The tepidity of social responsibility

Like last year, the 2012 SEG Forum was the only organized event on the morning of Day 1. And like last year, it was thinly attended. The title wasn't exactly enticing — Corporate and Academic Social Responsibility: Engagement or Estrangement — and to be honest I had no idea what we were in for. This stuff borders on sociology, and there's plenty of unfamiliar jargon. Some highlights:  

  • Part of our responsibility to society is professional excellence — Isabelle Lambert
  • At least one company now speaks of a 'privilege', not 'license', to operate — Isabelle Lambert
  • Over-regulation is harmful, but we need them to promote disclosure and transparency — Steve Silliman
  • The cheapest, easiest way to look like you care is to actually care

What they said

Mary Lou Zoback of Stanford moderated graciously throughout, despite being clearly perturbed by the thin audience. Jonathan Nyquist of Temple University was first up, and told how he is trying to get things done with $77k/year grad students using $50k grants when most donors want results not research.

Isabelle Lambert of CGGVeritas (above) eloquently described the company's principles. They actually seem to walk the walk: they were the only corporation to reply to the invitation to this forum, they seem very self-aware and open on the issue, and they have a policy of 'no political donations' — something that undermines a lot of what certain companies say about the environment, according to one questioner. 

Steve Silliman of Gonzaga University, a hydrologist, stressed the importance of the long-term view. One of his most successful projects has taken 14 years to reach its most impactful work, and has required funding from a wide range of sources — he had a terrific display of exactly when and how all this funding came in. 

Finally Michael Oxman, of Business for Social Responsibility, highlighted some interesting questions about stakeholder engagement, such as 'What constitues informed consultation?', and 'What constritutes consent?'. He was on the jargony end of things, so I got a bit lost after that.

What do you think, is social responsibility part of the culture where you work? Should it be? 

A footnote about the forum

"Social responsibility has become a popular topic these days", proclaimed the program. Not that popular, it turned out, with less than 2% of delegates showing up. Perhaps this is just the wrong venue for this particular conversation — Oxman pointed out that there is plenty of engagement in more specific venues. But maybe there's another reason for the dearth — this expert-centric, presentation-driven format felt dated somehow. Important people on stage, the unwashed, unnamed masses asking questions at the end. There was a nod to modernity: you could submit questions via Twitter or email, as well as on cards. But is this format, this approach to engagement, dead?

There's nothing to lose: let's declare it dead right now and promise ourselves that the opening morning of SEG in 2013 will be something to get our teeth into.


Ways to experiment with conferences

Yesterday I wrote about why I think technical conferences underdeliver. Coincidentally, Evan sent me this quote from Seth Godin's blog yesterday:

We've all been offered access to so many tools, so many valuable connections, so many committed people. What an opportunity.

What should we do about it? 

If we are collectively spending 6 careers at the SEG Annual Meeting every autumn, as I asserted yesterday, let's put some of that cognitive surplus to work!

I suggest starting to experiment with our conferences. There are so many tools: unconferences, idea jams, hackdays, wikithons, and other participative activities. Anything to break up sitting in the dark watching 16 lectures a day, slamming coffee and cramming posters in between. Anything to get people not just talking and drinking, but working together. What a way to build collaborations, friendships, and trust. Connecting with humans, not business cards. 

Unconvinced? consider which of these groups of people looks like they're learning, being productive, and having fun:

This year I've been to some random (for me) conferences — Science Online, Wikimania, and Strata. Here are some engaging, fun, and inspiring things happening in meetings of those communities:

  • Speaker 'office hours' during the breaks so you can find them and ask questions. 
  • Self-selected topical discussion tables at lunch. 
  • Actual time for actual discussion after talks (no, really!).
  • Cool giveaways: tattoos and stickers, funky notebooks, useful mobile apps, books, scientific toys.
  • A chance to sit down and work with others — hackathons, co-writing, idea jams, and so on. 
  • Engaged, relevant, grounded social media presence, not more marketing.
  • An art gallery, including graphics captured during sessions
  • No posters! Those things epitomize the churn of one-way communication.

Come to our experiment!

Clearly there's no shortage of things to try. Converting a session here, a workshop there — it's easy to do something in a sandbox, alongside the traditional. And by 'easy', I mean uncertain, risky and uncomfortable. It will require a new kind of openness. I'm not certain of the outcome, but I am certain that it's worth doing. 

On this note, a wonderful thing happened to us recently. We were — and still are — planning an unconference of our own (stay tuned for that). Then, quite unprovoked, Carmen Dumitrescu asked Evan if we'd like to chair a session at the Canada GeoConvention in May. And she invited us to 'do something different'. Perfect timing!

So — mark your calendar! GeoConvention, Calgary, May 2013. Something different.

The photo of the lecture, from the depressing point of view of the speaker, is licensed CC-BY-SA by Flickr user Pierre-Alain Dorange. The one of the unconference is licensed CC-BY-SA-NC by Flickr user aforgrave.


Are conferences failing you too?

I recently asked a big software company executive if big exhibitions are good marketing value. The reply:

It's not a waste of money. It's a colossal waste of money.

So that's a 'no'.

Is there a problem here?

Next week I'll be at the biggest exhibition (and conference) in our sector: the SEG Annual Meeting. Thousands of others will be there, but far more won’t. Clearly it’s not indispensable or unmissable. Indeed, it’s patently missable — I did just fine in my career as a geophysicist without ever going. Last year was my first time.

Is this just the nature of mass market conferences? Is the traditional academic format necessarily unremarkable? Do the technical societies try too hard to be all things to all people, and thereby miss the mark for everyone? 

I don't know the answer to any of these questions, I can only speak for myself. I'm getting tired of conferences. Perhaps I've reached some new loop in the meandering of my career, or perhaps I'm just grumpy. But as I've started to whine, I'm finding more and more allies in my conviction that conferences aren't awesome.

What are conferences for?

  • They make lots of money for the technical societies that organize them.
  • A good way to do this is to provide marketing and sales opportunities for the exhibiting vendors.
  • A good way to do this is to attract lots of scientists there, baiting with talks by all the awesomest ones.
  • A good way to do this, apparently, is to hold it in Las Vegas.

But I don't think the conference format is great at any of these things, except possibly the first one. The vendors get prospects (that's what sales folk call people) that are only interested in toys and beer — they might be users, but they aren't really customers. The talks are samey and mostly not memorable (and you can only see 5% of them). Even the socializing is limited by the fact that the conference is gigantic and run on a tight schedule. And don't get me started on Las Vegas. 

If we're going to take the trouble of flying 8000 people to Las Vegas, we had better have something remarkable to show for it. Do we? What do we get from this giant conference? By my conservative back-of-the-envelope calculation, we will burn through about 210 person-years of productivity in Las Vegas next week. That's about 6 careers' worth. Six! Are we as a community satisfied that we will produce 6 careers' worth of insight, creativity, and benefit?

You can probably tell that I am not convinced. Tomorrow, I will put away the wrecking ball of bellyaching, and offer some constructive ideas, and a promise. Meanwhile, if you have been to an amazing conference, or can describe one from your imagination, or think I'm just being a grouch — please use the comments below.

Map data ©2012 Google, INEGI, MapLink, Tele Atlas. 


News of the month

Another month flies by, and it's time for our regular news round-up! News tips, anyone?

Knowledge sharing

At the start of the month, SPE launched PetroWiki. The wiki has been seeded with one part of the 7-volume Petroleum Engineering Handbook, a tome that normally costs over $600. They started with Volume 2, Drilling Engineering, which includes lots of hot topics, like fracking (right). Agile was involved in the early design of the wiki, which is being built by Knowledge Reservoir

Agile stuff

Our cheatsheets are consistenly some of the most popular things on our site. We love them too, so we've been doing a little gardening — there are new, updated editions of the rock physics and geophysics cheatsheets.

Thank you so much to the readers who've let us know about typos! 


Nothing else really hit the headlines this month — perhaps people are waiting for SEG. Here are some nibbles...

  • We just upgraded a machine from Windows to Linux, sadly losing Spotfire in the process. So we're on the lookout for another awesome analytics tool. VISAGE isn't quite what we need, but you might like these nice graphs for oil and gas.
  • Last month we missed the newly awarded exploration licenses in the inhospitable Beaufort Sea [link opens a PDF]. Franklin Petroleum of the UK might have been surprised by the fact that they don't seem to have been bidding against anyone, as they picked up all six blocks for little more than the minimum bid.
  • It's the SEG Annual Meeting next week... and Matt will be there. Look out for daily updates from the technical sessions and the exhibition floor. There's at least one cool new thing this year: an app!

This regular news feature is for information only. We aren't connected with any of these organizations, and don't necessarily endorse their products or services. 


N is for Nyquist

In yesterday's post, I covered a few ideas from Fourier analysis for synthesizing and processing information. It serves as a primer for the next letter in our A to Z blog series: N is for Nyquist.

In seismology, the goal is to propagate a broadband impulse into the subsurface, and measure the reflected wavetrain that returns from the series of rock boundaries. A question that concerns the seismic experiment is: What sample rate should I choose to adequately capture the information from all the sinusoids that comprise the waveform? Sampling is the capturing of discrete data points from the continuous analog signal — a necessary step in recording digital data. Oversample it, using too high a sample rate, and you might run out of disk space. Undersample it and your recording will suffer from aliasing.

What is aliasing?

Alaising is a phenomenon observed when the sample interval is not sufficiently brief to capture the higher range of frequencies in a signal. In order to avoid aliasing, each constituent frequency has to be sampled at least two times per wavelength. So the term Nyquist frequency is defined as half of the sampling frequency of a digital recording system. Nyquist has to be higher than all of the frequencies in the observed signal to allow perfect recontstruction of the signal from the samples.

Above Nyquist, the signal frequencies are not sampled twice per wavelength, and will experience a folding about Nyquist to low frequencies. So not obeying Nyquist gives a double blow, not only does it fail to record all the frequencies, the frequencies that you leave out actually destroy part of the frequencies you do record. Can you see this happening in the seismic reflection trace shown below? You may need to traverse back and forth between the time domain and frequency domain representation of this signal.

Seismic data is usually acquired with either a 4 millisecond sample interval (250 Hz sample rate) if you are offshore, or 2 millisecond sample interval (500 Hz) if you are on land. A recording system with a 250 Hz sample rate has a Nyquist frequency of 125 Hz. So information coming in above 150 Hz will wrap around or fold to 100 Hz, and so on. 

It's important to note that the sampling rate of the recording system has nothing to do the native frequencies being observed. It turns out that most seismic acquisition systems are safe with Nyquist at 125 Hz, because seismic sources such as Vibroseis and dynamite don't send high frequencies very far; the earth filters and attenuates them out before they arrive at the receiver.

Space alias

Aliasing can happen in space, as well as in time. When the pixels in this image are larger than half the width of the bricks, we see these beautiful curved artifacts. In this case, the aliasing patterns are created by the very subtle perspective warping of the curved bricks across a regularly sampled grid of pixels. It creates a powerful illusion, a wonderful distortion of reality. The observations were not sampled at a high enough rate to adequately capture the nature of reality. Watch for this kind of thing on seismic records and sections. Spatial alaising. 

Click for the full demonstration (or adjust your screen resolution).You may also have seen this dizzying illusion of an accelerating wheel that suddenly appears to change direction after it rotates faster than the sample rate of the video frames captured. The classic example is the wagon whel effect in old Western movies.

Aliasing is just one phenomenon to worry about when transmitting and processing geophysical signals. After-the-fact tricks like anti-aliasing filters are sometimes employed, but if you really care about recovering all the information that the earth is spitting out at you, you probably need to oversample. At least two times for the shortest wavelengths.