Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ras Tanura Beach

My friends the H's invited me and the dogs out for another lovely morning at the Ras Tanura beach a couple of weekends ago. It was nearing 100F by the time we got there but the high tide was in--a real treat! I'd not seen the beach at high tide. The sky was clear and the water was unusually clear. A good time was had by all.

Austin and Dallas, the H's Portuguese Water Dogs, and Mimi and Harry.

It is true that as fox terriers age, the cartilage in their ears stiffens and one or both start standing up instead of folding over. One of Harry's ears spends about 30% of the time up these days. But this silly photo is solely due to my silly dog facing directly into the breeze! Note maximum belly exposure to cool sand! This photo is now my PC desktop image at work. Product plug: cool collar by The Mod Dog.

Harry attempting to dig up a crab who is of course long gone. Mimi is ever ready to provide assistance as needed.

On the ride home. Mimi has to sit on the floor. She's not happy. Harry gets to sit in the other passenger seat, giving him a perfect view of the PIZZA that M is holding in her lap! Her hubby D is driving.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Carpets and Dumpster Diving

A couple of weekends ago, a friend rang me up and told me that while she was dropping off her recycling at the bins at the 3rd Street school, she noticed a box of the green glass Rauch juice bottles in the trash bin. She and her husband make excellent wine but have plenty of bottles so she thoughtfully gave me a call. I'm not too proud to dumpster-dive so I zoomed right over there. Sure enough, there were 13 new bottles (a case plus one!), some still with the original juice swirling around in the bottom (although it was pretty stinky and fermented after sitting in the sun for a few hours). I sterilize all of my beer- and wine-making equipment anyway so this was a most fabulous find! A new case of Rauch juice costs around SR 400. Look how much I saved!

Later that morning, I went to a carpet show here on camp. Residents will often invite carpet shop owners on to camp for a "show"--basically an open air affair with carpets laid out in the driveway and garage. I deliberately went with very little cash in my wallet, certainly not enough to buy a carpet, because I wanted to take a look at what was available. I am still exploring my personal taste in carpets. I know what I don't like but sometimes it's hard to define what I do like. I don't like really red carpets. I don't care for the silk ones (they are made for hanging on walls, not for walking on; plus they are hideously expensive and usually have patterns that are far too busy). I don't like Kazakh carpets much. I don't care for excessively floral patterns. See? Easy to say what I don't like. I prefer carpets done with vegetable dyes which produce rather muted colors. People that like really red carpets don't usually like vegetable-dyed carpets for that reason.

Well, the carpet seller unrolled a Turkmen carpet done in a primitive style. I loved it at first sight. Vegetable dyes, of course. He called it a "country carpet" that was done free-hand (without a strict pattern worked out in advance). The pattern repeats in a very casual way. Some of the larger elements reminded me of Tibetan designs.

Detail of the Turkmen carpet; Mimi's feet for scale. The orange-gold background and the light blue elements are unusual. Also note that most of the design elements lack a dark outline.
The villagers make such carpets mostly for their own use, not for the commercial market. Still, some of them get sold to traders because there is a market for primitive art. I knew right away that this carpet was unusual (I'd never seen one like it) and that it was of good quality.

The light side of the Turkmen carpet. All handmade wool carpets have a light side and a dark side, referring to the way the colors look depending on the angle from which you are viewing it.

I really like it, I told him, but I'm so sorry, I have no cash with me today.

This is the dark side of the Turkmen carpet. You can see how the colors look richer from this angle. Mimi for scale.
Not to worry, madam, he said as he whipped out his wireless credit card reader!

I spent the morning pulling bottles out of a dumpster and the afternoon purchasing a couple of carpets (I picked up a small Iranian carpet that also caught my eye). I think these sorts of events that might seem incompatible in our home countries are fairly typical for western expats in Dhahran.

This small Iranian carpet is also done in a primitive style. While I am not a fan of red carpets, the red in this carpet is exactly what it should be. This is not as high a quality as the Turkmen carpet but I liked the colors and the bird and plant/fruit motifs.

Detail of the small Iranian carpet. The bits that look brighter are plush with the fibers sticking up. The duller parts are knotted threads without fibers sticking up. I've seen carpets like this before but they are usually done in an annoying checkerboard or windowpane pattern (squares of plush alternate with squares of knots). This effect is quite ugly in larger carpets but in this small "throw rug" size it's interesting.

I apparently was on quite a roll because the following weekend I went to another carpet show on camp and bought another Iranian carpet. Also done in vegetable dyes, all of the floral design elements and borders in this magnificent carpet are done in silk while the green and cream background is done in wool. When you run your hand over the carpet, you can feel the smooth, cool silk next to the rougher wool. The colors of this carpet immediately attracted me. It is a very high quality carpet and quite a showpiece in my living room.

I love the green, cream, and dark gold in this carpet. Note that the inner border isn't a solid square but has triangular bits that stick out. Those are extremely difficult to weave. This is a nicely subdued floral pattern. Silk carpets don't have light and dark sides. Because there is so much silk in this one, the color change effect is subtle.

An Asian guy at the second carpet show asked me how I knew what a good price for one of these carpets should be. I told him that first you have to have some idea of what the retail price is. Then you have to have some idea of the market value which you can guesstimate by reading books or simply looking around at similar carpets and asking questions. Then you have to decide how much the carpet is worth to YOU. After all, you are the one who will be looking at it for years. Finally, you and the seller must agree on a price that is somewhere amongst all of those numbers.

As I've run out of floor space in my hovel to display my carpets, I think I'm done with carpet buying for the moment. I can see the attraction of buying carpets and I can even see how some westerners become addicted to buying them (one American guy and his wife left here last October with more than 30!). But I am just a dilettante, dipping my toe in the carpet pool, so to speak. I'm equally as entertained by dumpster diving for bottles for my beer and wine.

Detail of the Iranian carpet. Mimi's nose for scale!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Typical Thursday Morning

It's the weekend so the dogs let me sleep in until a few minutes after 5:00. I know how distressing that might sound to some of you, "sleep in until 5:00," but that's our reality. Now that summer is here, it's far too hot to be outside after 8:00 so we need to get our morning walk completed as early as possible.

As soon as we stepped outside, I could see that another dust storm was blowing in. These events aren't true shamals (sandstorms) but instead consist of fine dust particles that completely coat every surface of plants, cars, roofs, windows, even your hair and teeth. When it hurts to blink after a few minutes outside, it is time to go back inside. We've had a rough spring with perhaps a dozen dust storms since the first of the year.

To add insult to injury, the palm trees are dropping pollen in appalling volumes. The strong winds were swirling all of those particles around with the dust.

So I quickly decided that we'd do our "short" walk route that takes about half an hour. Our normal weekend morning route takes over an hour but I didn't want to be outside for that long. And this was certainly not a day for lingering in the backyard of a vacant house to play ball.

We are happily strolling along when the dogs suddenly turned a corner next to a fence densely covered in confront a surprised black cat who was puffed up and hissing indignantly. I've been working to try to tone down Mimi's responses to the cats we see (with mixed success) but she did allow me to back her up a few feet. I bent down to pick her up (sometimes the easiest way to get her out of a situation where she is past her stimulation threshold is to simply ... get her out of it) and started walking away.

Suddenly, the cat ran up and attacked Harry! He was taken completely by surprise and didn't have time to react. I could tell the cat had made some claw contact. I stepped forward and gave the cat a bit of a kick, nothing damaging but still it was a pretty firm nudge with the foot. It decided that taking on me and Harry was probably not a winning proposition so it ran off.

I gave Harry a quick check, finding only two spots with a bit of blood, decided that everything was over, and we continued our walk.

A few minutes later, we came up on a section of sprinklers watering a green space. The grass here is watered using raw or reclaimed water (which depends on where you are in camp). The rain-bird type sprinklers are irresistible to the dogs when they are in the right mood, which after the cat attack both apparently were. They start biting at the water, click click snap, you can hear their teeth close together. Both of them became soaked in less than a minute. I usually have to call off the game once they start trying to bite the sprinkler itself!

We walked down to a relatively clean patch of grass and I let them roll around. Mimi loves to get wet, hates to be wet, so she is particularly vigorous with her rolling.

Then we headed on home where we proceeded to take a short nap to recover from the morning's excitement.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Language Milestones

I passed a second-language milestone yesterday: I had my first telephone conversation in French. It was a simple conversation lasting barely two minutes. But necessary information was successfully exchanged.

Talking on the phone is without a doubt the hardest skill to master when you are learning a second language. All of the non-verbal clues that humans put into a conversation are missing.

My French is coming along well. Now when I'm reading, I rarely translate written French into English--as long as the material is simple, like the stories in Paris Match, a magazine I buy specifically because it is written using very simple grammar.

However, I do rehearse things I want to say, sometimes even writing them down to make sure the grammar is correct (and to make sure I selected the right verb and conjugated it correctly). And yesterday's phone conversation was no different: I practiced what I wanted to say a couple of times before I dialed. I still speak with far too many pauses and ums--I'm not quite at the point where my brain and mouth are synced.

But these little successes suggest that I'm on the right track!

Monday, May 09, 2011


Terrier Toy Testing Institute (T3i) recently conducted another series of tests.

What's this? Something in this box smells very interesting.

Ehn! I can...see something!
Look! Plush Wubbas! With rubber balls inside that squeak at 100+ decibels on both the inhale and exhale!

I can really get a good grip on these furry tentacles!

Another productive day at T3i!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Where Does Petroleum Come From?

As fascinating as the subject is, I'm not going to bury you in a technical discussion about how petroleum generates, accumulates, and is extracted. (But I could if you really wanted it...) My purpose here is to share some facts with all of you by addressing a few questions:

  • How much petroleum does the US produce?
  • How much petroleum does the US consume?
  • The US imports petroleum. Where does it come from?
  • Can the US replace imports with domestic sources?

The Production and Consumption Landscape
In January, 2011, the United States, across all sectors, produced 860 million barrels of fossil fuels. In January 2011, the United States, across all sectors, consumed 1,358 million barrels of fossil fuels (Source: EIA; I converted Btus to barrels for you). The problem is fairly clear: we consume more fossil fuels than we produce.

It is a bit too simplistic to multiply those numbers by 12 to get annual totals since consumption in particular can vary widely month to month. However, if we did this bit of math, we would project annual production in 2011 to be 10.3 billion barrels of fossil fuels and annual consumption in 2011 to be 16.3 billion barrels of fossil fuels. These numbers are consistent with the latest annual totals available for 2010: 10 billion barrels produced, 14 billion barrels consumed.

The United States is a net importer of fossil fuels and has been thus since at least 1949. We have been importing more than 20% of our total consumed fossils fuels since 1987, more than 30% since 2001. We imported 5.1 billion barrels of fossil fuels in 2010 (source: EIA), 36% of our total consumption. We imported more than eight million barrels of petroleum per day in February, 2011 (Source: EIA). Where does all of that petroleum come from?

Many of you read about America's "dependence on foreign oil." Twenty-seven percent of those imports came from Canada. Saudi Arabia supplied fourteen percent, and the rest of the world's exporters (Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, Angola, Iraq...) supplied the rest (Source: EIA). While we'd all agree that Canada is indeed a foreign country, it hardly poses a political or cultural threat to the US.

In 2009, about 8% of US energy consumption was in the form of alternative (renewable) energy sources (Source: EIA). By the year 2035, an estimated 17% of our consumption could be covered by alternative sources--but this projection assumes that growth of the alternative energy industry will be supported by substantial tax credits and subsidies. Given the current political climate, it is very likely that the predicted 17% is overly optimistic.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that renewables are able to cover 17% of total consumption in 2035. A gap between energy production and consumption would still remain, a gap that would probably be covered by imported fossil fuels.

If we want to substantially reduce our "reliance on foreign oil" we either need to reduce consumption (a topic for another day) or find more domestic energy sources. Renewables will only take us so far. Do we have additional petroleum resources that we are not utilizing?

Can the US Produce More Oil?
Let's take a look at the overall picture of domestic reserves. The situation gets a bit murky with jargon so I'll need to define some terms first. It gets a bit dense here but push through it and keep reading.

Undiscovered mean volumes are estimated volumes of accumulations of oil and gas that geological studies suggest might be present in the subsurface. They are not proven using standard technologies (drilling a well, for example). Because there isn't hard data to support the estimates, the volumes are generally considered an overestimate--not all of the petroleum suspected to be there can be extracted using known technologies.

Undiscovered technically recoverable volumes are estimated volumes of accumulations of oil and gas determined as above, but that are thought to be extractable using known technologies. They are also an overestimate.

Proven reserves are volumes of accumulations proven by known technologies (drilling a well) that are extractable with known technologies and that have a greater than 90% probability of being present in those stated volumes (also called P90 reserves).

Inferred reserves are estimates of increases in reserve volumes that are made during development of a field. It is indeed possible for reserves to increase in this manner, such as when P50 and P30 reserves are confirmed and brought into the P90 category, but it is also possible for reserves estimates to decrease during development. These estimates are a bit sketchy.

Finally, there is something called recovery factor. This interesting variable represents the percentage of petroleum that is actually extracted from an accumulation. In their shareholder propaganda, er, literature, some companies will say they plan for a 60% recovery factor. In reality, 30% is a more typical global value. This means that for any given accumulation, we are likely to only be able to extract 30% of it. There are physical reasons why we can't extract 100% of the fluids from a given reservoir but that isn't important here.

Recovery factor can be increased by injecting fluids into a reservoir to keep up the pressure and to flood (push) more oil towards producing wells. It can be increased by adding surfactants, solvents, and other chemicals to a reservoir. It can be increased by cleaning up the insides of producing wells (acid jobs, refracturing, reperforating, etc.). It can be increased by better field development design (where do you place your injection and production wells; what is their geometry, etc.). But any one of these things may only increase recovery by a percent or two.

For 2007 (the year of the most recent reliable annual reserve totals), the total technically recoverable reserves within by the US, which include proven P90 + inferred + undiscovered technically producible reserves, are 198 billion barrels of oil and 2119 trillion cubic feet of dry natural gas (Source: EIA). We need to convert the gas to barrels so we can compare to our monthly and annual consumption numbers. The natural gas converts to 365 billion barrels of oil equivalent, for a total of 563 billion barrels oil equivalent. Oil and gas are of course consumed by very different sectors of the US economy and aren't really "equal" but I'm going to combine them for ease of comparison.

Now here's the catch. We have to apply the recovery factor. In an optimistic scenario using current technology, we may have about 169 billion barrels oil equivalent in recoverable reserves in the US. Assuming that all of these reserves can actually be extracted, that there are no barriers to leasing, drilling, pipelines, and refineries, and that consumption remains at 2009 levels, these recoverable reserves represent about 33 years of imports, or 12.5 years of total consumption. Do you think my assumptions are good ones? I don't.

It's a hard fact but we are not ever going to replace imports with domestically produced fossil fuels. The only way to replace imports is to remove our need for them entirely.

Appendix: Where are Domestic Reserves Located?
I've selected just two highlights here but you can get more information from the USGS.

National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska: The undiscovered mean volume of the NPRA is estimated by the USGS to be 896 million barrels oil and 53 TCF natural gas. After conversion and application of the recovery factors, we get a grand total of 3 billion barrels oil equivalent. Using petroleum from this source, we could replace two-thirds of a year's imports (all assumptions as stated above) or about two months of total annual consumption. Is it worth exploiting this fragile landscape for that?

Gulf of Mexico: Here, I'm combining undiscovered mean volumes for shallow-water Tertiary plays and deep onshore Jurassic and Cretaceous plays. The estimated mean volumes are 261.4 TCF natural gas, 3.09 billion barrels of oil, and 6.6 billion barrels of natural gas liquids (which are rather valuable). After conversion and application of the recovery factor, this comes out to a combined total of 2.9 billion barrels oil equivalent. Like the NPRA example above, we could replace about two-thirds of a year's imports (all assumptions as stated above) or less than two months of total annual consumption. Is it worth all of the political hand wringing that would be required to drill more wells in this area?

So the next time a friend or co-worker begins to grump about "foreign oil", tell them about Canada. The next time a neighbor or somebody you meet at a party begins to rant about how drilling more US wells will solve all of our problems, tell them how our optimistically estimated reserves can only account for 12.5 years of total annual production (assumptions as above). Share the website links I've put in this blog. Go and read the reports for yourself, no reason to take my word for it. Think about choices and changes you can make regarding your own energy use. That electric car gets power from somewhere--very likely a coal-burning electricity plant. Not all choices are obvious or simple. But the more facts you start with, the better choices you will end up making.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Warning: Rant Follows

The aftereffects of the recent huge storms and tornadoes in the mid-South are awesome, in the original sense of that word. They awe us with the power and randomness of climate and other Earth processes.

But...and here's the rant...I want to state for the record that I don't think that government, local, state, or federal, should give a dime of assistance to anyone affected by these storms who has also attended a Tea Party event or espoused Tea Party propaganda. You want government out of your life? Done. Sorry your house blew away, but the government that you want can't help you. Oh, wait, are you still holding out your hand for that government check?

The government that the rest of us want, the government envisioned and supported by people who believe, as the woman interviewed on the BBC does, that "we are all Tuscaloosa", told to the interviewer as she made her way from New York to Alabama to volunteer in shelters, that government, well, it's still here. For now.

Think I am too harsh? I don't think I am being harsh enough. I think it is time for facts to stop being labeled left-wing propaganda. I think it is time for intelligent people to set aside the bogeyman of "political correctness" and start calling fools on their foolishness. Not all ideas deserve equal airtime. Not all utterances are valid. The shrieking fringe should not be allowed to dominate the scene simply because those of us who see their fallacies and lies and hypocrisies and racism remain silent because we were taught "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." While that is indeed a solid principle for life, we might need to set it aside for a while until civility and thoughtful discussion returns to American society.