Sunday, 28 December 2008

2008 - Bloody Awful

What a bloody awful year it's been for the world. It hasn't been the best for me either. At least I found out the reason why I have been feeling generally under the weather all year. Nursing a gut-full of African parasites since April 2007 would tend to take the edge off most people. But I'm clear now so am feeling better on that count.

My troubles are small when compared to the rest of the world however. These past few days have been atrocious. The continued Israeli attacks into Gaza is just creating more suffering. Isaac Hertzog was on the BBC today, asking what else could they do to stop Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel? Not provoking them earlier in the month would have been a good start, with the killing of Hamas personnel within the Gaza border. But that has always been the way. Attack and reprisal. Now Hamas has promised revenge. As if turning a cafĂ© full of Israelis into an abattoir would solve anything. If it’s war both sides want, then things just have to continue in the same vein. The only country who has any sway over Israel is the USA. According the APF news agency, President Elect Obama is “is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza.” President Bush is speaking not to Israel nor to the Palestinians. Instead he has called the Saudis. Please excuse my cynicism, but I don’t doubt the purpose of the call was to make sure that things are business as usual. And I know about Mr. Obama’s policy of “one president at a time” but his silence on the matter amounts to consent for Israel’s actions.

Perhaps it is time for the USA to review it’s policy of arms trading with Israel? I doubt if you are reading this blog Mr Obama, but if you wanted to do something to gain the trust of the world when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this would be a major step. I’m not advocating leaving Israel defenceless, just not in a position to be so damn aggressive. It looks like that Gaza is now in for the same treatment that Lebanon received in 2006. But with the population so tightly packed in such a small area, the slaughter will be intense.
Oh, and while you are at it, Mr. Obama, perhaps it is also time to review US policy on retaining the capacity on being able to fight two major wars simultaneously? I know there is an old saying about if one wants peace, one should prepare for war, but if one wants war, then it seems to me that the preparations are the same. And given the current economic strength of America, can the USA continue to afford such a policy. It was the arms race that broke the Soviet Union. Is America risking the same fate?

Speaking of wars, Afghanistan and Iraqi have also been weeping sores. I link these two countries because of the military effort that has been required to launch concurrent invasions. As you doubtless remember, the invasion of Afghanistan occurred in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks upon the USA. Many things were promised as justification: the eradication of the Taliban and their regime based upon the culture of the refugee camps, the end to terrorist training camps and, most importantly, the rebuilding of the country after over twenty years of bloodshed. Well, thanks to the second Iraq War and the resources that were diverted into this illegal campaign, none of that happened. In fact the Taliban has regained support again and has spread, now posing a real threat to Pakistan. The radicalisation of Pakistani youth has now spread over to the sixty-year rivalry between Pakistan and it’s larger neighbour India. The terror attack on Mumbai this year is in all probability a direct result of the failure of the Afghanistan campaign.

So what has all this stuff got to do with us? The opinions I have been hearing and reading from friends and colleagues range from support for the Israeli action (“what else are we supposed to do?”), through to apathy (“both sides are just as bad as each other.”). One of my Indian friends has directly linked the Mumbai attacks to Kashmir, saying “Kick the Bastards Out.”

Fortunately there are others who share my horror at what is happening and are vocal in their protests. With the building threat to civil liberties in the West however, it remains to be seen for how long such voices are tolerated by governments. If we are lucky, it may be for another generation. But all the signs are there. It remains to be seen in American whether Barack Obama will continue with the expansion of the so-called Patriot Act. If he does, the only possible hope I see is that the left-wing of US politics will listen to the right-wing as they protest and say “Hey, that is what we were saying a couple of years back.” In Britain, the New Labour Government has already introduced the Identity Card (a misnomer – really it a super-database in which all available information about an individual is accessible in one place). In Australia, moves are afoot to censor the Internet – The Great Australian Firewall. A term chillingly reminiscent of the Great Chinese Firewall – their governments attempt to control access to the Web.

For shear nerve and audacity however, the prize for Scumbag Country of the Year 2008 must go to Russia and it’s attempt to rehabilitate Josef Stalin. The authorities are running a plebiscite for the Greatest Russian Ever, the mass murderer and psychopath old Uncle Joe is tipped to get the vote. I couldn’t finish Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Stalin, the Court of the Red Tsar. Each page seems to have been written in the blood of thousands.
There are obvious political advantages for the rise of Stalin to official favour. It will signal the way for the return of the cult of personality, and with that the crimes that Stalin and his lieutenants committed will no longer be seen as such, but rather as strict and necessary measures with which Stalin guided the country to survival and through to prosperity. Measures, should the unfortunate need arise, the government, probably with Mr Putin again at it’s head, will not hesitate to enforce.
What I find personally disgusting is that even elements of the Orthodox Church has jumped aboard the bandwagon, with icons of Stalin now hanging in several churches, and even calls for canonisation. I never thought I would ever use this phrase, but the canonisation of Josef Stalin would be a blasphemy against God.

Nikita Khrushchev, one time henchman of Stalin and his successor was probably the only First Secretary to leave the Soviet Union in a better state than how it was when he came to power. The politicians of today would be wise to remember Khrushchev’s words that follow. When in his old age he was asked if there was anything he regretted, Khrushchev answered “Yes, the blood. So much blood.”

Selected Links

US military policy:
AFP reports: US reaction to Gaza
Australian Internet debate:

Picture credits

Gaza: Mohammed Abed, AFP
Stalin: BBC website

Saturday, 27 December 2008

US TV News

I first realised that there might be something up with the quality of US media in 1996 where I was in Houston for some training. I was due to be at work for 8.00 am. so decided to catch the news for fifteen minutes prior to departure. CNN was located on the television. Not my favourite broadcaster, but I knew it from the international coverage so, it was reasonable enough. Or so I thought it would be. The 07:15 story was the Santa Claus’ of Time Square. Okay, I settled down to wait for this soft item to finish. 07:20 and it was still on. By that time even the commentators had given up; just images of guys in wigs and red suits were being broadcast. 07:25. They’re taking the piss aren’t they? 07:30 came and it was time to leave for work. What the hell is going on?

This couldn’t possibly be representative of the internal US media could it? So after that I made a point of tuning in on a daily basis. While the items were not so dire (how could they be?), the coverage was limited to solely US domestic news. If there was the rarest of mentions of anything international, it was always in relation to either a visit by a senior government member or news from abroad that had direct implications for the USA. I was told there was one regular international news programme, that going out at the less-than-peak-time of 4.00 pm. In the domestic news there was always, and I mean always, a news item about the President, even if he was doing bugger all that day.

As I said, that was twelve years ago. This morning I found the CBS Early program. Okay, I thought. Let’s see what is on?

  • Main news item on the hour: consumer spending. Message: “do the patriotic thing,” go out and “if you have money, spend it.”

  • The holiday period with the Obama family.

  • Lance Armstrong is a father again. Does drug taking reduce an athlete’s sperm count?

  • Schumacher Chevrolet. A small business bucking the trend. “What would you do if you got a call from the White House, asking you to step in and run America’s motor industy?”

  • Military families at Christmas

  • Eartha Kitt. Died on Christmas Day, aged 81.

Alright, it is the holiday period. But if this is representative of the news in America, no wonder the general public is ignorant of world affairs. I love the American people, they are warm and generous and it is a fantastic place to visit. But it is almost distressing the lack of general knowledge that most people have about the outside world. There has been plenty of jokes made about it already. I too have my funny stories. But this isn’t the time to tell them here. I’m trying to make a serious point. The citizens of the USA deserve better than they are getting. When I was a child, I learned things off the news. The British media is by no means perfect but it is often informative and does cover at least the major world events even in its’ most popularist news programs. There is even a special news program for children on the BBC to introduce them to the concepts of news and information.

Bigger names and smarter guys than me have commented on the state of the US media and whom they serve. Noam Chomsky has written extensively on it. It was also highlighted by Michael Moore in his film “Bowling for Columbine.” The problem is though is that a lot of the serious criticism of the media has been coming from the left of the political spectrum, while the right has been critical of the media for being too liberal. As a foreigner, I don’t understand the terms of such debate. It seems to me that the root question the American people has to ask is “Do we want to be informed and educated by our television news media or not?”

Because at the moment, that question is being answered for you with a resounding “No!"

    Wednesday, 24 December 2008


    The view from my logging cabin isn’t so benign this Christmas Eve. An angry swell is rolling away from this side of the rig and although there are patches of blue sky, to the east the horizon is smeared with rain and there is a faint rainbow that disappears into battleship-grey clouds.

    From the security of an oil rig, one gets to know the sea without the trauma of sailing upon her. A fact I am eternally grateful for because I get sea sick amazingly quickly. The last time I suffered from it was three years ago in Israel. If one is feeling queasy, it is by far better to get into the open air. My mistake was to come across a toilet en-route to the deck. A crewman found me, three hours later, hugging the bowl. At best I was semi-conscious. That didn’t stop them bundling me onto the personnel basket and being lifted skywards onto the rig’s desk, where I promptly collapsed onto all fours in a vain attempt to vomit up my own sphincter. Below are a series of photographs as to what is entailed in a basket transfer. Thankfully the past few trips have been less dramatic.

    The seas last night were fairly dramatic. Wind speeds hit forty-three knots, quite a storm for the Mediterranean and since this rig isn’t really built to North Sea specifications, operations have been suspended. Currently we are Waiting On Weather. Despite the huddled looks of the Philippine crewmen, it isn’t cold. Air temperatures are still in the mid-teens Celsius. It is rough certainly, but that would be par for the course at this time of year in the North Sea. In fact, it would be pretty normal for most of the year. At the moment the rig is being hit with a Westerly wind and I would estimate it to be a Force Six or Seven on the Beaufort scale. Wave height is averaging two-three metres, with a maximum of about four.

    For those of you landlubbers (Aharrrgh!) not familiar with the Beaufort Scale for estimating wind speed, I’ll leave you this link to explains it:

    Basically it runs from Zero – flat calm, sea state mirror-like – through to Force Twelve – Hurricane – I told you it was a bad idea leaving the basement and now we are all going to die.

    I can’t say that from a rig one gets to know the sea as well a skipper of a yacht or even a supply ship. One certainly isn’t so aware of the currents around the rig for instance. But over the years I’ve seen a few sights. My first summer offshore the sun shone for six weeks solid and the seas around Norway could have been made of glass. Coleridge got it spot-on with his “as still as a painted ship / upon a painted ocean.” It was also off the Norwegian coast however, where I came across the opposite of calmness. North of Bergen there is an area of the Atlantic where the ocean floor rises steeply from very deep water, enhancing the wave height above. For over a week, the average wave height was eighteen metres (sixty feet). Fortunately the wave-length was long, enabling the rig to sit within the peaks and troughs. What that looked like was one would see a hillside of water approaching the rig; the rig would rise upon it and from the peak one could see miles. Then down again, with a hill of water moving away, the next one coming on towards you. Maximum wave height hit twenty-eight metres (over ninety feet).

    I am sometimes asked if I’m ever scared by storms. If I was going to be, it would have been on such an occasion as those mountainous seas off Norway. But although there were a lot of nervous people on board, myself included, to say that we were scared would be an over-statement. Nobody panicked, nobody showed real fear and I think that is what kept everybody calm. The rig was moving a lot – pitching over ten degrees and people were getting sea-sick. But afraid? No.

    Now, pop me into a thirty-foot fishing boat and a Force Nine gale and it might be a different story.


    Basket Transfer

    (from boat to rig)

    Approach the basket, luggage in the middle and don the floation vests

    People on the outside, luggage on the inside. Hold on tight. Going up!

    Still going up!

    And safely round and over onto the rig.

    Great fun!

    Merry Christmas Everybody!

    Saturday, 20 December 2008

    Watching the Waves

    From where I am sitting, I have a lovely sea view. It is fairly calm, the dark water is lightly ruffled and the sky is mostly overcast; the occasional patch of blue showing through the fluffy swollen clouds. And it is warm, about 22 degrees Celcius maybe more. Which tells you I’m not in Scotland. Another thing that detracts from the overall pleasure of the scene is the noise: hisses, bangs, throbs and crumps are all around, causing the cupboard doors to oscillate, my legs to vibrate and the metallic box in which I am currently sitting to occasionally shudder. Yes, the joys of being on board a deep water oil rig.

    As those of you who were kind enough to read my earlier blog “Air” will already know, I am a seismic engineer. When performing a survey, the equipment I use puts an awful lot of energy into the environment. Nowadays that means looking out for marine mammals, prior to using the equipment. Which is fair enough; with power comes responsibility.

    Usually when on the look-out for marine mammals, I don’t see anything that would interfere with the job. Occasionally up in the Moray Firth, I have spotted the distant breaches of bottle-nosed dolphin or harbour porpoise. From a lifting chopper I even once caught a glimpse of an Atlantic white-sided dolphin. The only time I have even had to postpone a job (so far) was off Mauritania, when on the point of deployment about 400 common dolphin decided to pass the rig. That was some sight; it took about twenty minutes for the last of the animals to move out of range. But even then they didn’t come too close. The previous week a calf had got trapped in the moon-pool (in this case, the hollow centre of the ship through which the drilling apparatus passes through) and had subsequently died. So who can blame them for staying away? But that has been the exception: most days marine mammals are noted for their absence.

    That is not to say however that one doesn’t see anything. In the North Sea one often views a wide variety of birds. Gulls of course, varying in size through greater black-backed (wing span a little under two metres), through less black-backed, herring and down to common and black-headed gulls and kittiwakes. Off the Shetland Isles, one has an excellent chance of seeing Arctic skua, the heavy brown pirate gulls of the north. Gannets, fulmars and auks are common sightings. Perhaps more unexpected are the migrant species that occur. Often one sees something small and brown flitting in the shadows without being able to get a positive identification of it, but on other occasions they are in clear view: starling, robin, blackbird, flycatcher have all shown up. On a rig in the southern North Sea I once saw a large owl on the helideck, and on another occasion even a heron! A couple of eagles decided to make the drill ship there temporary home ninety miles off Mauritania (and for those of you who like their omens, yes, a lot of oil was found on that well) but for me, the most memorable occasion was when the rig played host to a flock of brambling. They are a small, colourful bird: think of a fancy sparrow and you get the idea. Anyway, the weather was freezing and these poor things must have been hungry. The birds were approaching the crew, sitting on their shoulders even, just begging for food. And we fed them: bread, porridge oats, fruit and water. It is amazing to approach a flock of wide birds, not have them fly away and come to the hand for food. The brambling started to recover after about three days of this treatment; at least they certainly had enough energy to fly away at our approach. I have no idea if they made it to land. The odds were against them but one never knows.

    So, what did I see today? In the Mediterranean sea birds do not seem to be so common. In fact I haven’t seen any today. What is on show are medium sized tuna. Last night there were hundreds of them around the rig, attracted by the bright lights. I’m not certain what species they are: maybe yellow tailed? They are not small: averaging a couple of feet long. While waiting for some crane lifts today I decided to take a walk around the rig. Sure enough, the tuna were still there, either being dark narrow silhouettes, with electric-blue pectoral fins or rolling on their side, displaying their deep, shimmering, silver flanks. About forty metres off the starboard aft of the rig there was a sudden formation of splashes, as if a volley of mortar shots had hit the water. Away about fifty meters aft, six or so of the tuna launched themselves into the air. Something was hunting them. A big crescent splash then a brief view of a large dark back. Porpoise? A terrified yellow-tail hurled itself skywards followed in a split second by a massive dark fish: and fish it was. About six feet in length, the blue fin tuna cleared the water completely, turned in mid-air and splashed back into the sea.

    I uttered a soft, Californian-style “Wooooow!”

    Monday, 15 December 2008

    Forced Marriages

    I was part of a crew in Baku a few years back when one of the guys got involved with a local girl, an ethnic Russian. For the brief time they were together they actually made a good looking couple. But Tim (as we shall call him) obviously had little idea about the local culture. One night over a few vodka’s, he looked over at Svetlana and said, almost to himself

    “Maybe I should kidnap you.”

    My heart sank. “No Tim, you have no clue what it’s like here.”

    Svetlana stared back. “I already have been kidnapped. I escaped after three days.”

    Today, the story of Humyra Abedin, 33, the UK-based trainee doctor, is in the news. She is being returned to Britain after suffering four months of captivity at the hands of her parents, who had been trying to force her into a local marriage. Most people associate such behaviour with families originating within the Indian sub-continent. This is not the case. Kidnap and forced marriage has long been a tradition in the southern republics of the ex-Soviet Union; often with the connivance of the girl’s family.

    Before we were married, my wife was often pursued by suitors. One such was a close friend of her cousin who lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan. This particular friend was well-liked by the rest of the family and was undoubtedly sincere in intent. But for some reason was not acceptable to the one person whose opinion mattered most. This led to much frustration, until one day the cousins were discussing the matter. The conversation ended with the threat:

    “So you won’t have him? What if I lock you in this room until you change your mind?”

    It is at such times women realise their own vulnerability in the face of violence, even at the hands of their own family. Such attitudes will only end when women are no longer as seen as commodities to be traded and are respected for what and who they are: each as an individual human being.

    Photo Credit: Dr Abedin outside the Dhaka High Court Photo: EPA

    Friday, 5 December 2008


    Without air and any one of us would die in a matter of minutes. In my work, air can kill in a millisecond.

    How can this be? Air is the stuff of life, a child’s plaything. Heat it and direct it into a vast bag, a hot air balloon. In the movies it is something to blow across the hair of an actress or up the skirts of Marilyn Monroe. Put it under pressure though, and our saviour and toy can rapidly turn nemesis.

    It is a simple process. All a compressor is is a series of motorised bicycle pumps. The air enters the first cylinder at atmospheric pressure which as you know, is the weight of the atmosphere we are adapted to live at. As the air passes through the various stages of compression, it is compressed down and down in volume until it leaves the final stage at 300 BAR – that is three hundred times atmospheric pressure. From there it is passed into a series of gas bottles which acts as a reservoir.

    What is the reservoir used for? The output is fed down to a regulator: basically a valve which takes the pressure down to 140BAR. From there another hose leads to a seismic gun. This isn’t the kind of gun that is hand-held. They vary in size but an average weight is about 50 kilograms and they look more like a heavy missile or a skinny beer keg rather than an Glock or a Colt. There purpose is to store and then release a set amount of high pressure air upon command and to do this instantaneously – certainly within one millisecond of the other guns in the array. Although it is possible to use a single gun, they are more often used in conjunction with others. But whether it is one or twenty in a cluster, the purpose is the same: to generate a seismic signal.

    This is a complicated method to generate seismic energy. The most straightforward way would be to use explosive. An explosive is a substance that compresses the air (or water) around it by burning ferociously. High explosive burns at a rate that is quicker that the speed of sound through air, thus adding to the force of the shock wave generated. As a generator of a seismic signal, explosive has no peer: it generates every frequency simultaneously. But that is the reason why it is so deadly: both the direct blast from a bomb and a seismic gun will kill but another killer is high-frequency energy. An air gun is designed to generate most of its signal at low frequencies. Thus it is much safer and more environmentally friendly to use an air gun in a marine environment than compared to an explosive. Flipper and his friends may get upset but unless they are directly caught with the blast, they won’t be injured or killed. Of course, another benefit of an air gun over explosive is that it can be reloaded with compressed air. A five kilogram charge is one-use only!

    I’ll leave you with a little horror story as to what high-pressure air can do. A sub-sea engineer once showed me a scar across his thumb and then told me how he got it. He was cleaning a needle valve, unaware there was 700 BAR pressure behind it. The release blew a hole through his glove and through his thumb leaving an entry and exit wound and out though the glove on the other side. He was flown to hospital where his thumb had to be cut open to flush the grease out of the wound. The wound had to remain open for five weeks.

    Air. Maybe a little more respect in future?
    (The picture above shows a four-gun seismic source. The guns are the metal tubes on the sides of the frame.)

    Thursday, 4 December 2008

    Hey Buddy! Can you spare $34 billion?

    From my hotel room I can see five parked cars below: two German and three Japanese. As a write, a large Izuzu 4x4 rolls silently by; the engine noise blocked by the wind. Far below, white and red streams can be made out, marking the route of the north-south coastal highway. It’s six lanes are broad and are just like the I-routes of the USA. But unlike them, the Israeli roads hold very few American-built cars.

    Earlier in the day I had a three-hour walk around Haifa and it struck me that, considering the state of US-Israeli relations, just how odd it is that there are so few US cars are on the roads here. During my unscientific meander through the city, I started to notice that most private cars are from the manufacturers of the Far East and Northern Europe. But even American companies that build in these places seem to be under-represented. Of course, it isn’t all clear-cut: there are a lot of Mazdas here: that company has close links to Ford. But of GM’s European offerings, I only noticed one Opel (and that an ancient Astra) and an even older Ford Escort. But no Ford Ka, no Fiesta, no Mondeo, no new Astra, Vectra or c’mon! What is the name of GM’s smallest offering? The Corsa – as advertised in Europe by those silly glove puppets. No, here it is mainly Japanese, German and a smattering of French cars. Of US labelled cars, there were a couple of small Chevrolets (GM again) and a couple of more of their relatively new 300C, which seem to be hoping to be confused with a Bentley. Oh yes, and one Jeep Grand Cherokee. Just one.

    Petrol here is expensive: a litre of 95 octane unleaded costing about $1.40. So while hitting the US-built gas guzzlers, that should not have ruled out Ford’s and GM’s European-built offerings. Just what is going on? The answer must be obvious: these companies are building cars that nobody wants to buy.

    Five years ago, my wife and I became the accidental dining companions of a charming and elderly American couple. Both are professors, the husband being in St.Petersburg as a speaker at an international conference; his good lady wife being a professor of philosopher, with a particular interest in engineering. She was polite enough to be interested in my work, especially as to how somebody without an engineering background (my degree is in geology) can be put into a position of being a geophysical engineer and surveyor. But she earned her living by studying American industry and especially the motor industry. The key question that she seemed to want to answer was why did US manufacturers continue to produce products, but cars in particular, that are technologically inferior to their international competitors?

    Today sees Richard Wagoner, chief executive of GM, and representatives of the other US motor manufacturing giants appealing to Washington and the US taxpayer for serious, serious money to bale them out. $34 billion. The car moguls are just hoping that the politicians will agree that they are too big to fail. At stake are the jobs of 355,000 employees that are directly employed in the US by the big three and a couple of million more that work in the component supplies industries.

    It is a tough one. But the question that needs to be answered is even if the funds are granted, in the long term will the American motor industry still be able to compete with the rest of the world? Because if they can’t sell their cars to the nation who is America’s biggest friend, just to whom are they going to sell them to?