Saturday, August 21, 2010


My last post before heading out tomorrow. The taxi comes at 4pm. (Mohammad, my regular driver, apparently scoots back to India during Ramadan, so I'm stuck taking an expensive taxi.)

I checked in to my flight about 30 minutes ago. I'm taking United from Bahrain to Kuwait to Dulles this time. All of the expats have bailed on British Airways after the combined strike/ash debacle of the spring. I've been told that the flight from Bahrain to Kuwait has about 10 people on it--then the plane fills with US military on their way home for leave. Should prove to be an interesting, if quite long, flight.

I did get sucked into United's so-called "Economy Plus"--for which I paid an additional USD 178 when checking in. They claim I'll have one or two more square inches of room.

Some expats use all the miles they accumulate to upgrade every flight. Others hoard miles then redeem for free flights. I've not got quite enough miles to do either...yet. So for this trip, I decided to risk the extra money. Inquiring readers, I will certainly let you know if it was worth it!

I am really looking forward to seeing everyone. It's been a year since I last saw my Austin friends and Julie in Nashville. It's been far too long since I saw G in SLC.

Upul will be staying here with the dogs. He told me today that I shouldn't have brought in a complete bed for him. I said, yeah, Upul, imagine you laying on a mattress on the floor and both dogs on my bed hanging directly over you, going, Hey, Upul, whatchya doin? We'll see if they actually stay on my bed or migrate onto his. My money is on the migration. I'm not sure if Upul is ready for the terrier invasion. A loving invasion to be sure.

Six months is FAR TOO LONG to be in KSA without a break. I am quite excited about this trip out. See you folks in just a few days!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Smooth Fox Terriers Living in the Moment

Harry Works His Audience

I had a little dinner party on Wednesday. I invited my co-worker Paul, whose wife LouAnne is back in Canada, Michelle and Doug, a Canadian couple I met via Michelle's passion for dogs (they have a pair of female Portuguese Water Dogs), and Arnaud, a French consultant who is helping build one of our geology courses. I made some spicy lamb curry.

The evening was great, lots of light conversation about pretty much everything under the sun. What would you expect from a group of geologists/animal lovers/world travelers/Aramcons?

Paul was delighted to see Tsingy (but a little disappointed that she wanted to make the rounds of the party and not spend the evening in his lap!). (You'll recall that I adopted Tsingy from him and LouAnne back in the spring.)

Everyone was suitably impressed with Harry's staples. But even more amusing to me was how quickly Harry arranged this tableau:

Michelle and Doug. And puppet master Harry.

Where was Mimi during all this? Desperately trying to get to the snacks on the table, and failing that, trying to stay the center of attention. I think Harry won that round.

Mimi Embraces Nature

Arnaud, being a proper Frenchman, brought flowers, alcohol not being an option. My only vase-like object is my beer pitcher so I had to wait until we emptied that before I could perch the flowers in something suitable.

The next morning, I discovered that Mimi had decided to make absolutely sure there were no more cheese, crackers, or olives on the table...or hiding in the flowers. Those pink lilies amongst the chrysanthemums were particularly polleniferous. I didn't actually catch her on the table but the evidence is rather incontrovertible:

I discovered that this much pollen doesn't wipe off or wash off. It's taken most of two days for it to simply wear off.

We all get caught up in the minutiae of our lives...but then a couple of silly dogs remind us to slow down, take a deep breath, and enjoy this moment. It won't come around again.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Harry's Latest

For the past several years, it seems that there is always a dog crisis right before or during my trips away from home. Iz's long illness was only part of that collection of data points. So the result is that before any trip, I start looking for the next crisis.

Hey, you regular readers should already know that I'm a glass half-empty kind of person so this admission should not be a big surprise. But it should also not be a surprise to you that, with all of the very real dog crises that I have experienced, I don't have to look very hard or spend effort manufacturing a crisis to fit. Something ALWAYS comes up.

And of course I am heading OOK in just a few days. The latest dog crisis concerns Harry.

I noticed over the past 3-4 weeks that he has been drinking and urinating way more than usual. His urine is light colored and clear but there was always just too much of it. My first thought was kidneys but Harry had no other symptoms. He has lots of energy, eats with gusto, poops regularly, skin and coat are in great condition, etc.

Then I was playing with him one afternoon last week and noticed this lump, kind of a flap of skin, growing on his gum above one of his canines.

He has other lumps, warts of various types, that are all benign but that get bigger with time. A couple of them had reached the size of small grapes. I figured this gum lump was another of the same sort of thing--but in his mouth? Combined with the extra peeing, I decided the pre-trip crisis had officially arrived. So off to the vet he went.

I told the vet about my concerns about his drinking and urinating and the vet agreed to run a blood panel. Then I showed him the lump on Harry's gum and three of his other warts. The vet said, yes, they are all kind of related. The one on his gum needed to be removed. And he said, let's give him some light anesthesia and remove them all. We can run the blood panel at the same time. I agreed.

To his intense unhappiness, Harry went back to the vet yesterday. Four hours later I picked him up. He has three staples in his neck and two on his belly where the vet took off the really big warts. And turns out he had two more warts on his gums that were bigger than the one I noticed--all of those were cut off and cauterized.

You have to click on this image to get a good look at those staples. The vet sprayed a silvery powder on his neck, some sort of antiseptic spray I suppose, but there is bruising on his neck too.

And his blood panel? Perfectly normal for every single variable measured. So, I said to the vet, you're going to tell me he's drinking more's hot? Yep, the vet said, that's about right.

Well, even though it cost me a few hundred riyals to learn this, I figure peace of mind is well worth it.

Harry is a wonderfully healthy, fit 12 yr old dog. Now he's wart-free! And as a bonus, he has some gnarly metal staples!

Mimi was suitably impressed. She sniffed every square centimeter of him when he came home from the vet then left him alone for the rest of the afternoon. Harry was groggy, in a bit of pain, and pretty confused most of the day after the surgery (I spent the day working from home to keep an eye on him) but today, about 36 hours after the surgery, he seems to be feeling pretty frisky again.

Harry resting after his ordeal.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Sin Room

Ramadan started last Wednesday. As if this place weren't strange enough already...

During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast. No food or drink from sunup to sundown. (They now use technology to calculate the actual timing but up to just a few years ago, the timing of the start and end of fasting was based on whether a black thread and a white thread held up to the sky could be distinguished from each other.) Smoking isn't allowed during the day either. That's of course not mentioned in the Quran, but hey, we shouldn't quibble if Islam wants to make some things up as it goes.

During Ramadan in Aramco, Muslims work from 7am to 1pm. They roll in late and drift out early. By noon, most are at home sleeping until sundown when the feasting begins. They eat and party and socialize most of the night. I've been told that even the men that don't usually wear thobes end up wearing them by the end of Ramadan because they gain so much weight. Yeah, in urban areas, that whole fasting thing has largely become an excuse for excessive consumption.

I mention "in Aramco" because outside of Aramco, most Saudis don't go to work at all. For an entire month. Most stores don't bother opening unless they have non-Saudi staff (doesn't matter if those non-Saudis are Muslim or not, their Saudi bosses may require them to work). Some stores, particularly restaurants, are open only at night, usually from 9pm to 1am or so.

The commissary is still open and some of the big grocery stores in town that cater to expats are open. But all of the coffee and snack kiosks that litter Aramco offices are shut down, refrigerated cases unplugged and dark, counters bare.

We non-Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink in public during Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia, we can in fact be put in jail immediately if we eat or drink in public during the day. This includes drinking water in your car, chewing gum, etc. We can buy food at the stores but we aren't supposed to eat it.

In order to deal with this, Aramco allows "Ramadan rooms", euphemistically called "sin rooms", to be set up in each area. Our coffee and tea supplies are moved from the common areas to the sin rooms. The sin rooms are usually an unoccupied office (perhaps an office of someone out on repat) or a storeroom. The doors must remain shut at all times. We are supposed to only eat and drink in those rooms.

Our sin room notice. Tess didn't send out the normal group email but had to manually select all of the non-Saudi employees (by definition, all Saudis are Muslims).

The end result is that expats spend most of the morning in the sin room chatting and gossiping and get enormous amounts of work done after 1pm. People bring in baked goods (I brought brownies this morning). The westernized Saudi managers join us (and, gasp, drink coffee right along with us) but only if there are no mutawas lurking around to tell on them. The joke is that expats look forward to Ramadan because it gives us a chance to catch up on a year's worth of news from our coworkers.

Most of us eat furtively in our offices, sneaking bottles of water from the sin room and bags of food from home. A lot of people sneak their coffee back to their offices, carefully shutting their office doors behind them so nobody can walk in unannounced. Mutawas are everywhere.

I've heard stories from old hands about westernized Saudis running for the sin room with mutawas hot on their tail. In the old days when smoking was allowed in offices, people would have to stuff towels, jackets, even maps under the door to prevent the smoke from leaking out into the hall.

There is even the story of the young mutawa who discovered that all of the VPs regularly go up on the roof of the Tower building to smoke and drink coffee. This young man was incensed at their disobedience so one day he locked the door of the stairwell when they were all up there. He never should have bragged about it. That guy is probably still a grade code 10.

Ramadan. Just another unique experience here in the Magic Kingdom.

Dates are traditionally eaten at sundown to break the fast. I'll close this post with a really nice recipe for yummy date treats.

The Grand US Tour

In just about a week, I'll be heading over the causeway to the Bahrain airport for a sorely needed excursion out of the Magic Kingdom. I haven't been OOK (out of Kingdom) since February--and believe me, six months is far too long to be here without a break. I'm getting twitchy.

It will be a short trip, just 14 days on the ground in the US, but in that time I will be visiting friends in Utah, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia (in that order, actually!). I have a matrix of plane and rental car schedules: drop the car off in one state, catch a flight, pick up a car up in another state later that same day. Some of those 16 days I'll be doing nothing but flying.

I found out that nearly all expats do this in their first year, make a grand tour of family and friends. But most do it only once because it is a marathon of plane travel, an unpleasant experience even on good days. Once we get it out of our systems, we settle down to a more leisurely travel schedule in subsequent visits.

Blog readers on my itinerary, you already know when I'm coming. Looking forward to seeing you!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Happy Dogs

In case you were keeping track, it's 7:30pm and about 100 F outside. Light breeze so the humidity isn't too bad.

It's been a quiet weekend at home recuperating from the week I spent wrangling 21 young Saudi production engineers in the classroom.

Time for some pictures of the dogs.

These "roadkill" toys may be verging on the elusive T3i rating of 10. The dogs love them. They carry them all over the house. I am constantly in danger of tripping over one or more left on the stairs.

A tired Mimi is a very good Mimi.

Domestic bliss. Tsingy often joins us in the evenings. She wants to be on the couch too but the SFTs won't let her get near it. So she takes over their bed. It's all good.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Two years ago on August 1, my little heart dog Iz died. She was the reason I started this blog in the first place (at G's gentle but persistent urging). I still miss Iz terribly. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of her.

There have been lots of changes in those two years, some simply big, some totally momentous.

On August 1, I marked the end of my eighth month here in KSA. Not a year yet but we are hanging in there.

In a week or so, Harry will be 12. On September 1, Mimi will be 5.

Iz will always be at the heart of CircusK9 but this seemed to be a time to make a change.

I hope you like the new look of the blog.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Latent Learning for Production Engineers

If you do much dog training, you appreciate the power of latent learning. Good trainers know that drilling a dog over and over on a skill in a single training session can have all sorts of negative consequences: the dog learns lots of different wrong ways to do the skill (learns by repetition, possibly even by poorly timed reinforcement), the dog gets bored, the dog starts getting worried about repeated failures and shuts down.

I've mentioned that Mimi is a training sponge. By this I mean that she will happily train without a break for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, even longer. But even if I do maintain a training session with her for so long (rarely, but it does happen), I still don't drill the same thing over and over. Once she has a successful performance of a new skill, I'll move on to something else right away. (It is so difficult to resist the lure of "just one more time" but with experience and practice I'm getting better at it.)

The latent learning comes in at the next training session--that evening, the next day, perhaps a few days later--when I ask her to perform that particular skill again. Well-timed reward of a successful performance plus a bit of time can solidify knowledge and understanding of the skill. The next time the dog attempts it, she'll perform it correctly right away or at least with fewer attempts to get it right.

I am currently teaching a class on petroleum geology to a group of young Saudi production engineers. I selected the content and designed the exercises and am now delivering it for the first time. Yesterday, I turned them loose on a big case study that requires them to integrate core and wireline log data to characterize a particular reservoir. This workflow is one that geologists in Aramco apply. The outcomes of the workflow are used by reservoir engineers so the goal is for them to better understand where the stuff they use comes from. The class, divided into teams, worked on the exercise for about 3 hours yesterday afternoon. Most were clearly struggling to make sense of the data and to get their heads around even the statement of the problem to be solved. However, I made sure to spend a lot of time providing positive support for their efforts and questions, even if they started out chasing the wrong things.

I told them to go home and "sleep on it."

Two-thirds of the class were at it early this morning even before class started. I've made three passes through the room and there have only been a handful of questions focused on clarifying individual points. It is clear that they are no longer wrestling with the larger issues of integration of the data and making sense of the geology. They may not have the right answer but each team appears to have a plan for their presentation.

What a difference 8 hours makes. Well-timed reinforcement and a bit of time gives us latent learning in action.