Sunday, June 27, 2010


After I related the following story to Jenny my officemate, she said, you and your dogs always seem to be stirring something up!

Yep, that's how it goes with smooth foxes!

On the Neoproterozoic field trip, I learned about this ghastly insect called a camel spider. Neither spider nor scorpion (but related to and more primitive than both), it lives in sandy, open desert areas. There are many myths about the camel spider. They aren't particularly dangerous but they can grow quite large, move insanely quickly for an insect, and they look pretty scary. Luckily for me, I didn't encounter camel spiders or scorpions during the trip.

A couple of weeks ago during an early spell of crazy heat and high humidity, I was walking the dogs long after dark. We had strayed off the golf course path into an uncultivated area between the path and the golf course itself. This isn't pristine desert but it is not currently used for anything. I like to let Harry off the leash in this area--it's not quite as fun as the jebels but he gets to stretch his legs a bit.

Well, he started chasing something on the ground. I thought it was a small rodent--we had in fact seen a mouse earlier on that same walk. Whatever it was, it was moving fast. And small, fast-moving creatures kick fox terriers into prey overdrive. Both Harry and Mimi were trying to chase this thing down.

Suddenly, it disappeared. Huh? Both dogs were frantically sniffing and searching.

Then I saw it...on top of Harry's head!

this photo courtesy of Paul, my co-worker, who took it on a field trip in Namibia

Oh yeah, I got a real good look at it--a camel spider about 5 inches long was perched on his head.

In a fraction of a second, about a dozen thoughts flew through my head. The first of course was that there was no way I was going to touch the damned thing with my hand. So I took the only course of action: I used my foot to sort of kick it off his head, hoping that in my panic I didn't end up kicking Harry. Then I began a creeped out dance trying to make sure the thing wasn't crawling up my leg or back onto either dog. When I calmed down a little, I checked Harry out, feeling for lumps or fluid that might indicate a bite. Nothing.

It took me several days before I was able to go back into the same area. Rationally, I know there are probably a hundred scorpions and camel spiders 10 feet from us out there all the time. But now I pay much more attention to my feet when I'm walking with the dogs.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Kingdom

Here is another post from our trip west.

I mentioned that we flew from Dammam to Medinah. Access to most of Medinah is restricted to Muslims only. There is a ring road around the city with arched structures every few hundred feet along the inside of it marking the "haram zone" where infidels are not allowed to enter. The airport and a couple of hotels are outside the haram zone. A non-Muslim who enters the haram zone can be imprisoned and put to death.

Yeah, they are that serious about it.

There was little chance of our group straying into the the haram zone since we had a police escort from the moment we landed in Medinah.

There were anywhere from one to three labeled police cars with flashing lights with us at all times, even in the desert. Particularly out there, the police vehicles would flank our convoy, setting themselves off from us on either side at a distance of about 200 feet (no roads so people drive wherever their vehicles will go).

There were numerous police check points along the road from Medinah to Al Ula. The trip organizer had to obtain advance government approval for everyone going on the trip and these documents were examined at every stop.

None of these measures were in place just a few years ago. However, after the events in Khobar compounds (non-Aramco) and the 2007 shooting of a group of French travelers north of Medinah (a good point to start your research on these events is here), the Saudis have gradually been ramping up security. They actually don't give a rat's ass about us infidels but it makes them look weak if they can't control the militant fringe within their own borders.

That's a fairly ironic situation given that the Saudis provide ideological and financial support to that same militant Islamic fringe--as long as the militants stay outside KSA. Those incidents I mentioned brought the fringe a bit too close to home for the Saudis and they realized they needed to make a more overt effort to at least appear that they care about terrorism.

I mentioned that visiting Medein Saleh was an opportunity of a lifetime. I would have to extend that statement even more. My very participation on the field trip as a single female was unique (although in the US and Europe nobody would have batted an eyelash at the idea). I have a pretty good appreciation of what I managed to get away with during that week. A combination of luck, stubbornness, and good timing, and regular wearing of the hated abaya except on the outcrops. I may not get such an opportunity again.

An aside on the abaya. An American guy told me that he thinks that western women wear the abaya like a bathrobe, something used as a temporary covering. Saudi women actually wear it. I think this is an excellent comparison.

I thought I would close this post with a photo of some very unusual artwork we saw in Al Ula. In Islam, prohibitions against drawing Mohammed are extended to all representations of the human form. Even drawing animals is considered rather edgy by the Saudis. Imagine our surprise to see this odd flagpole sculpture.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Madein Saleh

I promised more posts to come from our Neoproterozoic field trip. Obviously review of the geology of the Neoproterozoic section of Saudi Arabia isn't suitable fare for this blog. But our visit to Madain Saleh most certainly is.

The Saudi calendar (the lunar hijra calendar) begins when Mohammed made his exodus from Medina to Mecca in the seventh century (or was it the other way round? No matter. Like Joseph Smith and the Mormons, he and his followers were driven out of one city and took refuge in the other.). Ruins of civilizations that predate Mohammed, or ruins of contemporaneous but non-Islamic civilizations, are not highly regarded in KSA. Often they are deliberately destroyed. The few exceptions are ruins that were well documented by westerners in the 19th century.

One of those places is Madain Saleh, a collection of Nabatean tombs carved into sandstone hills north of Al Ula. In fact, I was very surprised to learn that Madain Saleh is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If not for a fence surrounding the site and a guarded gate, it would have been long trashed by now.

The Nabateans were the dominant culture in this part of the world about 2000 years ago and in fact their script, language, and many customs led directly to the pre-modern Arab tribes. They are the ancestors of the Arabs. They established and controlled trade routes between Africa and Eurasia.

The Nabateans built the famed city of Petra located in Jordan. There was almost certainly a city associated with Medain Saleh but the purpose of Medein Saleh itself was for the tombs. The city probably lies under Al Ula (11 km to the south) because the faults controlling the wadi provided reliable sources of clean water and humans have been in the Al Ula area for many thousands of years. There are in fact some suspected Nabatean ruins within Al Ula that would support this.

There are no signs or placards or maps or informative handouts in Medain Saleh. The site is quite large and requires a car to get around. You drive up to a cluster of tombs, get out and look around, take some pictures, then drive to the next cluster. I had to do some research at the library when I got back home just to make sense of what we were seeing.

Me burning up in the evening sun. This is a very famous tomb. It stands all by itself carved out of a single erosional remnant. The modern ground surface is probably close to or just a little bit below the ground surface at the time the tomb was carved.

Geologists will stand around and have involved discussions about anything.

Some of the tombs face east, some face west, so we made two visits to the site, one in the afternoon and the second one in the morning.

There are 131 tombs, some cisterns and water diversion devices, and what are probably meetings places for large groups. Everything is carved out of the sandstone of the Cambrian Saq Formation.

This large room had benches carved around the edge.

The passageway to the left of the large room was decorated with several niches and the lowermost meter or so of each wall was carved with the distinctive notch marks used inside many of the tombs.

The passage led back to this natural amphitheater with a central pool or water catchment area and obviously man-made channels used to divert water to it.

Another view of the water pool area at the front of the amphitheater.

Detail of the niche above the pool. You can see the tooled notches and some of the same motifs that show up on the oldest tombs.

What I found just as interesting as Medain Saleh itself was the reaction to it by the two Saudi geologists along on the field trip. Since Medain Saleh has been known about for quite some time, and it is too big for casual destruction or sweeping under the rug, there has long been a need for the fundamental Islamicists to "explain it away", to remove any sort of historical sense of the place and tuck it tidily into an Islamic mystic past.

Many of the tombs are decorated with amazingly detailed falcons or eagles (long knocked headless), and urns or plants (palms?) on either side. The floral medallions were present on quite a few tombs. Often the devices at the tops of the columns, usually square as on this tomb, reminded me of wheat or sheaves of grass. Note the small plaque above the falcon. Some tombs have writing in this space, on others it has been defaced.

Detail of the floral medallions.

So the myth of the "Prophet Saleh and the Pregnant Camel" came about. You can read a couple of versions of that myth here and here. (By the way, PBUH means Peace Be Upon Him. Perfect for the texting generation. Who says Islam can't keep up with the times? As long as we are talking 14th century times, it is truly a trend setting religion.) The upshot is that Medein Saleh represents a place of "pain and punishment" to the highly superstitious Saudis. On the bright side, that myth tended to keep them out of the place, which may have contributed to its continued existence.

A particularly large and elaborate facade on this tomb.

One of the young geologists who makes an effort to pass himself off as particularly pious refused to accompany us on the first visit, claiming he was "tired." On the second visit, he did come with us on the bus but he refused to step foot out of it. He ended hunched down in the seats so he didn't even have to see out the windows. The other Saudi geologist did get out and walk around with the rest of us but it was clear that he believed that there was no connection whatsoever with the Nabateans and modern Arabs. He related the pregnant camel myth to us. I tried not to be rude, but it was so obviously a whitewash job by Islamicists who can't stand the idea of any "Arabs" existing prior to Mohammed. The easiest way to deal with the Nabateans is to wipe them off the face of the earth with a "miracle."

A cluster of tombs.

Some of the tombs were used for more than one person. You can see more burial niches in the floor of this one. Sorry, nothing for scale but take my word for it that a modern human would never fit into these. The notching all over the surfaces is man made.

The older tombs are easy to identify as the decorative motifs are different, the facades are smaller and less elaborate, and they are more heavily eroded. The tomb on the left caught my eye right away--that is a face up there, the only human representation that I saw. (We can't discount that suggestion the falcon/eagles might have had human heads and that's why the superstitious Islamicists defaced them--not one falcon had a head left on it.)

Look at the very cool face between the floral medallions! I was utterly amazed that it had not been shot or chipped off.

Two old tombs.

Another old tomb. You can barely make out the shapes of the columns on the facade.

At first, I thought the place dry and lifeless. But once I began to notice the detail of the decorational motifs, and particularly once we found the cistern and the amphitheater, I began to get a feel for the deep historical meaning of Medein Saleh. I could begin to understand why the Nabateans chose this place for the tombs of their important citizens.

Can you visit Madein Saleh? Not easily. You would be escorted the entire time you were in the Kingdom (we Aramcons call that IK, in Kingdom; when we go on leave, we are OOK, out of Kingdom). You would have to make all travel arrangements through a pre-approved travel agent, traveling in their vehicles and staying in pre-approved hotels. And even though Saudi Arabia says they want to encourage tourism, tourist visas are extremely difficult to get.

This was a chance of a lifetime and I am lucky that I got to see it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Like the Dog Whisperer, Only Nicer"

That's what one of the handlers in my class told me I was. The sentiment was okay but every time someone brings up Cesar Milan, I make sure to distance myself from him and his choke collar methods.

I'm sure you are all wondering exactly how I managed to fill up 8 weeks of classes, considering that I've never taught classes like this before. Here's the outline I ended up with.

Week 1
I sent all of the students a list of some class rules and a questionnaire before the first class. I also required them to bring a copy of their current vaccinations (I don't want any issues with that sort of thing--and requiring that prevents unregistered dogs from attending). I started with a tiny rant on what dogs are, and what they are not. I moved on to the goals of the class: help their dogs become better companions in our human world. Then I passed out a cheap clicker to everyone (I gave them the clickers but I sold them 6 foot nylon leashes if they needed one for SR 40; the entire class was done on lead and I told them flexis were not allowed). I talked about reinforcement, timing, and reward. Then I selected a demo dog and showed them how to play the "look at me" game with the clicker. As they each started to work on that with their own dog, I moved around the room, visiting each dog and handler to make sure they were successful and understood what we were doing.

In fact, that was a pattern I established in every one of my classes. I would demonstrate a new skill with a selected dog, then turn them loose to work with their dogs. I would make circuits around the room, visiting every dog and handler at least once, usually multiple times, to correct timing, rate of reward, placement of reward, position of the hands, tone of voice, how to manage clicker/leash/treats, etc.

After they all had some vague grasp of look and I thought that most of the dogs were getting the idea of the clicker, I showed them how to play the "nose touch to hand" game and all of its variations (hand moves, handler moves, etc.).

Week 2
I had everyone demonstrate "look" and "touch" one by one to make sure they were getting the hang of the clicker. This usually took at least 20 minutes, a good part of the hour. I talked more about how to use the clicker (timing, placement of reward, etc.). Then I demonstrated how to get the dog to sit (I use the luring method: hold a treat over their heads, tip their heads back, butt goes down). I emphasized how novice handlers give commands a name far too soon and told them they had to teach their dog how to sit with ONLY hand commands. I showed them how to get the dog into a down position from a sit (I find this easier than a down from a stand but it does depend on the dog). I told them to keep practicing look, down, and sit. I gave them some parameters for training sessions (count out 10 treats, plan what you want to do in advance, try to train 3 times a day) and talked about how to vary what the dog does in each session to keep it interesting. We usually talked about treats too and why they needed to be special (not kibble) and how to make treats from our resources in the commissary (hot dogs were hands down the best treats to use for nearly all of the dogs).

Week 3
More work on sit and down. I showed them how to combine sit with "stay" and how to step away from their dogs, then step back and reward. I talked about duration and distance and how they needed to train them separately. I showed them the "leave it" game. Most dogs learn the basic idea of "leave it" the first time you do it with them. I would deliberately choose the biggest food hound in the class--the owner would say, no way, this will never work, and in about 5-6 clicks, that dog would be sitting looking at me instead of the hot dogs bits scattered on the floor at its feet. Pure magic!

Week 4
I began this week by telling them, no more treating from the front. They had to learn how to get the dog into a sit by their side (roughly the classic heel position). This is my own "get ready" command and I would use Mimi as a demo dog so they could get an idea of the finished product. Mimi FLINGS herself into a sit by my side. She's nothing if not enthusiastic and is always a crowd pleaser. She is also amazing--doesn't even have an eye flick for all of those strange dogs and people in class. She's all business. I talked about the importance of working the dog on both sides. I introduced the idea of sending the dog to a sit-stay or down-stay on a mat. I explained how this could be used to sort out all sorts of behavior problems (greeting guests at the door, begging at the table, etc.). I told them that for next week, they needed to get their dogs onto the mat, then build up so they could step away for a count of 10. That's an eternity in doggy brains. Depending on time, I also showed them how to teach the dog to spin to the left and right.

Week 5
I introduced loose lead walking around cones. I went to a lot of trouble to find orange cones in Khobar but managed to score 6 very nice ones. I set up two courses, one of two cones and one of four. I showed them how to use all of the skills they now had in hand (nose touch, look, heel/get ready) to move the dog around those courses with inside turns, outside turns, and changing speeds. Of course most of the dogs were squirrels on strings at this point so I spent a lot of time just showing the handlers how to get their dogs' attention. It was usually this week that I saw a dramatic improvement in focus in most of the dogs.

Week 6
More loose lead walking around the cones. I broke up the class in the middle and showed them how to use targets to teach the dog to interact with things with its nose and its paws. People that weren't working their dogs outside class usually gave up at this point because they were not seeing any progress.

Week 7
Once again I set up a course using all 6 cones and had the handlers practice loose lead walking--with a twist. This time, I used Mimi as a distraction. She was on lead and I kept her close by my side but I would zoom in and out, cutting in front of and behind the working dog as they moved through the cones. How close I would actually get depended on the individual dog, because after all I didn't want them to fail completely. But I did want them to be distracted by Mimi, and with just a couple of exceptions, they all were. It was a test to make sure the handlers could get their dogs to focus back on them without yanking on the leash or yelling at their dog. At the beginning of class, nearly all of them said they had problems walking their dogs and encountering other dogs and people. So I used this exercise as a test and a demonstration that they now had the skills to deal with those situations calmly and positively--and successfully!

I also had an ulterior motive and that was to proof Mimi too. She was great--total focus on me, stuck to my side like glue no matter how erratic our path was.

Once I had checked out all the dogs on the loose-lead course, I talked about freeshaping and used Mimi to demonstrate the basic rules: if you want the dog to interact with something, you usually put it between you and the dog; keep moving; reward incremental successes; etc. Mimi is a great freeshaper so that was very fun for both of us. Then I played the "human clicker training" game. First I reviewed how operant conditioning uses markers and rewards. I talked about timing and placement of reward. Then I told them that I was going to use the clicker to free shape one of them to do a desired behavior. I got a volunteer, sent them out of the room, then discussed with the rest what we would have our "dog" do. The first class chose to have him put both hands on the back of a chair. The second class chose to have their "dog" spin the chair. I didn't practice this at all of course--but I had both "dogs" doing the desired behavior in less than 15 clicks. And no luring (I wasn't even using treats). Not bad. But both "dogs" were pretty smart too!

To the great surprise of everyone, I would then announce that their homework for the final class, the final exam, was to use the clicker to teach their dog a skill that I had not taught in class and demonstrate it to everyone.

What the handlers probably haven't realized yet is that I was using operant methods on them from the very first day of class. I would use my voice as a marker and reward them with eye contact, perhaps a touch to the arm or shoulder, and lots of verbal praise. I spent a lot of time interacting with their dogs (I would greet every dog one by one at the start of every class) but I think that masked how I was actually interacting with their people!

I closed the lesson by talking about how they could use all of their new skills to work on problem behaviors (barking, jumping on people, nipping, etc.).

Week 8
Everyone demonstrates their new behaviors. Plenty of comic relief there! I was quite surprised and pleased at how successful they all were. I closed with a short discussion about the rules of tug and using toys instead of food (Harry will be my demo dog for the last class of the second session on Thursday--he's going to love it!). I made homemade dog treats and passed those out as everyone was leaving.


I've got a couple of months now with no French classes and no dog classes (I aced the final exam of the second French module. Madame Hela was so pleased!).

Starting in September, I'm going to offer another round of DOG-101. But of greater interest to me is a second course I plan to teach called DOG-201, Introduction to Rally Obedience. I should be able to train a group of people up to Rally Novice level in about 8 weeks. Prerequisites for DOG-201 is successful completion of my DOG-101 course or a similar course taken elsewhere, or previous competition experience in AKC Rally. So I won't be dealing with rank beginners. They'll be new to the idea of competitive dog sports but they should have some decently behaved dogs to start with.

To cap all of that effort, I'm planning to hold a Rally tournament in December! I've even got two people who have volunteered to work with me separately to learn how to judge! This will allow me to compete with Harry and Mimi too. I'm quite excited. Sure, sure, I know, rally is a far cry from agility. Baby steps, grasshopper, baby steps.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Deep, Abiding Love for Humanity

DSL made an interesting comment on the previous post about how good instructors can't just be good dog trainers. They have to like people too, or at least relate to people on some level. I don't really like people all that much yet it appears that I'm a good instructor. And yes, word is getting out (about being a dog "miracle worker," not about not liking people; that's just our little secret). I get at least one email a week from someone on camp requesting private lessons, who found out about me via word of mouth from the people in my classes. I must be doing something right there too because all those folks keep contacting me week after week for another session. I regularly receive emails from people telling me how much they learned in last week's lesson and could I please, please meet with them again, telling me how much they appreciate my time, sharing stories of doggy successes outside of class. My head just might explode.

In fact, I've only turned one person down. She's a flight attendant on the private Aramco jets (read: eye candy for the princes; sorry to be so sexist but like it or not, that is the truth; and remember I have no deep, abiding love for humanity in the first place). Because she had a website linked in her email address, I of course took a look at it. She is a recently converted vegan, and has the over-the-top zeal of most recent converts. On one level, I suppose that I admire her determination to be a vegan in Saudi Arabia, a decidely non-vegan-friendly place. But when I asked her what she fed her dog, she told me she is switching him over to "lentils and rice" because she was told that "dogs can be vegan too."

I told her I couldn't help her with her training.

She is entitled to live any sort of lifestyle that she chooses but when she thinks she can turn a carnivore into a ruminant, that she can force her extreme lifestyle choices on a dog, a dog clearly obtained for all the wrong reasons because she doesn't seem to want the dog for its inherent dogness, a dog who isn't able to offer an opinion on the choices she is forcing on him (hardly different than feeding a child only lettuce because God told you to; sorry this link isn't from the SL Tribute--they charge to access their archives), well, I just had to step away from that.

But back to the point of this post. I am not a soft, fuzzy, people person.

I have no problem telling my clients (I am not quite ready to call them my students because that implies that I am their teacher and I am not sure I am ready to think of myself that way) that their dogs are too fat or that they need to get them neutered asap. I have no problem telling them not to yank their dog's leash or to stop saying "no, bad sit". I tell them these things and I make sure to explain why and to offer alternatives and options. I tell them these things because I think they are receptive to hearing them. I tell them these things because I want their dogs to be happier.

And that is the crux of the matter for me. I see this wonderful parade of dogs and I think, perhaps I can make some of those dogs a little bit happier. And if to accomplish that, I have to offer regular, positive reinforcement to their owners ("good job, Liz!" offered in the exact same happy voice I use with Mimi and Harry), then that's what I'll do.

I am offering the classes in part because I miss dog people. Some of the folks taking classes from me are great dog people. Some are just people who happen to have dogs.

I want to build some sort of dog sport community here on camp. It will take a while to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. If I have to offer classes and train people and their dogs so that I can justify a shared space so that I can play there with my own dogs, then that is what I will do. I will do what it takes to make Harry and Mimi a little bit happier, even if I have to be nice to other people in the process.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


The first session of DOG-101 has officially ended. The second session still has two more weeks to go. I managed to take pictures of some of the dogs and handlers a couple of weeks ago.

This is Kim with Risa, who might be a coton mix?, and Liz with Diesel, the lhasa turnip. I've never seen a dog with less drive than Diesel. He spends most of class time stretched out with his belly on the cool floor. But Liz kept working and working until she found some treats that Diesel would get up for. She did all of the exercises and activities with him...eventually. Slowly.

Risa's owners certainly come off as nice people but she is the third dog they've had on camp in the past year or so. They keep getting dogs and dumping them when they turn out to have any sort of issue. Risa was extremely shy and wouldn't even let me approach her for the first three weeks. Then I pulled out a secret weapon: squeeze cheese (or the com variant). Risa became my BFF in seconds. Kim and Marcy worked pretty hard at all of the exercises and Risa became increasingly confident as the weeks passed. By week 5, she was entering the room with her tail up. By week 7, she was greeting other people and dogs. By the end, she was almost walking calmly on a loose lead. Being a squirrel on a string was in fact her biggest problem (after being so shy, of course).

This is Jeanette with Aris. She's had him for years (he's 10 yrs old) and he's terribly dog aggressive and guardy. She already had some clicker training and Aris is actually pretty well trained but used class to help work with him on proximity and focus. Aris is actually quite a hairy little dude. On the day I took this, he had just returned from getting his summer 'do.


Here is Cheri with Xena, a purported Min-Pin-Boston Terrier cross. I had three dogs from that litter in my two classes. None of them look like minpins OR bostons. But apparently the sire and dam live on camp. Go figure. Xena is the star of the class. Cheri worked really hard and Xena went from frantic to focused. The guy is Kevin with the giant labradoodle Crash. Crash is more doodle than labra--I think there is standard poodle in there somewhere. Crash is only 10 months old. He was utterly wild when Kevin started class. I can't say he's less wild but Kevin does have more control and focus than when they started.

This is Dakota, another of the Min-Pin-Boston crosses. They all have that strange brindled coat. Dakota has no white on him. Dakota lives with several wild children (I think Mom is a barely reformed hippy) and is a bit of a nipper. He's extremely strong and willful and has absolutely no relationship with any of the people he lives with. I hope that I managed to help her build something with the dog.

Here's a fun group shot. That's Bobbi with her two adopted daughters and Jake, some sort of poodle cross, peeking out from the girl on the ground. Bobbi is in my book club. Like Dakota, Jake has no relationship with any of the people in his family. Bobbi and her older daughter handled him in class and I spent a lot of time trying to get them all focusing on each other. Next in line is Crystal and Webster, the miniature dachschund. Webster went from shy to social butterfly in about 5 weeks. He's become quite the training monster and Crystal seems to have enjoyed working with him in class. In the back are Lisa and Rocky. You can't tell from the picture but Rocky is a Canaan dog, a desert herding breed. They are aloof and shy but don't seem to have the aggression of the saluki mixes. Lisa is in my step class.

This is Anthony and Stitch. Stitch is another Canaan dog. He's a magnificent dog but monstrously anxious of new situations. They had to literally carry him in the classroom the first week. Of course he didn't accept food at all. Rocky was exactly the same. By week 5, Rocky and Stitch couldn't take their eyes off their owners in anticipation of a new "game", and by week 8, both of them were prancing in the front door of the class, greeting other people and dogs. Anthony and Grace came together with Stitch every week and they were so proud of his incredible progress. Sure, maybe he didn't do every exercise perfectly but it was most significant that he would even get out in the middle of the room and do anything at all.

I built a course outline but kept revising it every single week. At the end of week 3, I was sure that none of those folks would ever figure it out. By week 5, I was surprised and amazed at the dogs' progress. Some of the dogs were tightly bonded to their owners, others not at all. Still, I kept things moving slowly but steadily. The dogs with good bonds were walking on loose leads even with Mimi bouncing around them as a distraction. The dogs with no bonds were at least checking in with their owners every so often.

The second class was full of soft, shy dogs. I struggled to find dogs to use as demos for new skills because I couldn't even touch most of them. But I worked hard on making nice with them all, even the scary itty-bitty dogs. By week 6, I was able to greet each dog individually and ask them to do some simple behaviors.

I learned a lot about dogs from this class. I learned some new things about positive training methods. Because I wanted to try out everything I was going to talk about in class, Mimi and Harry got a huge boost in their training, to their great pleasure. I also learned that I am a pretty good instructor. I apparently have reservoirs of patience that I didn't know about. In the eyes of some of those folks, I am even a miracle worker, although the dog trainers that read this blog know it really isn't a miracle at all. Consistency, positive methods for BOTH dogs and handlers, and a good attitude take you a long way.

Saturday, June 05, 2010


WARNING: Ranting follows.

GoM, pronounced "gom," is how the industry refers to the Gulf of Mexico.

While there is no doubt that BP made some fairly serious errors in the completion of this well, I have to say that I'm surprised an accident of this type didn't happen sooner. It could have happened to any company drilling in the deep GoM. BP unhappily drew the short straw back in April.

I won't try to rationalize this accident. But it is horribly fortunate that it happened on BP's watch. They are one of perhaps three or four companies with the resources (money, technology, manpower) to tackle this disaster.

What about the MMS? It has been common industry knowledge for decades that MMS was in bed with the companies. Literally and metaphorically. But the MMS had little to do with this accident. In fact, breaking up the MMS and creating additional regulation won't avert future accidents of this nature.

What about the BOP, the blow-out preventer? It is a mechanical machine...and like all mechanical objects, BOPs can fail. BOPs are usually tested every few days or every couple of weeks depending on the rig activity. Even if the Deepwater Horizon BOP passed its last safety test (although it appears that it did not), that does not ensure that it would not fail under the catastrophic conditions that had developed in the well bore. The WSJ is by far one of the best non-technical sources for information about the disaster. Click on "Recipe for Disaster" for an excellent text and graphic summary of what probably happened on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

As I said, BP did make mistakes, some of which they should be held liable for. But in some sense, one ultimate cause of the disaster is related to the current state of drilling technology, to the engineering problem of drilling for oil in overpressured, weakly consolidated sands, to the geological setting that created the overpressure in the first place.

DSL and I chatted about how Exxon has been keeping an extremely low profile of late. They are probably thrilled that they are no longer the industry whipping boy for environmental disasters. They are also sitting on a gigantic pile of money and are certainly patiently waiting for their chance to swoop in and buy up assets of smaller companies who will no longer be able to afford to drill in the GoM. For example, deepwater rig insurance went up 20% days after the disaster and those costs continue to climb. The drilling permit moratorium, if extended for more than 6 months, will force others out.

I have no doubt that greens will be screaming to shut down the domestic drilling industry (and Obama, desperate to buy votes in November, might listen to them to tragic consequences). While I agree that we need to find other energy sources, those will not magically appear today, tomorrow, or even next year. The global economy runs off cheap energy from hydrocarbons. Our own American culture is synonymous with cheap petroleum. I find it overwhelmingly ironic that the very same people calling for an end to drilling do so using modern gadgetry manufactured, shipped, and purchased via cheap petroleum.

I can't bear to look at the photos of the fish, birds, and mammals devastated by this disaster. I am saddened by the horrible deaths of the 11 rig workers on Deepwater Horizon. But rather than shrill baying about how bad the petroleum industry is, we need to take a deep breath and think carefully about what is really important to us. The so-called "War on Drugs" doesn't work because it doesn't affect demand at all. Similarly, our addiction to the things that cheap petroleum brings us won't be changed by a "War on Oil Companies." If you decide that we must punish the industry, how much more are you willing to pay to live in the 'burbs and drive 200 miles a day? To own the latest iThing? To buy strawberries in December?

And by the way, even after 50 years of production, Saudi Arabia is still sitting on so much fucking oil and gas that I can't even find superlatives to give perspective.* The Saudis would be happy to see the US fall on its own sword. They've got tankers lined up just for us.

*But let me try. The Berri field, a mere blip on the map, has booked reserves in 7 stratigraphic horizons. Those reserves represent a volume of oil and gas more than the total global reserves held by Exxon.

Here's another example. The gas cap in the Shaybah field contains 14.2 TCF. That's trillion cubic feet. The gas is not currently being produced. Aramco is only going for the oil beneath it. That gas isn't going anywhere. The Austin Chalk wells that I was involved in would perhaps produce 0.5 BCF during a 15-year lifetime. It would take 28,400 Austin Chalk wells just to equal the gas cap in Shaybah (assuming the Chalk even has that much gas in it, which it doesn't). Oh, and the remaining oil reserves in Shaybah, the oil left after 30 years of production? That's 17 billion barrels, more than the total booked reserves of Chevron and Shell combined.


It reached a record high of 44.5C (112F) in Dhahran yesterday. And we aren't even into the hot season yet! It was around 90F last night at 8pm when I took the dogs for their walk. No more jaunts in the jebels after work--I need to wait until the sun goes down before we can venture outside.

Aramco is a meteorologist's dream because there are about 30 weather stations at Aramco facilities all over KSA. Very few of those stations are in urban settings (because there aren't really "urban settings" like you'd find in the US). Each station is equipped with state of the art equipment and all of them send data back to a central data repository via satellite. (Production in many of the fields is monitored and controlled with equally high tech systems.) I can access the feed from each of the weather stations from the Aramco home page.

I mentioned a few posts ago that it was very dry here. And for the most part this is true. But there can be a few weeks in the middle of the year, like, say, now, when humidity soars. Today, humidity has suddenly zoomed up to 84% by 7am. Combined with temps over 100F, I'd have to say it is downright uncomfortable out there.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Geological Field Work in Saudi Arabia in June

Everyone that went on the Neoproterozoic field trip has agreed that we now have some serious bragging rights--doing field work in Saudi Arabia in June is not for the faint of heart. It was 44C by noon every day. We left the hotel 5am but were chased back by 2pm. It was simply too hot to move, much less think by that time of day.

Because geological field trips are all about thinking. And looking. And talking. And arguing. As I am fond of saying, get a group of 10 geologists together and you'll end up with 12 explanations for something. And none or all of them may be right. Being able to create and defend multiple, even mutually exclusive, hypotheses is a skill unique to geologists that many other natural scientists don't share.

We spent almost 45 minutes at this one outcrop in town discussing whether the middle, darker bed was fluvial or eolian.

I've got several posts planned around all of the things we saw and did. After all, I managed to take more than 300 photos in about four days. This post is about the big picture.

Where did we go? We went to look at outcrops within the Arabian Shield, the mass of metasediments that forms the core of the Arabian Plate. Somewhat younger sediments are preserved within and on top of the shield and it was those sediments that we were studying. These sediments were deposited in the Neoproterozoic and earliest Cambrian...before there was any life more complicated than algae. One of the classic lines spoken on this trip was by Kent, one of Aramco's top sedimentologists: "Hmm, no plants, no animals. I am not sure how to deal with these rocks"! Biological processes have a profound effect on geological processes. That was made abundantly clear on this trip as we studied thousands of feet of sediment untouched and unaltered by biology.

Medinah is the second holiest city in the Islamic religion. More on that in another post. The flight across KSA only took about two hours. The dark rocks along the west coast are the Arabian Shield.

We flew from Dammam to Medinah, then got on a bus and drove five hours north to the town of Al Ula. Al Ula is an extremely old settlement located in a fault-controlled wadi in the shield. It has been occupied for centuries because there are reliable sources of water there. I took this next picture of Al Ula from an overlook with a bunch of cell phone towers. As an aside, we were in MOFN for most of this trip...and had cell phone reception for nearly all of it. I get better cell reception in KSA than in the US.
Looking south along the wadi, the town of Al Ula is stretched out below us. We can see clastics of the Saq Formation to the east on the other side.

Here is another picture showing Al Ula, the location of our hotel, and some of our field stops.

As you might expect, the landscape is quite surreal. The topography is very young, perhaps 25 million years or less, so it is rough and jagged. There are few plants than can survive out there and the ones that do scratch out a living are mostly brown. There is little green to relieve the eye.
Near the middle of the Robutain Formation looking south. Channels in the modern alluvial fans are picked out by the light colored grasses that grow in them. Those are sand dunes in the middle distance.

The first thing you do when you arrive at a field stop is get out and look at the big picture. And of course take lots of pictures. And start talking about what you see.

Our group was small, only 10 people total including Paul and Dominique, the trip leaders. We also had two young Saudi geologists with us.

Once you get the lay of the land, it is time to look at the rocks in more detail. That requires hiking. Sometimes you get nice easy outcrops like the one in town in the earlier photo. On this trip, that was an exception. Most of our outcrop work involved serious scrambling up steep slopes with lots of loose material.

Everyone in our group was fit and more or less prepared for the rigors of the trip. It was pretty hard to get ahead of them once we were on the outcrop so I could take pictures.

Here we are examining the contact between Muraykah unit 1 and the underlying Badayi volcanic formation. That day we proceeded to climb a couple of thousand feet up a really rough slope, mostly scree, to examine the entire Muraykah formation.

I took this picture from near the top of the Muraykah jebel looking southwest.
See that grungy whitish slope below? We climbed up that. We started on the valley floor. I certainly put my knee brace through its paces on this trip!

Field geology is an awkward activity. The best outcrops, the rarely seen but critical contacts, are usually in some nearly inaccessible spot.

The group is making its way to the contact between Muraykah unit 2 and the overlying lower Kurayshah. The contact is angular and unconformable. One of the guys is already standing on it, silhouetted on the slope.

I toss this last photo in for my Utah friends. Look familiar? The weathering pattern of these sandstones is very similar to that in Bryce and Zion although these rocks are about 400 million years older and not eolian in origin. Still, you take well cemented sandstones, break them up with some big joints and fractures, uplift and expose them in an arid environment, and voila! Easy! Same but different!

It was an interesting trip and I hope that besides learning more about KSA geology, I managed to make some new friends.