Saturday, July 31, 2010

To Go Where No Man Has Gone Before...

I just finished watching the new "Star Trek" movie for the second time in just a few days (it's cycling around on my cable network). I saw it in the theater in the states a couple of times last summer as well.

I think this is one of the most awesome movies I've ever seen. I could quite happily watch it again. And again.

Perhaps I should explain. I am a scientist, and I hope that you understand that I mean that in a very old-fashioned sense. If this were the 19th century, I'd say I am a naturalist. There is very little natural history that I don't follow at least on a dilettante level: biology (flora and fauna), genetics, evolution, medicine, geology, physics, chemistry, math, engineering...I read in wide swaths across the technical and lay literature of all of these fields.

And I can tell you with absolute confidence and a straight face that "Star Trek" is responsible for my profligate embrace of the world of science.

No, not the 2009 movie, but the original TV series.

My brother and I would rush home from school so that we could watch "Star Trek" every day. We of course had no idea then that the show was in syndicated reruns by that point. We were totally absorbed, consumed, by every nuanced and heavily overacted scene. This was the world of the future! We inhabited that world alongside Jim, Bones, Spock, Sulu, et al.

"Star Trek" utterly shaped my view of the world, of the universe, and of what a scientist should and could be--an explorer, a seeker, a risk taker, an adventurer. Spock was always my personal hero.

The "Star Trek" movie that came out last year has to be one of the most magnificent prequels ever devised. Gradually linking in every major character, sketching three-dimensional backstories in just a few minutes, and setting us up for the TV series, the movie is a two-hour homage. You know the red-uniformed guy is going to get killed first. "Cap'n, I'm givin' it all she's got!" "Jim, I'm just a doctor!" Even the sound effects created in the 21st century echo the best of the 1960's. To the great satisfaction of even the most die-hard Trekkie, the movie didn't leave out a single cliche or cultural meme.

And let's not dance around this: in the movie, the young Spock is totally hot. Awesomely and totally hot. In a cerebral, Vulcan sort of way, of course, but still, totally hot.

This week I'm delivering a new course that I built called "Petroleum Geology for Engineers", designed to give production, drilling, and reservoir engineers at Saudi Aramco some idea of what petroleum geology is and how it is practiced in this company (I use the word "company" loosely; Aramco is not a company but a branch of the Saudi government; but as they say, that is a whole 'nother rant for another day). I will spend this week in front of a group of 20+ young Saudi engineers, suspicious of me from the get-go because I am a westerner, even more so because, god forbid, Allah help them, I'm a woman. Still, let's not lose sight of what is important.

If I can infuse them with even a tiny spark of the same excitement that infuses geologists at Aramco, then I am indeed "going where no man has gone before."

I could do far worse than trying to follow in Spock's footsteps.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Life in a Small Town

Life in Dhahran camp is like living in a small town. An edgy, "Twin Peaks" sort of twisted-reality small town, but still, it has that feel.

This week, a supremely contagious and nasty little virus is dropping us like flies. I am calling it "brain fever" because the common symptoms are a persistent fever, achy joints, headache, and very severe malaise. Some people get bad diarrhea (I didn't have that). Nobody is reporting sniffles or cough or anything like that. It is a "dry" illness. The brain fever took me down for about 24 hours. But the rate at which it is sweeping through camp is really surprising. My co-worker Paul, who I got it from, got it from his running partner Dave, who got it from someone he works with. My officemate, who was exposed to it (and me) for all of two hours yesterday before I gave up and went home to collapse in bed, is down with it today. Yes, it is hitting us all that quickly. But it seems to last only a day or two. Because expats tend to recreate and socialize with other expats, we are spreading it around amongst ourselves quite efficiently. Small town.

Because western expats are a smaller town within a small town, word a virus...when anyone with unusual skills or interests shows up. Right now, I am being introduced at parties as the "dog trainer"!

Quite a few Saudis live in Khobar or Dammam and drive in to Aramco to work. The "Saudi" parking lot on the Khobar side of the "core area offices" is only 50 yards from the building I work in. I usually get to work around 0630 so I can always get a nice spot close to the security gate. But it is pretty clear that there are few western expats who park in that lot. Pssh, I don't care, it is close to the office.

But after some gentle encouragement by my officemate, I decided to park on the opposite side of the core area offices in the "expat" parking lots which nestle between the core area offices and the camp housing areas. I scoped out a lot next to a big tree where my car would be in the shade for most of the afternoon. The walk in to the office is much longer--perhaps 400 yards. But I discovered that on the way from car to office or office to car I may be greeted by a dozen different people that I know through my various activities. All kinds of interesting business, work and social, gets sorted out then. Small town.

In the twisted aspect of this small town, we've got the private DVD club (no Saudis allowed, uncensored DVDs brought in via consulate and military pouches) for which you need a personal introduction from another member to join. The guy has a couple of houseboys who man the store around the clock. They burn dozens of copies of each and rent them for a few riyals each, no due date. There are also quite a few variations on that theme for sources of alcohol--makers of small batches of this or that who don't really sell their stuff so much as allocate it amongst vetted acquaintances. And there is the supremely pervasive houseboy/maid network that runs throughout camp--they are often an excellent source of information when things go awry (houses burn down, a high placed expat gets fired, somebody's wife has left never to return). If any of you have read the book "The Help," I have to say that the houseboy network is quite similar to black maids in small towns of the American South in the 1950's.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cuppa Joe

In case you were keeping track, it is 114F at 12:30pm. Peak temps usually occur around 2pm so we've still got a few degrees to go.

Humidity is very low at 8.4%. It is so dry that you can feel the moisture sucking out of your lungs with every breath. Still, the dogs need their exercise. I took them to the jebels yesterday at 5:45pm--it was only 104F then, dropping down to about 101F by the time we were heading back to the car 45 minutes later. They do slow down a lot by the end of our walk but I've always got cool water waiting for them at the car.

I thought I would write a post about our local barista. Yes, we have baristas in Aramco. There are coffee kiosks scattered around all of the buildings. They are the real deal--commercial espresso machines with good quality coffee and an assortment of different choices of coffee drinks.

The barista in our building has his domain two floors down. He's a little tiny Indian guy who always moves at blurring speeds. His most amazing talent is that once you order from him, and it only takes that one time, he remembers you and your order. There have to be hundreds of people, westerners and Saudis, who visit his station every day but he manages to keep it all straight.

My officemate Jenny and I usually go down there together in the mornings about an hour into the workday. Our little barista will see us come out of the stairwell, cheerily greet us, and with no other words exchanged, will hand us our cups in no time at all.

Sure, this entire system is predicated on our ordering the same thing every day. Woe to you if you want something different! But the path of least resistance is to just go along for the ride.

There are other benefits to this arrangement as well. If you are a couple of riyals short, no worries. You can pay him the next time you drop by. If you only have a hundred riyal note and it's too early in the morning or too busy for him to make change, he just waves you on with your coffee--you can pay him later. My order is a medium cappuccino that costs 8 riyals. Of course, every third or fourth time, I leave a ten-riyal note behind, no change needed. Tipping is not as common here in KSA as in other places but in this case, it seems like the right thing to do.

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Expat's View

Other than the occasional parenthetical aside or short comment, I have not written much about events here and elsewhere in the world associated with Islam. There are certainly plenty to choose from: banning of burqas in France, proposed Islamic "cultural center" near Ground Zero in NY, even events closer to home here in KSA such as nine-year-old girls dying in childbirth.

For one, I don't want my blog to become a platform for my political views, although my political views do color the other things I choose to write about.

One of the larger impediments to my writing about these things has been the fact that I am not sure that I am a good enough writer to adequately convey what I see and hear around me and why I have come to some of the conclusions that I have. And it's not that you folks are stupid, but there are some things that have to be seen and heard to be believed.

To survive here, infidel expats need a strong sense of humor--most of the insanity has to be laughed off. There are horrors that have no excuse but not everything that goes on here can be treated like that. An expat that thinks that ends up heading home pretty quickly. It is one thing to recognize and abhor the abuse, corruption, superstition, ignorance, fear, and cruelty that are deeply embedded in Saudi culture. It is another to think that you can do fuck-all about it as an expat in this country. No social crusaders wanted (or allowed), thank you very much.

And that in fact is where I'm going with this. The political correctness and constant compromise that some (liberal) elements of western democracies continue to hand out to Islam--as if its mere existence entitled it to special consideration--is beyond my understanding. The essence of western democracies is personal freedom (which is not same thing as cultural exception). Personal freedom is the antithesis of Islamic culture (broadly speaking). To pretend otherwise, even if you pretend otherwise using elegant prose, is ignorant and ill-informed.

I have no personal freedoms in this country. I have the illusion of some as long as I remain on camp. I have willingly accepted these facts in exchange for this job. Unlike Saudi women and married female expats, as a single female expat I do retain one important freedom--I can leave anytime that I want to.

I don't want to actually discuss banning of burqas in France or fatwas issued over cartoons of Mohammed (although if the French make a law using their democratic legal system banning full body cloaks and facial veils, whoever doesn't like it can leave; "when in Rome" as an argument is a sword that cuts all ways). I do want to make it clear that what we expats experience in a country like Saudi Arabia highlights the complexities, indeed, the deliberate duplicities, in reports and comments on such events. What you read is rarely the whole story and often not even the truth.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Step Dominatrix

I started with Valorie's step classes. She's got a dance-like style to her routines. As I posted earlier, my lack of coordination and grace left me struggling through the first few classes. But I'm starting to figure things out. Not that I'm suddenly graceful or anything like that, no. I am increasingly able to muddle through more or less on the beat now. My big struggle is to move my arms at the same time I am moving my legs. There are some moves that result in a total disconnect between them and I resort to the usual flapping but I'm slowly getting better at that too.

Then Erika showed up. She's an American with decades of experience teaching exercise like yoga and step. She started up a second evening step class. I call Erika the Step Dominatrix--step class run by a marine drill sergeant shouting commands over a backdrop of peppy 80's remixes and current pop tunes. All delivered with a smile, for sure, but Erika's classes just kick my ass. I hobble panting out to the car afterward.

And in a good way, because I realized I can work much harder than I could when I first started, I now put more effort into Valorie's classes so that I end up with a total ass-kicking two nights a week.

It's great! On nights with step class, I sleep like a stone, often waking up in the exact same position that I fell asleep in, apparently not having moved at all during the night.

It's easy to get carried away with the zeal of the newly converted but those endorphins are as addictive as any drug.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Desert Hash

I took the dogs to the hash yesterday. It's been a few months since we last went. The hashes are usually off camp and I struggle with finding someone willing to take me and the dogs. On top of that, I kind of feel like I am held hostage--I can't pick up and leave when I want. But I ran into one of the regular hashers at a party last weekend and she chided me for not coming to the hash anymore. Ah, the guilt card. So I sucked it up and arranged a ride.

It was quite hot, about 115F when we left Dhahran at 4:30pm. The hashers like to head out into the remote desert and it is often a little cooler there.

I took a ton of water for the dogs--a couple of liters to wet them down before we started, another 2 liters for them to drink and to wet them during the run, and then a small ice chest filled with ice water to wet them again when we returned to the cars.

Evaporative cooling doesn't work for the dogs unless you wet them to their skin. That isn't too hard with the smooth foxes but you can't just toss water on them and call it good. I usually make sure their groin areas are very wet--those large femoral arteries can move a lot of heat around.

Mimi drinks plenty on her own but I have to work to make sure Harry drinks enough.

Still, he's quite the tough little guy. Well over 100F by the time we started and he's bopping around, peeing on bushes, checking out camel poop, sticking his nose in lizard holes (hopefully those were lizard holes and not camel spider holes--eek). We were out for more than an hour, jogging up and down dunes. Both of the dogs were enthusiastic to the end.

Afterward, everyone sat around in a giant circle drinking beer and passing potato chips around. Harry kept the group entertained as he followed the course of the chip bag around from person to person! Boy, he knows how to work a crowd! The non-dog-savvy folks quickly learned not to casually drop their hand full of chips right in front of his face. He has no shame!

Mimi was of course tied to me on a leash but she managed to get a fair share of "dropped" chips from the folks on either side of me.

A tired dog is a good dog! Sadly, all that time and effort will only keep them down for a couple of days before they are bouncing off the walls again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Just in case any of you were keeping track, it was 120F here yesterday.

What I actually wanted to talk about in this post was the upcoming Rally Obedience class I plan to teach in the fall. The course will last 8 weeks and I will continue to teach on Thursday afternoons in the same room I was using this spring. The room is big enough to allow me to set up simple courses that aren't too crowded and still leave some space at one end for stashing dogs, crates, gear bags, etc.

I purchased some equipment from J&J--metal sign holders, some extra cones, sign numbers, and a set of AKC Rally signs printed on card stock (but not laminated). I also got an AKC judging DVD and a handful of books with training tips and course ideas.

I joined a couple of Yahoo groups for rally enthusiasts. They contain a lot of chatter that isn't too relevant for our situation here in Dhahran but it is helping to get me started.

My DOG-201 course will emphasize Novice-level AKC-style rally moves. I'm working on the lesson plans. One author suggests training most of the right turn moves in one class and most of the left turn moves in another class. The cone maneuvers can be tricky so I will probably devote a class to those. Some people break out the sit moves and down moves separately but some of those can be lumped in with the turns. The remaining classes will offer at least one or two different practice courses each time so we can talk about walking courses and other important stuff.

I've also got to get my judges trained up. I would like for them to attend the classes so they get an idea of what things should look like (though the AKC DVD will really help) and so they can practice actual judging formalities. Since two of them have volunteered, I'll also cross-train both in ring steward duties.

My goal is to have a rally tournament here in December. Of course, it can't be sanctioned or official. We won't have real titles but I can have prizes and certificates to keep things fun. I'll probably end up designing the courses unless my judges get really into it. I'm planning to use AKC scoring rules for the most part.

I've started working with Mimi on the Novice-level moves. Not a surprise, she is quite keen to play these new games. She picked up on the "come to front from heel position" and the "finish left" and "finish right" moves quickly (in finish right, the dog moves from front around behind the handler into heel position). She does the finish right so tight around me that she brushes my legs all the way around. I'm playing around with various ways to keep the dog in tight, to keep the dog's butt straight, and am starting to vary walking speed with the heel (slow, normal, fast). I'm also watching the DVD to sort out some hand movements for some of the new commands. I had Mimi and Harry doing puppy push-ups this morning (alternating sits and downs) with the traditional raised hand for the down. Both of them already know that hand command but I don't use it normally for the down.

It's hard for Harry to sit quietly while I work Mimi in some of the more active moves. Still, that's really good training for him too. Believe me, he gets plenty of treats when he's a good boy and waits for us to finish!

Agility would be far and away my first choice but it may take me a couple of years to sort out how to do agility here in Dhahran (we can go through this rant some other time). The room we currently use for the dog classes is perfect for rally (right size, well lit, great A/C, good flooring surface), rally doesn't require a lot of equipment, and the skills needed to compete at the novice level are a direct continuation of the things I was teaching in the basic obedience class. I'm casting a wide net for the rally class because all someone needs to enroll is a trained dog--no matter where or how it was trained, if it can walk on a loose lead and has some basic sit/down/stay/heel behaviors, the handler and dog should be successful in my rally class.

Rally on!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Cold, Frosty Adult Beverage

My home brewing activities have finally borne fruit. I gave up on the ginger beer. I also gave up on the bread yeast. Good thing I nabbed some packets of wine yeast when I was in the US in February. Bread yeast just can't produce enough alcohol.

I am now making some relatively drinkable beer. Because everything in the Kingdom has to be approached in a bass-ackward manner, this is how you do it here.

0. Sterilize your 20 L bucket.

Yeah, it's a trashcan. Get over it.

1. Dissolve 3 kilos of white sugar in 6 L of bottled water.

2. Gently add two cases (48 cans) of non-alcoholic Holsten (available from the commissary bulk store--they even load it into your car for you!). Gently, grasshopper. Too much foam and you'll never get all 48 cans in your bucket.

3. Somewhere during all of the opening of the cans, get your wine yeast started. Add it partway through.

4. If you are lucky enough to have smuggled hops in, add those as you see fit.

5. Give everything a nice stir.

6. Place bucket in a warm, dark place. Wait a week or so.

7. On day 8 or so, sterilize 16 to 18 one-liter Rauch grape juice bottles. You never get 20 L of beer from 20 L of what's been fermenting. There will inevitably be spillage and you have to leave some of the precious liquid down there with the yeast sludge.

You need a starter set of bottles. Everyone on camp uses Rauch grape juice bottles (also available from the com bulk store). Notice their nice ceramic stoppers with rubber washers. The rubber washers wear out with time and are quite valuable. They are considered excellent hostess gifts for parties. I don't care for grape juice that much so I poured 24 liters of it down the drain. Someone told me to make whine. But what would I put it in? You have to start somewhere. Sloppy brewers rinse their bottles with sweet water. Careful brewers rinse with bleach. Wear old clothes.

8. Add 8 g (1.5 teaspoons) of white sugar to each bottle, then fill with beer. This step is rather more complicated and time-consuming than it appears at first glance. Spillage.

I got 16 L out of my first brew job.

9. Let it sit for at least 1 week. Two weeks is better. There is no headache quite so bad as the one you get from drinking too-young, too-sweet beer. Remember those 3 kilos of sugar? The yeast need plenty of time to eat it up. Patience, grasshopper.

10. Prior to serving, put one or two of those green bottles in the fridge for two hours. This turns the yeast at the bottom into a paste and makes it much easier to decant.

10. To serve, pop open the Rauch bottle (indeed, a nice, satisfying "pop" lets you know you have a good one), decant into a pitcher, and add two cans of non-alcoholic Holsten. What you've managed to brew up has an alcohol content that is rather too high to be drinkable as beer (could be as high as 18%!). You need to dilute it a bit. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 03, 2010


It is far too hot now to take the dogs outside during the day for more than a quick pee. High temps have been pushing 110+F. To make a morning trip to the jebels, I have to get the dogs out by 5am. Harry in particular seems to be suffering from the heat, not too surprising when you realize he will be 12 in just a few weeks.

We've had a spell of very dry, windy weather the past couple of weeks. Somehow the dry heat is easier for us all to tolerate. Once the sun begins to set, temps quickly fall. By about 5:30pm, it is usually in the mid-90s and the dogs and I hit the jebels for 45 minutes or so.

Still, it is hard to make sure they get enough exercise. One of the ways I deal with this is to play ball in the house. The video below isn't fancy but I think you get the idea! The dogs love this game.