go all the way to voice. Using Python-Flask libraries, I put together numerically rigorous app and deliver via Alexa.  That I see can draw more highschool students interested in geoscience.


As a closing thought, remember the old saying “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” I see learning python is the first step. Just do it!

 Thank you, Patrick! 

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